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Euro Peaks

The Alps once defined skiing at its glamorous best. Guess what, they still do. Sophy Roberts reports from Megeve, Courchevel, Gstaad, Zermatt, and St. Moritz.

In the Sixties and Seventies, alpine chic was at its vertiginous peak: Brigitte Bardot swished down the slopes with Gunther Sachs, the world's banking families took suites "for the season" and boarded les enfants in nearby finishing schools. For smart Americans, Switzerland and France were the place to go. Hollywood looked to Europe for glamour, sophistication, and chic. Elizabeth Taylor walked the streets of Gstaad wrapped in folds of mink, Audrey Hepburn made skiwear stylish in Charade, and Jackie O took the kids to Gstaad every Christmas holiday. But things began to change. A flurry of American resorts took hold, and while they may have lacked old-world charm they were efficient, easy to get to, and came with a wham-bam American can-do spirit. Instead of packing their equipment and decamping to Europe, Americans headed off to Aspen, Telluride, Vail, Jackson Hole, and Deer Valley.

While Americans may still prefer the proximity of the American resorts, there's nothing to match the thrill of Alpine skiing at its best—those 13th-century Alpine villages of Switzerland and France, Belle Epoque palace hotels, the quaint mountain restaurants in ramshackle chalets, haute cuisine, courtly service, beautiful people, and breathtaking terrain. And then there's the skiing itself: vast swaths of pristine backcountry runs dotted with iconographic Alpine peaks like Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. "Once Americans experience skiing in Europe, they are always converted," says Pierre Gruneberg, since 1951 a ski instructor in the French resort of Courchevel.

But skiing in Europe can seem an insider's game, a complex (and frequently intimidating) scene. For starters, where do you begin? In our opinion, France and Switzerland afford the best all-around experience; Germany and Austria lack their style and sophistication, while Italy, surprisingly enough, lacks the requisite five-star hotels and chalets.

In Switzerland, expect grand palace hotels; in France, privately owned boutique hotels. France has one language barrier; Switzerland, sometimes three (in St. Moritz you'll hear German, Italian, and Romansh, the local dialect). Swiss service is precise; France's can be haughty. All said and told, a ski vacation in Switzerland will probably cost more than one in France. "In St. Moritz we sell only real fur," a sales assistant tells me as I finger a coat in Loro Piana.

In the end the choice depends on what you want: great skiing? Good restaurants? A place for you and the kids? Luxe hotels? Shopping? For 40 days and nights—seriously—we didn't just visit, we lived and skied the five most popular ski resorts on the entire continent: in France, Megève and Courchevel; in Switzerland, Gstaad, Zermatt, and St. Moritz.


MEGEVE

Megève is a picture-postcard Haute Savoie village with jingling horse-drawn sleighs and an 13th-century bulb-shaped church tower. Its style is understated aristocratic French (regulars have included Hubert de Givenchy and the Rothschild clan). It's also among the country's gourmet capitals (all but a handful of the area's 91 restaurants serve only French cuisine). "If our guests go skiing, it's not at 8 a.m. but eleven, after taking time to have a very nice lunch," says Jocelyne Sibuet, Megève's principal hotelier.

The Sporting Life The nearby peaks are soft, undulating, and blanketed by stately firs. However, a lower-than-average altitude makes for unremarkable pistes (the European equivalent of "trails"), and Chamonix's extreme off-piste terrain is a one-hour drive away.

Excellent skiing coaches abound. Former French champion Frédéric Azzolin (33-4-50-21-49-51), for instance, is a pushy, fearless instructor. The best outfitter is Socquet Sports (33-4-50-21-03-84).

Where to Stay and Eat Everyone's favorite Alpine retreat is Les Fermes de Marie ($330-$910; 33-4-50-93-03-10; www.c-h-m.com), an unpretentious 71-room farmhouse-style hideaway that's owned by the Sibuet family. It also has a spa, three restaurants, a cozy bar. For a funkier alternative, try the Sibuets' Le Lodge Park ($325-$1,055; 33-4-50-93-05-03), which is outfitted like a Ralph Lauren hunting lodge, complete with antler stools. Le Lodge Park has a great energy—after 4 p.m. the lobby fills with Champagne-sipping thirtysomethings—but the rooms are small. If it's square footage you're after, book Le Fer à Cheval ($300-$350, including half board; 33-4-50-21-30-39; ), the resort's quiet, distinguished mainstay. Service is aloof but on target.

