Dessert run from Meribel The Three Valleys: With 64,500 acres of skiable terrian, 200 interconnected charlifts and 375 miles of marked Alpine trails, the French ski area has been called the largest ski area on Earth.

January 14, 1996|By Harry M. Gould Jr. | Harry M. Gould Jr.,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

We probably should have skied back to our hotel here in Meribel, France. Instead, we went to Courchevel for dessert.

It didn't seem to matter that it was already past 2:30 p.m., or that some lifts might soon be closing, or that we'd been schussing all day over terrain roughly the size of Liechtenstein on legs gone rubbery from exhaustion, or that the sheer size of this mega-resort known by the French as Les Trois Vallees (the Three Valleys) had already exposed my flawed navigation skills.

Obviously, we'd forgotten that the area's 64,500 acres of skiable terrain, 200 interconnected chairlifts and 375 miles of marked Alpine pistes had moved even Sports Illustrated magazine to pronounce the Three Valleys "the largest ski area on Earth."

All day, high winds and swirling powder had kept most of the Meribel-to-Courchevel lifts shut down. When word reached us in midafternoon that the lifts had reopened, we jumped at the opportunity to ski to Courchevel -- miles away in the next valley.

To get there, eat dessert and return to Meribel before the lifts closed, we would have to cover a lot of territory in a limited time. We decided to risk it.

We had arrived in the Three Valleys six days earlier, along with 72 wide-eyed and energetic members of the South Jersey-based Fall Line Ski Club. (The valleys are loosely referred to as Meribel, Courchevel and Val-Thorens, but it can get confusing because each contains resort villages with those names.)

In those six days, the club had already collected its share of memorable moments: the stunning view from the Cime de Caron tram station; the spooky whiteout storms on barren Val-Thorens; the death-defying off-piste thrills of the Grand Couloir; the tasty Grand Marnier crepes, the wine, the cheese, the baguettes

Now it was a persistent craving for something sweet that compelled me and my companion, Pam Bigelow, to make one final grand excursion across miles of spectacular Alpine terrain. We would top off our day with a sumptuous dessert at a certain rustic restaurant that a friend had recommended for having "the most expensive desserts in all of Courchevel, but worth every franc." Then we would return to the big Saulire cable car for the return trip to our home base in Meribel.

Snow route

We would have to hurry. From our late-afternoon starting point at the far side of Meribel -- the big "middle" valley -- the journey would require several lifts and gondola connections to get to the 8,983-foot-high Saulire ridge station. From Saulire's cloud-shrouded rooftop we would begin our descent into Courchevel valley over trails covered with the previous night's snowfall.

Into the fading light we plunged off the Combe de la Viselle as it looped and twisted past ghostly glacial massifs and misty canyons. Our weary legs carried us across oceanic bowls, virgin powder and steep chutes dimmed by the afternoon shadows. Now and then we'd round a bend and emerge into shafts of sunlight. Off in the distance, the majestic Aiguille du Fruit glacier jutted into the blue sky like a snowy saber-tooth.

Finally, as the hotels and chalets of Courchevel 1850 (so named because the altitude in meters is 1850) loomed into view, we spotted the object of our pursuit: the Chalet de Pierres -- reputed home of the richest chocolate mousse on Earth. But would the restaurant still be open? Would we have time enough to enjoy our booty?

And, perhaps most important, would we make it back before the Saulire cable car clattered up the ridge for the last sortie of the day?

These were not the sort of questions likely to have troubled the crafty dukes from the House of Savoie, who, beginning in the 11th century, systematically went about consolidating their hold on the region while alternately hoisting the flags of their feuding Italian family factions. (The Savoie region did not actually become part of France until 1860.)

Nor were they the sort of questions likely to have concerned the hardscrabble mountaineers and livestock farmers who eked out a meager existence in the Tarantaise Valley, the 60-mile glacial trough carved through the western Alps near the Swiss and Italian borders by the Isere River (the river that gave famed ski resort Val d'Isere its name).

Life in the Savoie may have been hard, but by the dawn of the 20th century the region's Alpine charms were already fueling fertile dreams for a new crop of world-class ski resorts: Chamonix, Val d'Isere, Megeve.

Savoie style

Still, in 1924, as Chamonix was basking in the glory of its host status for the first-ever Olympic Winter Games, not much was happening in the lower Tarantaise south of Mont Blanc. Not until before World War II did a vision of the Three Valleys begin to take shape, when Col. Peter Lindsay, a Scotsman, teamed with local architect Christian Durupt to fashion a resort based on the classic Savoie chalet style -- all warm golden pines, 30-degree pitched slate roofs, native stonemasonry and fancy wood-carved exterior balconies.

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