'Where should we ski today, Switzerland or France?" I ask Peter, my husband.
We don't have a private jet at our disposal. In fact, we're 75 miles from the nearest international airport, eating breakfast in a cobblestone mountain village where the "new" church — built in 1725 to replace the original 1436 chapel — has a steeple shaped like a crown and carved doors accent wooden chalets.
The town is Champéry, Switzerland. Looming above us are the Alps. And the jaunty red tram that scales the vertical walls above our valley opens onto the Portes du Soleil, one of the largest ski areas in the world.
Portes du Soleil (which translates as "gateway to the sun") encompasses 12 interlinked resorts that sprawl between Mont Blanc in France and Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The resulting climatic confluence generates lots of snow. Four ski areas lie on the Swiss side and eight on the French. All can be accessed with one affordable lift pass.
The statistics stagger the mind. Nearly 300 ski runs stretch for 400 miles, with 200 lifts strung across 14 valleys. The terrain encompasses 150 square miles. (Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, North America's largest ski resort, holds a mere 13 square miles.)
Portes du Soleil delivers two parallel ski universes. Nearly 80 percent of the marked runs are easy to intermediate. But adrenaline-seeking experts can swoosh through powder bowls and hurtle from cornices into gravity-defying couloirs in off-piste areas.
Despite the expanse, we find it surprisingly easy to schuss from country to country. As in the Paris Métro, trail signs point in the direction of each resort — Champéry, Les Crosets, Morzine, Morgins, Avoriaz, Zermatt and so on. You ski, then ski some more, changing language, currency, country, altitude and attitude.
Our ski adventures begin inauspiciously.
"Make love to the snow with your feet." An instructor (Italian, of course) had once dispensed that advice about skiing in a whiteout — like the one that envelops us our first morning. Peter, standing 3 feet away, looks like he's floating in a cloud.
The visible void is matched by my brain's blankness from jet lag. Combined, both seem to have obliterated my legs' collective memory of how to turn. I promptly plop into an unseen snowdrift.
All morning, the whiteness intensifies. Gradually we get our powder legs back, arcing turns in the accumulating creaminess.
Hunger brings another noteworthy Portes du Soleil statistic to mind: The region holds 90 restaurants. "Go to Restaurant Chez Coquoz — it's the best," a Swiss companion on a chairlift advises.
He's right. Perched slope-side at the Swiss Planachaux area, the restaurant has been run by the Gex-Collet/Coquoz family since 1953. Befitting its alpine setting, the menu uses mountain herbs and plants in both traditional and nouveau recipes. Today the special is mountain-grass gnocchi with nuts — earthy, savory and delectably different. Other menu choices include lamb shanks and wild boar in elderberry sauce. For dessert we finish with a richly caramelized apricot tart — so delicious, I forget that I don't like apricots.
This being Europe, we indulge in wine with our lunch. Swiss wines are as big a secret as the names behind those numbered bank accounts in Zurich. In fact, the country produces stellar wines — about 98 percent of which are sipped and swallowed in Switzerland. We become enamored of Chasselas, a white that offers bright citrus flavors, and Cornalin, a red wine lush with wild cherry accented by spice and earthy notes.
The next morning, Peter and I awaken to a snow-glistened wonderland. Although a mere dusting coats roofs in Champéry, more than 2 feet mound on the slopes 3,000 feet above town. On every run, we etch fresh tracks in buffed drifts.
Our accommodations at Hotel National live up to the Swiss reputation for spiffy cleanliness, warmed with a dose of genuine friendliness. Madame Deledalle helps us decipher train, tram and bus schedules; Monsieur Nouat serves up après-ski beers and successfully reboots the Wi-Fi.
Each morning we fuel up for on-slope adventures with a buffet of just-baked breads, hams, sausages, muesli, yogurts and fresh fruits. Since it's March and less than two weeks before Easter, the hard-boiled eggs are fancifully dyed yellow, purple and red.
"Switzerland or France?" Peter and I reprise over breakfast, poring over the trail map. With the sun shining brightly, we decide to circle through the Swiss villages.
A Swiss pick
I hate picking favorites, but I'd opine that the Swiss side has the more jaggedly magnificent mountains. The most notable formations are Les Dents-du-Midi, seven adjacent summits that resemble giant teeth (dents).
We enjoy stunning views of the peaks from the 7,500-foot heights of Pointe de Mossettes. From here a series of lifts and intermediate trails lead to a long track (almost like a cross-country ski trail) that gently descends through piney woods to the village of Morgins.
Next we ski to the equally petite burg of Champoussin where we discover an alpine gem: La Ferme à Gaby, a restaurant famous for artisanal cheeses. A roster naming resident goats — Bernadette, Vanille, Fluquette — hangs near the entrance. We order a plate of cheeses in which we can taste the mountain herbs.
For our last ski day, we plan to do "the circuit" — a circumnavigation of the resorts from Switzerland to France and back again. Even intermediates can undertake the itinerary, which is doable in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. We opt for counterclockwise for a reason that becomes spine-tinglingly obvious when we ride the Chavanette lift and gaze at the icy abyss below.
La Chavanette — sometimes called "The Swiss Wall" but more frequently referred to as "The Wall of Death" — rules as the notch-in-your-belt run at Portes du Soleil. From the crest of the French/Swiss border, the entry plunges into a 50-degree slope with epic moguls that hulk 7 feet across. Trail maps classify it as orange — more dangerous than the blacks.
From our chairlift perch, we safely observe the icy hummocks and an unfolding drama. A hapless skier — clearly a beginner because of his hunchbacked, snowplow position — tremulously follows his buddies into the glistening chasm. I hope he decided to wait for spring thaw before working the rest of the way down.
We, however, enjoy some lovely blue cruisers in France before an assemblage of buildings rise, Oz-like, in the distance — Avoriaz.
Perched on a massive escarpment, Avoriaz was built as a ski resort in the 1960s. Its buildings look more like shingled spacecraft than Heidi-esque chalets. No cars are permitted, and ski trails serve as streets. Avoriaz is a major center for snowboarders and freestylers, with three snow parks, a superpipe and a boarder-cross course.
For lunch, we head to Les Lindarets — a series of restaurants in a sunny valley where women doff down jackets to bask in halter tops. We settle into red canvas chairs at La Pomme de Pin (Pine Cone), which specializes in local dishes. This is not lean cuisine. I order tartiflette, a caloric onslaught of potatoes, cheese, onions and bacon.
To finish the day, I hanker for another slice of that delicious apricot tart at Chez Coquoz. We ski back to Switzerland and the restaurant's sunny, cliff-edge deck. Disaster looms — the waiter sadly informs me that the tart is "fini."
Fortunately, Mme. Gex-Collet overhears my plight. She disappears into the kitchen and returns with two golden, flaky slices of apricot heaven that she had been saving for herself. I feel cosmopolitan, having had lunch in France and now dessert in Switzerland.
A line from a poem by Charles Baudelaire is carved on a restaurant wall: "Ces monts écoutent recueillis dans leur grave attitude un mystère divin que l'homme n'entend pas." — "These mountains listen, collected in their serious attitude, to a divine mystery that humans cannot understand."
This elicits two thoughts — the first being that I cannot imagine an American ski resort emblazoning words from Walt Whitman or Robert Frost on its premises.
My second realization comes as I gaze toward slopes where I laid tracks in fluffy powder five days ago. Baudelaire's words are beautiful, but mistaken. Through skiing, we do indeed know the call of the mountains.
Risa Wyatt, a freelance journalist in Seattle, specializes in adventure travel, food and wine. She is a contributing editor, special projects, for Wine Enthusiast magazine.