Chalet rentals are popular in these parts and the best have indoor pools, including La Ferme d'Hauteluce (one-week rental from $11,850; 33-4-50-93-03-10; www.c-h-m.com) and the spectacular all-wood Chalet Saint-Philippe (one-week rental from $18,480; 33-4-50-91-19-30).

The village of Megève is famous for its food. The Rothschilds, who began vacationing here in 1916, own five restaurants. The best, although not the most expensive, is La Taverne du Mont d'Arbo (33-4-50-21-03-53). Come for the veal, beef, and Pyrenean lamb grilled on an open fire. Jacques Megean (33-4-50-21-26-82) is an ode to the Provençal truffle. One bite of the fried scallops in truffle-infused black rice and you'll understand why accolades are heaped upon this Nantes-born chef. Our favorite restaurant is Emmanuel Renaut's Flocons de Sel (33-4-50-21-49-99). Here you'll find skate wrapped around buttered cabbage, scallops layered with truffles, and gossamer-light pastries. For an Alpine picnic, there's all sorts of takeout goods from Rémy Coste (33-4-50-93-26-12).

On the mountain, L'Auberge de la Côte 2000 (33-4-50-21-31-84) is posh and popular for Savoyard staples. L'Alpette (33-4-50-21-03-69), the Alps' oldest mountain restaurant, has the best views in Megève. Face au Mont-Blanc (33-4-50-21-06-51) does a fabulous steak, and the enchanting Le Radaz (33-4-50-58-94-44) is the perfect spot for a bolstering vin chaud.

Two restaurants in particular deserve to be singled out. The first is Dominique Méridol (33-6-09-90-30-29), belonging to the reclusive "cowboy chef" who lives with his 19 American bison at Domaine de la Sasse on Mount Joly, a 20-minute hike from Megève. Make reservations for one of Méridol's all-bison lunches and feast on meat prepared every which way, including saucisson, shaved tongue, steak, carpaccio, and tartare. The other restaurant is Marc Veyrat's three-star La Ferme de Mon Père (33-4-50-21-01-01; www.marcveyrat.fr), which put Megève on the gourmet map with its epic 15-course Menu Symphonie. Dishes are served atop beds of Alpine grasses, crocuses, and primroses. Turbot is drizzled with a pea-and-juniper purée, and langoustines come with wild herb "pills" and a cooking syringe with which jus can be injected into the crustacean's lightly frittered brains. Veyrat also rents gorgeous rooms in adjacent chalets: The splendorous Le Pêle and Le Seuilly are our favorites.

Insider Tips A pair of Fuseau ski pants from A. Allard (33-4-50-21-03-85) is always chic. And the traditional Savoyard housewares at Poil de Carotte (33-4-50-21-15-81) are wonderful.

After skiing, stop by Le Puck (33-4-50-21-06-61), a new brasserie beside the outdoor ice rink for a chocolat chaud. Or visit Le Cintra (33-4-50-21-02-60), a charming, cavernous hangout for jazz and a late-night brandy.

Nonskiers should go to the exceptionally good La Ferme de Beauté (33-4-50-93-03-10) for a mountain-herb facial with Geraldine or a massage with Jean-Pierre, who spends the other half of his year on St. Barths.


COURCHEVEL

This is the St.-Tropez of the Alps: chic, ever-so fashionable (especially these days), but more relaxed than its snobbier Swiss neighbor, St. Moritz. The village itself may not be that beautiful, but the resort's location—on a stepped plateau—is awesome. Unlike St. Moritz, the atmosphere is genuinely inclusive: Though Courchevel is probably best suited to fashion-savvy urbanites, families will feel absolutely comfortable.

