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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Later came Courchevel, which quickly caught on as a mecca for Europe's princes, princesses, politicians, poodles and other idle-rich types. Later still came Val-Thorens and Les Menuires, .. the sporting resorts whose aesthetic sensibilities ran toward boxy apartments -- all the better to accommodate the powder-hound hordes drawn to the wild, white, treeless bowls up top.

Our ski club stayed in Meribel, an excellent choice for families, groups and newcomers to the European ski scene. Its narrow hilly streets are dotted with those pitched-roof chalet-style lodging facilities hewn from cozy pine. It boasts 29 hotels, 90 shops and restaurants, a French-language movie theater, a tourist center, several currency exchanges, a British-owned pub and dance hall and even a supermarket where you can buy fresh fruit, bottled water and good Savoie wine.

A satellite village, Mottaret, also features its own hotels, shops and lift connections to the rest of the area. As a rule, everyone smokes cigarettes, and the hotel rooms are smaller than you'd expect to find at U.S. ski resorts, but, hey, this is France.

From the center of Meribel proper, you can take the 20-minute gondola ride down to the quaint French village of Brides les Bains. It's a pleasant place to wander around, take in an ice-skating show, visit the new $17 million thermal baths center, blow a wad of francs at the local casino, or get a nice piece of chocolate wrapped up in pretty paper at Desperies Au Pain Decore.

From Meribel, you have the best possible access to the other main ski areas -- the Burgin-Saulire gondola goes directly to the Courchevel ridge top and the Tougnete gondola will launch you on your way to Val-Thorens and Les Menuires. In all, 16 gondolas and 16 chairlifts serve the area.

Intermediate skiers will fall in love with Meribel's wide-open vistas. As you begin your descent from Saulire, try the Sangleir and Epervier pistes, each a speed-cruiser's dream come true.

But if you really want to run with the wind, you might choose Val-Thorens as your base. This vast, treeless third valley is ringed by five sun-drenched glaciers, the largest of which is the visually overwhelming 11,684-foot Aiguille de Peclet glacial massif. Generally south of Meribel, Val-Thorens is 11,000 acres of wind-swept snow-laden prairies crisscrossed by 32 lifts and 50 wide-open trails that barrel down from the dizzying 10,483-foot Cime de Caron tram station and take you home to the cinder-blockish towns of Val-Thorens and Les Menuires (or to the thoroughly charming village of Saint-Martin de Belleville).

The terrain is frequently rendered impassable by storm-induced whiteouts. Powder-hounds and others in search of the ultimate off-piste "death couloirs" will find all they can handle here; 53 percent of all runs in Val-Thorens cater to advanced skiers.

Spring skiing

The high altitude and rugged wide-open terrain, reminiscent of Colorado's Arapahoe Basin, make Val-Thorens the place to be for spring skiing. The discos and bars throughout town lend an air of wild, untamed youth -- sort of like the mountain itself.

Finally, there is Courchevel -- which is actually a resort complex composed of five separate villages distinguishable by their elevations. Hence you have Courchevel 1550, Courchevel 1650, Courchevel 1850, Courchevel-LaPraz 1300 and La Tania 1350. Much of Europe's glitterati flock to Courchevel 1850 to savor the ritzy hotels, discos and restaurants. (The area also boasts its own tiny airport.)

If Courchevel's 85 runs, nine gondolas, 15 chairlifts and miles of challenging terrain fail to maintain your interest, you can wander over to the Jardin Alpin section and drop a few francs on something outrageously expensive. Or hang out at Madame Raymonde Fenestraz's tony Hotel des Airelles, where you just might catch a glimpse of Prince Albert of Monaco or Princess Anne of England. (Don't forget your cigarette holder and sable coat.)

Almost too late

The maitre'd at the Chalet de Pierres began clearing the buffet table. Dozens of plates filled with chocolate mousse, fruit tarts, creme brulees and cherry cheesecakes were being methodically removed from view. The folding chairs on the outdoor deck were disappearing fast.

We'd blown it! We were too late.

We'd skied for miles to get here. We'd struggled with a half-dozen chairlifts and gondolas. We'd scampered on tired legs through waist-deep powder, groomed hard-pack and everything in between.

The desserts were being taken away.

"Could you wrap it up in a bag, s'il vous plait?" I pleaded with the maitre d'. "We'll take it home with us."

And so we were to have our cake and eat it, too. With only minutes to spare before the Saulire tram would finally fall silent, .. we left the Chalet de Pierres with our desserts lovingly encased in a bag that was now tucked into the upper region of my one-piece ski suit, close to my beating heart.

How did I ski on the way home? Very, very carefully.

Many hours later, we sat before a roaring fire in the lounge of Meribel's Hotel L'Eterlou surrounded by a dozen Fall Line Ski Club members. We handed out napkins and unwrapped the desserts. Everything still intact. A miracle!

And the taste?

C'est magnifique!

If you go

Getting there: Rental cars, shuttle buses and vans are available for the drive from Geneva, Switzerland, to the Three Valleys, which will take four to five hours. The valleys are also accessible from Paris or Lyon, via high-speed TGV trains, which go as far as Moutiers, 10 miles from Meribel.

Lodging: Each ski village in the Three Valleys has facilities ranging from tiny rooms and apartments to huge (and expensive) five-star hotels. Prices vary widely; check with a tour operator or the French Government Tourist Office (see address and phone number below).

Levels of expertise: The Three Valleys area specifies four levels of terrain difficulty: beginner (trails marked in green), intermediate (blue), advanced (red) and expert (black). If you can do black diamonds in the Poconos, you can probably ski most of the red runs in the Three Valleys.

Where to call: For more information, contact the French Government Tourist Office at 444 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; (212) 838-7800.

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