Friday, January 9, 2004

COURMAYEUR, Italy — A thumping helicopter hauled us up alongside the menacingly close stone cliff. Suddenly,

the rock face dropped away, and the chopper perched lightly on a snowy peak in the Italian Alps.

“Go,” the guide, Gianni, screamed over the din, and our dazed group of six flopped out the door into white, blinding wind, grabbing our skis from the leg of the helicopter as we went.

Dizzy from the altitude, I thought first of the fireplace-toasty ristorante back at our regular mountain, where they served penne bolognese and an array of red wines to shame most gourmets.



But the adrenaline surged as a day of heli-skiing stretched before us in miles of deep, untouched powder. We stood gawking at the startlingly still and inviting terrain, the engine’s roar fading over a far mountain.

As a lifelong Northeastern skier who worked a couple seasons as a ski instructor in high school, I was champing at the bit to take the plunge.

So I plunged. And plunged. And plunged.

The great thing about a ski vacation in Italy is that no matter how much powder you crave or choke on, there is always a wonderful meal waiting for you, and you need not wait until the end of the day to enjoy it.

In Courmayeur, a small ski town near the French border, the restaurants on the top, middle and sides of the mountain are very good, very Italian and very easy on the wallet.

The mountain I’m most familiar with in the states offers hamburgers, fries and hot chocolate at the base lodge. Courmayeur served up fettuccine and merlot on a hilltop terrace. And charged less for it.

“Once you get out there, the price of things like lift tickets, food, even a beer in a bar, is about half of what you would pay at a lot of resorts in the [American] West,” said Rick Reichsfeld, who has been running tours to Courmayeur for years — and married a local.

The picturesque Italian village offers visitors a gondola within easy walking distance of most of the hotels and well-kept cobblestone streets lined with restaurants, shops and more gelato vendors than one small town should rightly need.

Courmayeur is reached by flying into Milan, then arranging a bus or van ride of a couple of hours into the mountains. With the right driver to point out nearby landmarks, jet-lagged visitors can also catch a glimpse of medieval castles scattered along the route.

Lift tickets are good for the entire valley, so you can use the same pass to try out a number of mountains, such as nearby Cervinia, where you can ski Switzerland and Italy in one day under the shadow of the world-famous Matterhorn, or take a quick side trip to France.

Exiting the gondola at Cervinia’s peak, skiers immediately cross a yellow line in the stone walkway, indicating they have entered Switzerland. As two — usually bored — Swiss police officers watch, each skier must choose: turn right, toward the Italian side, or left into Switzerland. Or just ski down and climb in a car for a quick drive to Chamonix or another French mountain.

Most package trips to the area offer nonskiing activities as well, including a tour of a nearby Italian castle and remains of a Roman city, day trips for shopping in France, and evenings of local wine and cheese tastings.

One culinary note: Two vegetarian fellow travelers sometimes struggled to find meat-free eats. For all its charms, Courmayeur seemed obsessed with ham and was drowning in cheese.

One night at dinner, the menu offered the following: fine gourmet cheese, cooked. Our herbivore friends asked if there was any meat in the cheese, and the waiter insisted it was pure cheese. The dish arrived, and the first stab of a fork revealed that it was riddled with pork. Apparently, no pig was safe in this country.

For humans, though, Courmayeur is all about relaxing. Our package deal included a cozy hotel whose eager, fawning and funny staff more than made up for the stiff beds and small rooms. Because we were there last spring rather than in winter, there were no crowds, the prices were lower, and we got bright sunny days of hillside sunbathing along with our skiing. Just beware that springtime trips can also be marred by rainy weather.

Although heli-skiing off the ski runs, or “off-piste,” is demanding, the mountain’s regular terrain is mostly intermediate-level. I found only one brief mogul run — the bumpy courses relished by skiers who like a challenge — but it is hard to imagine a mountain or ski town offering a more pleasant overall experience.

On the last night of our stay, we headed to a tiny pizza shop down the street from the gondola. Called the Tunnel, the restaurant made something called the “maxi gusto,” which turned out to be a pizza fit for a king, the king’s army and the army’s friends. We tucked into one while eating at tables on the second floor, a loft where the ceiling clearance is a scant 5 feet and you can straighten your back only while sitting down, if at all.

The in-house entertainment consisted of watching the waiters balance massive pies in one hand and five giant 1-liter glass steins of beer in the other while clambering up a narrow wooden staircase with a slack rope railing.

Perhaps in honor of the town’s long, dangerous tradition of mountain climbing, there are numerous old tools of the trade nailed to the walls, alongside the kind of taxidermy one might find at a mad scientist’s secret laboratory.

The Tunnel, like many other local eateries, also offers the traditional local drink called grolla in a dark brown ceramic container with spouts pointing in all directions, sort of like a teapot with multiple personalities.

The grolla, whose name stems from the holy grail, is a powerful mixture of steaming local coffee, grappa and sugar. The oddly shaped cup is offered to the group, and each person takes a sip from his own personal spout. After a few rounds, the warmth of the alcoholic drink and the town spread through us, and it was easy to begin planning the next visit to Courmayeur.

Budgeting for Courmayeur

Courmayeur is in northwestern Italy near the French border, about 140 miles from the Milan airport. Italian, French, and English are spoken by locals. Travel companies offer package deals that provide ground transportation from your flight, but cars can also be rented near the airport.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Hotel Cresta et Duc advertises a seven-day midseason stay for $587, double occupancy. Contact: www.hotelcrestaetduc.com or 39-0165-842585. But you may get a better deal booking a package that includes airfare. One company offering such deals is Alpine Adventures (www.alpineadventures.net, 800/755-1330). Midseason trips are priced at about $1,000, including airfare from New York, a seven-night stay at Cresta et Duc, free breakfasts and four-course dinners at the hotel restaurant. The deal does not include lift tickets. Prices are cheaper in the spring, but weather may be rainy.

DINING

Prices vary greatly between friendly affordable places and more elaborate restaurants where a sumptuous four-course meal for two with wine can run up to $200. Slopeside restaurants are surprisingly good and usually offer generous entrees for less than $13. Try what may be the world’s best pizza at the Tunnel pizza shop.

TIPS

Although the area is generally much cheaper than many overdeveloped resorts in North America, you are expected to tip well at the end of your stay for the high quality of service. And even if you’re a very good skier, consider renting rather than hauling your gear on the plane. The local mountain offers expert gear at reasonable prices, about $114 for seven days ($64 for standard, good-quality equipment). You can either leave your gear on the mountain at day’s end at no extra charge or take it with you to other mountains. And don’t forget to visit the local cemetery, which is dotted with headstones of international mountain climbers who perished on nearby peaks.

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