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THE SWISS SIDE OF PORTES DU SOLEIL
by Ted Heck

When Switzerland Tourism suggested I visit their portion of the world’s largest “international” ski domain, it was an easy sell. I knew the French side after several ski holidays in Morzine and Avoriaz, but I had never been based in one of the six Swiss resorts. France has eight resorts and between the two countries there are 403 miles of prepared slopes served by 220 lifts.

I chose Champéry because I knew a little of its colorful history and its reputation as one of the first Swiss villages to recognize the impact tourism could have on its future. The village in 2007 will celebrate its 150th anniversary of being hosts to tourists. It is the dominant hamlet for skiing on the Swiss side of the Portes du Soleil, but it is also popular in the summer with bikers and hikers.

The five other Swiss mountain villages in the Portes are Val-d’Illiez, Les Crosets, Champoussin, Morgins and Torgon. All of them are also part of a region known as Chablais, which has eight other communities in the Rhone Valley and around Lake Geneva. Headquarters for the Chablais tourist office is in the town of Monthey, where the cogwheel train begins its journey up to the ski areas.

Like many other train adventures in Switzerland, this one started with an urban setting, but it soon changed to alpine meadows, with picturesque chalets and barns. It looked like springtime with green grass and early flowers, until we reached the snowline.

I was met at the train station by Helene Besseling, owner with her husband of the Hotel Beau-Séjour, a charming three-star hotel on the town’s main street and only a short walk to a cable car. The building, like many on the street, has the dark wood, photogenic exterior of structures from another time.

The Chablais region is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, but any nation so dependent on tourism has to be attuned to English as well. In the hotel I also heard a lot of Dutch and quickly discovered that the Besselings have a loyal band of customers. A dozen skiers from the Netherlands stay with them every year. The hotel had been fully booked from Christmas until the first week in April.

The Beau-Séjour only offers bed and breakfast, but a connected public restaurant, Le Vieux Chalet, was a comfortable place for my first dinner. Vanessa Freidl came up from Monthey to welcome me to the Chablais; she is responsible for marketing the region. We talked about all the villages and the different attractions available, particularly those with a family orientation. For a comprehensive picture of the region visit www.chablais.info and browse through the various villages.

I could have used Vanessa as a guide the next morning. The top of the mountain was fogged in and I had trouble in the flat light, so I abandoned any idea of going over to Avoriaz in France. Vanessa, a former ski instructor, would probably have told me that “you don’t have to see it, just feel it.” It’s advice I’ve often heard in the Alps; it’s never worked.

But I managed to get in several days of fun, by adjusting to breaks in the clouds. Between Planachaux and Les Crosets the snow was heavy in areas of traffic, but I found some groomed and mostly untracked areas to flex my muscles in.

In addition to information given by Vanessa. I received a good orientation on Champéry from local tourist director Steve Theytaz. His office is across the street from the train station and the aerial tram that goes up to Planachaux ---and near two ski shops. Steve invited me to the Palladium, a huge structure that the town’s forefathers could not have foreseen. I watched ice skaters, a curling lesson, and swimmers in the large pool.

Prizewinning work of Swiss and French political cartoonists was on display, but the major event was a two-hour concert on Saturday night by a Chablais quartet---three guitars and a drummer with a repertoire that went from country to rock to ballads, with impressions of Johnny Cash and Nat King Cole. The lead-ins were in French, the songs in English.

My visit to Champéry was a long time in coming and all too short. I must go back.

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