The Sporting Life The skiing is among the best you will find, with 372 miles of groomed slopes, great swaths of off-trail territory, and precipitous gullies (try the Grand Couloir), all served by a network of some 200 lifts.The resort's terrain—which boasts 81 miles of cross-country ski tracks—is four times the size of Vail, the largest North American resort. Because of its exceptional altitude, snowfall is generally more reliable than at other European resorts. There are 328 secure runs, including an excellent clutch of intermediate trails (we like the Piste des Chapelets and the Jerusalem Run). The Trois Vallées ski pass (six days for $225) allows you access to Méribel and Val Thorens as well as Courchevel.

For equipment to rent or buy, we particularly liked Skiset (33-4-79-08-24-09) and its ski-boot fitting service.

Courchevel has fine instructors as well: Pierre Gruneberg (33-4-79-08-10-63) makes a point of saying, "I'm a pro at teaching people who are very, very bad." Suzan and Ian Saunders (33-4-79-00-52-71) are Brits who specialize in courses for nervous skiers. More adventurous skiers should book James Gachet (33-4-79-38-18-40) or Stéphane Prost (33-4-79-08-58-07).

Where to Stay and Eat The number of superb hotels beats all other Alpine resorts. Our favorite is Le Byblos Courchevel ($840-$2,500, including half board; 33-4-79-00-98-00; www.byblos.com). Its cool, eclectic, chalet-style design is tweaked by eastern Mediterranean accents, including L'Oriental, a new Lebanese restaurant.

Le Mélézin ($580-$2,100; 33-4-79-08-01-33; www.amanresorts.com) is Amanresorts' Alpine-style offering. Despite its clean lines, oak parquet floors, and elegant, muted palette, we didn't think this 31-room hotel quite met the standard of its Asian sisters; the rooms are on the small side, and service can be inconsistent. Families should consider Le Kilimandjaro ($980-$3,000, including half board; 33-4-79-01-46-46; www.hotelkilimandjaro.com), a new contender on the scene with its vast two-bedroom suites and traditional Savoyard decor. Another alternative: the two four-bedroom apartments at Le Saint-Joseph ($5,370-$5,955 per night; 33-4-79-08-16-16; www.lesaintjoseph.com), replete with French antiques and fireplaces. Private chalets are scarce but Agence de la Loze (33-4-79-08-14-00; www.gsi-immobilier.com) can help you find one.

In Courchevel proper, Le Chabichou (33-4-79-08-00-55) is everyone's favorite Michelin-starred restaurant, but we thought the fish seemed as though it had taken a day too long to get up the mountain. Le Cæur d'Or at Le Kilimandjaro offers French gastronomic cooking from Gilles Hérard (a protégé of both Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse). Try the fattened hen of Bresse in vegetable and truffle broth or filet of beef Montbéliard, which comes with delicious spiced pears. The hip Le Grand Café (33-4-79-08-42-97) boasts an inventive, Eastern-inspired menu, and Chez Le Gaulois (33-4-79-08-03-99) is good for local mountain cheeses and Savoyard wines. For a perfect day trip, ski to the hamlet of Saint Marcel and book a table at La Bouitte (33-4-79-08-96-77), where chef-proprietor René Meilleur recently won a Michelin star. His food, served in a timbered chalet, strikes the perfect balance between rustic and elegant.

But as good as the above are, Le Cap Horn (33-4-79-08-35-21) is the must-book restaurant of Courchevel. Soak up the ambiance while enjoying a rotisserie chicken and a 1982 Pétrus.

Insider Tips Shopping here is uneventful. Instead, spend your après-ski hours, say, at Le Chalet de Pierres (33-4-79-08-18-61), which is a perfect spot for a splash of Champagne. Basha (33-4-79-08-28-91) is the best lounge-style haunt after hours (reserve the VIP booth).

For a day off the slopes, relax at the Byblos spa (33-4-79-08-25-82); just be sure to book well in advance. And for a break from the children, call Sarniguet Annaïk, a charming, trusted babysitter ($16 an hour; 33-6-81-43-76-11) who will come to your chalet or hotel.


GSTAAD

Gstaad is all about glamour. This is Europe's original jet-set playground, where you can still watch Russian barons and gilded teenagers from Le Rosey (Switzerland's smartest private school) wander down the town's pretty promenade, en route to the local Hermès. Many of the students' parents own mega-chalets, and most are members of the Eagle's Club, a private mountain club on Wasserngrat peak. Service in Gstaad has traditionally been snobbish, but it is showing signs of loosening up, or at the very least becoming less smug, now that the resort is struggling against its more sportif competitors, like Zermatt.

