Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Winter Games

With the International Ski Federation's Alpine World Ski Championships currently taking place in Val d'Isère, France, I got to thinking about my own long ago visits to the French Alps. There was that group trip during a semester abroad in 2001, when we spent a night in picturesque Annecy and an afternoon hitting the slopes in Val Thorens. Then there was a weekend à deux this past March where I traded skis for snowshoes and got to spend time gazing at Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc. The Alps have a reputation for being all glitz and glam with a dash of snobbery thrown in for good measure. A mountainous French Riviera, if you will. But while this is true to a certain extent (due, according to some of the French people I met, to an influx of über-rich Brits and Russians), in many ways the French Alps are just another regular vacation destination, filled with families, friends, serious skiers and chalet loungers alike.

One group that does seem to be missing from the slopes of France is Americans. Just this past March in Les Menuires I heard a lot of French, Dutch, and German, and a lot of British accents, but not a lot of American English. Maybe I wasn't in the right valley, but I think it might have more to do with the fact that we have fabulous skiing destinations right here in our own backyard. Utah alone is practically bursting at the seams with downhill possibilities, not to mention countless popular ski spots in California, Virginia and Wyoming. Want a little Alps-esque glitz and glam? You've got Aspen, which is generally good for a celebrity sighting or two. Even my own non-mountainous Minnesota has some decent options for skiers, without the hassle of a trans-Atlantic flight.

That said, a trip to the French Alps is never a waste of time. The scenery is gorgeous all year round, there is an array of local food and wine to savor (you can't go wrong with Tomme de Savoie and a crisp Alpine white), and the area is a good starting-off point for visits to Switzerland, Italy and the populous French city of Lyon. Padded Russian bank account not required.

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