Still, some things in Gstaad—thankfully—won't change anytime soon: A local council ruling dictates that all new construction must be in traditional chalet style, thereby ensuring that one of the prettiest farming valleys in all the Alps remains that way.

The Sporting Life Like Megève, Gstaad is low-altitude with a shorter, less reliable season than other Alpine resorts. However, only 60 percent of visitors ski; the rest come to eat, shop, and socialize. Lift queues are rare. Runs snake through sweet-smelling pine forests, and there's glacier skiing on nearby Des Diablerets. Extreme skiers will be frustrated, but for families it's perfect.

The best lift connections are from Schönried to St. Stephan. For hired gear, it's Hermenjat Sports (41-33-744-15-47). For snowboard lessons, call Pure Snowboard School (41-33-744-75-70), and for skiing lessons, it's Adolf Hauswirth (41-33-744-23-59).

Where to Stay and Eat In Gstaad most owners of chalets don't rent. The few chalets that are available can be had through Bach Immobilien (41-33-748-44-88). Otherwise, the place to stay is the Palace hotel ($715-$3,775; 41-33-748-50-00; www.palace.ch), the Magic Kingdom-like turreted castle overlooking the town. Ask for a room facing south (numbers 610 and 616 are especially good). Your best alternative is the Grand Hotel Park Gstaad ($417-$1,541; 41-33-748-98-00; www.grandhotelpark.ch); again, book facing south. Whether you are staying at his hotel or not, Andrea Scherz, the Palace's general manager, is your key to who's who in Gstaad.

The food here is surprisingly unpretentious and hearty. Chesery (41-33-744-24-51) is Gstaad's big-deal restaurant, but it's about to face some competition from Alain Ducasse's new Spoon des Neiges (41-33-748-79-78), a ten-minute drive from town. La Cave at Hotel Olden (41-33-744-34-44) is atmospheric, sexy, and good for an evening tête-a-tête. For lunch Italian-style, it's Rialto (41-33-744-34-74), the hot spot for people-watching on the promenade. For chalet provisions, Pernet (41-33-744-15-77) stocks everything.

If you want a mountaintop restaurant, you'd do best to ski quickly past the huge (and rude) Glacier 3000 and head for Refuge L'Espace (41-79-744-88-00). This rickety mountain hut sells simple snacks and hot soups, and the Champagne is good enough for Prince Albert of Monaco. The views of Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and Monte Rosa are stupendous. For something more relaxing, albeit with acres of gingham, ski on to Restaurant Chemi-Stube (41-33-722-22-40) for traditional Swiss rösti.

Insider Tips What would Gstaad be without shopping? It doesn't get much better—or more expensive. There's Hermès (41-33-744-43-21), Chopard (41-33-744-90-44), and Cartier (41-33-744-66-44), Lorenz Bach (41-33-744-68-78) and Bach's Bazaar (41-33-744-68-88) for Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Prada, and Fuhrer (41-33-744-47-00) for Cuban cigars.

After skiing (or shopping, for that matter), head to Charly's (41-33-744-15-44), where locals and contessas mix over mugs of hot chocolate. For a cool, lounge-style cocktail, make for Hush (41-33-748-15-00), which has just been opened by Geoffrey Moore (Roger "007" Moore's son), who was a student at Le Rosey. The signature cocktail is made with absinthe. For dancing into the small hours, it's the GreenGo nightclub at the Palace.

And for an unforgettable off-slope experience, book an Alpine balloon trip with Hans Büker (41-79-363-80-13) or a bespoke adventure—including an overnight stay in an igloo fitted out with silk sheets and sheepskin—through Gstaad's inimitable "fixers," Nik and Simon Buchs (41-79-744-88-00).


ZERMATT

This ski village in southwest Switzerland is defined by a) its lack of cars and b) the awesome presence of the Matterhorn. The skiing is among the world's most beautiful and challenging. Enthusiasts rank Zermatt up there with Verbier, but unlike Verbier, German-speaking Zermatt is chic as well. It is also home to some fantastic hotels.

The Sporting Life Unlike Verbier, beginners can survive Zermatt. However, it's the intermediate to experienced skier who will most appreciate this well-groomed resort. For snowboarders, freeriding possibilities are limitless. Another bonus is Cervinia, a wide-sloped Italian resort at the other side of Klein Matterhorn, accessible on windless days. Zermatt's ski-school facilities are the best in the Alps, courtesy of Stoked (41-27-967-70-20), which has ski and snowboard divisions. Snowflakes Kids Club (41-27-967-70-20) is the Alps' best ski school for children. For heli-skiing, call Air Zermatt (41-27-966-86-86). And for Zermatt's best ski companion, contact Christian Meier (41-27-967-87-88), who owns Stoked. His satellite company, The Matterhorn Experience (41-27-967-70-20), customizes adventures for high-end clients.

Where to Stay and Eat The just-off-the-slopes Riffelalp Resort may boast a spectacular location but is best avoided: In our experience the staff was inexplicably, and conspicuously, unhelpful. Its polar opposite, the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof ($530-$1,350; 41-27-966-66-00; www.zermatt.ch/zermatterhof) has charming old-fashioned service and smallish but comfortable rooms (although the decor is strictly 1970s Swiss luxury). The Zermatterhof also has Nando (as he's known), the very proper Italian concierge, who will send personal notes to mountainside maitres d' to secure coveted tables.

Nearby Cæur des Alpes ($320-$480; 41-27-966-40-80; www.coeurdesalpes.ch) is a grade below in service but several above in style. Book the blond-wood and chrome-trimmed penthouse with its Philippe Starck bathtub. This 14-room hotel was conceived by local architect Heinz Julen, who is also responsible for the View House ($400-$510; 41-79-235-17-27; www.viewhouse.ch), four two-bedroom self-catering apartments with lots of space, light, and floor-to-ceiling views.

There's only one truly exceptional restaurant in the village: Rôtisserie La Broche at the Zermatterhof. Matterhorn Deli (41-27-967-25-32), however, is great for cheese, Champagne, meats, and specialities like truffles and boletuses. However, Zermatt has the best concentration of mountain restaurants in all of Switzerland. There's Fluhalp (41-27-967-25-97), with views of the Matterhorn. Ask for a cozy table inside the wood chalet and order one of the pasta dishes. Chez Vrony (41-27-967-25-52)—a traditional wooden barn with eclectic Belle Epoque-inspired interiors—epitomizes mountain chic. Book an outside table under the eaves and tuck into any of the seven different röstis or the house risotto, which comes studded with asparagus and artichokes. After skiing, take your mille-feuille with tea at Zum See (41-27-967-20-45), which is in an enchanting centuries-old village. Finish off with a fortifying shot of génépi (a cold, strongly alcoholic yarrow drink) at the convivial, snug Elsie's Bar (41-27-967-24-31).

But for the ultimate meal, round the Matterhorn and ski to the Italian resort of Cervinia; once there, linger over a lunch of wild-boar pappardelle at Châlet Etoile (39-0166-94-82-54). But don't relax too long; you need to get a lift back by 3:30 p.m., or it's a six-hour return taxi ride by way of Milan.

Insider Tips The shopping here is unremarkable, but the new Stoked Sports and Style (41-27-967-11-33) carries all the hip lines. For a skiing break, book an appointment with Susan McCutcheon, the "hot-handed" masseuse at the Clarins spa in the Hotel Mont Cervin (41-27-966-88-88).

Finally, take the Glacier Express (41-81-288-56-40) through the Alps to St. Moritz. This pretty, red-liveried train traverses 291 bridges and the Oberalp Pass at 6,670 feet on its seven-and-a-half-hour journey.


ST MORITZ

This southern Alps resort affords staggering views of the Engadine Valley and is considered the summit of Alpine chic. Today, the most venerable of old-world European resorts (the private Corviglia Ski Club counts the Aga Khan and Count Leopold von Bismarck among its members) also caters to rafts of the newly rich, especially Russians. "The original aristocrats are dying off," says Mario da Como, who has been the barman at Badrutt's Palace hotel for the past 41 years and never forgets a customer's name. As a result, the St. Moritz of today is glitzier, more accessible—and more Hollywood-heavy—than ever before. Traditionalists shouldn't despair, though—the earls still come, just fewer of them.

The Sporting Life St. Moritz can be bitterly cold in January, but its 6,000-foot altitude also makes for reliable conditions, with pistes deemed respectable enough to host last year's Alpine World Ski Championships. The majority of runs are only moderately challenging, but the off-trail possibilities are endless—and far superior to Aspen's. Hire gear from Ski Service (41-81-832-23-70), at the foot of the lifts.

St. Moritz is home to its share of wonderful skiing coaches. "I don't see myself as a ski instructor, but rather host, companion, and confidante," says John Webster (41-81-833-08-15), a sophisticated Australian and a brilliant ski instructor.

Where to Stay and Eat Badrutt's Palace ($565-$5,875; 888-7673-9663; 41-81-837-11-00; www.rosewoodhotels.com) is popular with skiing sultans. Its interior design may in places be tired, but this landmark palace makes up for its decor with its warmth and charm. In the restaurants, children wear suits and tiaras, and they learn how to eat a lobster properly at the hotel's etiquette classes. Giuseppe Pesenti, the head concierge, is the man to know if you want a chalet; the owners are his friends, so he's the first to hear when there's an opening. One more tip: Take advantage of Badrutt's "fly-bag" luggage service, which allows guests to check luggage from U.S. airports directly to St. Moritz. Book through the hotel a day in advance.

For a more discreet experience, try the distinguished Suvretta House ($600-$1,200, including half board; 41-81-836-36-36; www.suvrettahouse.ch), tucked away in a suburban neighborhood of private chalets. Ask for accommodations on the refurbished fourth floor or on the northeast side. The Kulm Hotel ($600-$3,000; 41-81-836-80-00; www.kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch) falls somewhere between Suvretta's privacy and Badrutt's ostentation. Its location, however—a short walk from the Corviglia lifts—beats both.

Chesa Veglia (41-81-837-28-00) is a 1658 chalet with four floors of nooks and crannies hiding a members' club, Swiss restaurant, pizzeria, and grill (the latter serving delectable châteaubriand and blinis loaded with Iranian caviar). For unpretentious, Michelin-starred food, visit Jöhri's Talvo (41-81-833-44-55). The fish dishes, like the cod with Alsatian sauerkraut, are much fresher than anywhere else we found in the Alps. And for a little people-watching with your dinner, book a meal at Le Relais, Badrutt's smart new all-rouge Asian eatery.

Mountainside, reserve a 12:30 p.m. window seat at La Marmite (41-81-833-63-55), the gourmet alternative from restaurant impresario Reto Mathis. El Paradiso (41-81-833-40-02) is also recommended, as is the new Piz Nair (41-81-833-08-75), where your simple bowl of pasta is enjoyed amid staggering, vertiginous views.

Insider Tips Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Hermès, Prada, Pucci: St. Moritz has it all. The best one-off boutiques include Peter Gautschi (41-81-833-31-58) for Cohiba cigars, including the coveted Trinidad (Castro's favorite). Jet Set (41-81-839-81-81) is the Kirna Zabête of St. Moritz (Chloé, Juicy Couture, and Jimmy Choo heels). Rebecca (41-81-833-00-06) stocks antique jewelry, including Deco bracelets and antique Fabergé.

Après ski, hunt down Glattfelder (41-81-837-39-39), a tiny caviar specialty restaurant on a village back street where the in crowd takes their afternoon hit of osciètre Malossol with a flute of Champagne in a hidden backroom café. At Badrutt's Renaissance Bar, a.k.a. Mario's Bar, watch patrons snap up $10,000 bottles of 1961 Château Latour Premier Grand Cru. King's Club (41-81-837-10-00), the resort's aging disco, is still going strong.

And for an unforgettable experience, the foolhardy might want to try St. Moritz's famous Cresta Run (41-81-833-31-17), a lethal tobogganing ice-pipe you negotiate headfirst and alone; most initiates end up flung out onto the bone-breaking ice. After a horse-drawn sleigh ride in the Engadine Valley, stop for lunch at the rustic Pensiun Crasta (41-81-826-53-92).


A Chalet of One's Own

Méribel in France and Verbier in Switzerland are the two best resorts for chalets, many of which are owned by English families. Both have excellent sports—Méribel is at the very heart of the Trois Vallées, and Verbier boasts a massive menu of glaciers, couloirs, and deep-powder bowls. However, both resorts lack decent restaurants, as chalet-goers pay for private chefs and tend to eat in.

High-end rentals are usually available by word of mouth or via Kit Harrison, one of your most essential contacts in the Alps. His company, DESCENT INTERNATIONAL (44-20-7384-3854; 44-20-7384-3864; www.descent.co.uk), has exclusive access to a carefully edited handful of nine properties that he staffs with hotel-level professionals, including chefs, drivers, and an English-speaking manager-concierge. Les Brames in Méribel (the neighboring resort to Courchevel in the Trois Vallées) has its own cinema and outdoor Jacuzzi. Septième Ciel in Verbier is a more modern chalet with floor-to-ceiling windows, double-height ceilings, and gorgeous views from the infinity-edge patio. For character, book the toasty four-bedroom Chalet Jinccs, also in Verbier, a chocolate-box cliché stuffed with cozy chairs, deep-pile carpets, open fires, and voluminous down comforters. All-inclusive rates (accommodations, staff, food, and beverages) range from $8,658 to $76,742 per week.

The other rental company we would recommend is SCOTT DUNN SKI (44-20-8682-5050; www.scottdunn.com), again British and with conspicuously good chalets in Courchevel and Val d'Isère, France (their flagship property is the four-floor Eagles Nest, which sleeps 12 and has an indoor pool). Scott Dunn specializes in families and maintains relationships with the top ski schools.


Traveler's Files

GETTING THERE Swiss (877-359-7947) and American Airlines (800-433-7300) fly direct to Geneva from JFK, and to Zurich from Los Angeles. Round-trip fares from JFK start at $300 (coach); $6,702 (business class). From Los Angeles, $376 (coach); $7,943 (business). Use Geneva to access Megève and Courchevel in France and Gstaad and Zermatt in Switzerland. For St. Moritz, fly into Zurich.

TRANSFERS For limousine transfers from the Geneva airport to your hotel, use Ambassador Limousine (41-22-731-92-70). You can also rent a vehicle from Hertz (800-654-3131), although we wouldn't—the traffic is hell and so, too, is parking. From Geneva it's 90 minutes to Megève, two hours 15 minutes to Courchevel, two hours to Gstaad, and three hours 30 minutes to Zermatt. From Zurich airport to St. Moritz, take the stunning four-hour, ten-minute train ride (41-81-833-52-52). Helicopter transfers and private planes are also available. Because of local snow and flight conditions, it is safest to book directly through your hotel or chalet; they will recommend their own trusted supplier.

WHEN TO GO Peak season falls over Christmas and New Year's. Early January is the Russian New Year, which means the Alps will be packed and are therefore best avoided. The slopes also teem during the European school holidays—usually the second and third weeks of February. The best time, with the most reliable snowfall, is the second half of January and early February, as well as March, although some runs in lower-altitude resorts can get icy.

SKI KIT Most Europeans rent their skis, so top equipment is available at competitive rates. We recommend you bring your own ski boots.

SKI PASSES Usually best purchased via your hotel's concierge, or at the lift station upon arrival. If your travel policy does not cover helicopter evacuations, be sure to take out rescue insurance when you buy your ski pass. Platinum and Centurion cardholders are covered.

SKI SCHOOLS AND INSTRUCTORS Book instructors well in advance. Per diem rates are around $200, instructor's tip about $20.

TRAIL RATING In Europe, trails from easiest to most challenging are labeled green, blue, red, and black. Green and blue are comparable to the American system; red roughly corresponds to the American single black diamond, and black to a double black diamond. In Switzerland and France you can ski beyond piste markers but are responsible for your own safety, so hire a guide for the first couple of days.

RESTAURANTS Reserve mountain restaurants the night before dining, important village restaurants before you arrive. In the evenings, Swiss restaurants tend to require smarter dress than the French.

CHILDREN Don't rely on the American resort-hotel model of "day care." Book babysitters via the concierge before arrival, or put the children in ski school (generally superior to those in the States).