SKI'S THE LIMIT
IF ONLY the mountains in Hong Kong had snow, we could get to the ski slopes on a bicycle. But if you have decided to board a plane - aim for the best and head for Europe.
The mountains of Korea, India and especially Japan, host nation for the next Winter Olympics, even the Rockies in America, cannot compare with the Alps in France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Nowhere in the world can boast such huge and steep mountains and the 'ski circuses' which allow anything up to 12 villages to be linked by marked pistes and lift systems.
As the popularity of skiing has grown so has the number of new resorts but the charm of the rustic, timbered hotels and restaurants in the Tyrolean villages of Austria, the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, the Dolomites of Italy and the Savoyarde snow fields of France add that extra ingredient to a winter holiday.
Whether you are a novice or an expert, it is easy to understand why Europe is still the skiers' first choice. This is where the sport began and races were created from a necessary mode of foot transport made popular by postmen, border guards and farmers in the last century. When asked to name the famous ski resorts of the world the names of Val d'Isere, Meribel, Chamonix, Verbier, St Moritz, Cortina d'Ampezzo, Kitzbuhel and St Anton will always crop up.
Not only do these villages offer superb skiing (Val d'Isere has skiing 12 months a year on the Grand Motte glacier) but the apres-ski, an integral part of any winter holiday, cannot be matched anywhere else in the world.
In St Anton - part of Austria's Alberg region which links up with the picturesque resorts of Lech, Zurs, Stuben and St Christoph - a day's skiing can be followed by either gluhwein and tea-dancing or a romantic horse-drawn sleigh ride to a Tyrolean mountain-side restaurant ... or both if you still have the energy! It is fair to say the Austrians take their apres-ski as seriously as their skiing, which is why the evenings are always fun-packed. This usually comes in the form of tea-dancing and takes place in a mountainside bar on your final run of the day. All you do is kick off your skis and head into the timbered warmth where the order of the day is to drink, eat and be merry.
Tea-dancing is a liberal affair: you can dance in any style you like on the floor or on a table - the only stipulation being that you must wear your ski boots at all times. After one or two gluhweins the patrons leave the bar for the sub-zero yet crisp conditions outside, put their skis back on and continue their final run of the day - in the dark! St Anton village resembles a picture postcard, tiny streets lined with chocolate box structures and famous wood-carved Tyrolean hotels. The resort is served by a snow train which picks up skiers from the Swiss city of Zurich and winds its way through the mountains to St Anton and on to Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.
The beauty of St Anton lies in its network of pistes and ski lifts linking neighbouring villages. From the resort, a 15-minute cable car ride to the 2,811-metre summit of Mount Valluga will line you up for a delightful nine-kilometre ski to the delightful village of Stuben where a piping hot bowl of goulash soup can be followed by a plate of bratwurst and sauerkraut.
From Hong Kong, the journey to the Alps is straightforward, often cheaper and provides far better value-for-money than skiing in Asia. Those travelling with British Airways to Heathrow also have the luxury of the new ?20 million (HK$250 million) Flight Connection Centre (FCC) at the London airport's Terminal One.
Changing planes in a foreign country can often be daunting. It even deters experienced travellers who worry about missing connections, losing their way or finding the whole thing too stressful to be worth it. But the FCC, the first of its kind in the world, provides the passenger with an opportunity to unwind in style after the flight from Hong Kong. During the wait for connecting flights to European destinations, the passenger can shower, have clothes pressed or even do some work from the FCC's hi-tech business centre.
Those worried about baggage transfer have nothing to fear. As soon as the inbound flight from Hong Kong touches down, passengers moving on to connecting flights to Europe wait for their final call from the FCC. Their baggage is transported via a complex network of tunnels running under the runways and on to the connecting flight.
British Airways, already involved in 70 per cent of Heathrow's 15 million annual transfer flights, will be the centre's largest occupant, using up to half of its 50 customer service and check-in desks.
Heathrow runs a frequent shuttle service to the major European cities connecting with all ski resorts. At Zurich, for example, the snow train leaves from directly under the airport and you can be on the slopes of St Anton within two hours.
The 60-minute flight to Geneva, in my mind, serves the greatest skiing in the world in the Portes Du Soleil, Les Trois Vallees and L'Espace Killy.
The Portes Du Soleil is a magnificent ski range which links 15 resorts on the French Swiss border. The beauty of this area is that you can breakfast in France, lunch in traditional Swiss style with raclette, and ski back across the border for escargots and Chablis.
The core resorts of this area are Avoriaz and Chatel in France and Morgins and Champery in Switzerland. With skiing up to 2,300 metres and hundreds of kilometres of runs there is plenty of choice for every calibre of skier.
Chavanette is where the skiing of Avoriaz meets the big, open ski fields of Champery, Les Crossets and Champoussin in Switzerland. It starts with the notorious 'Swiss Wall' - a long, steep, mogul slope of about 300 metres vertical, easily covered in a single fall when the snow is hard. Severity and danger depend on the variable snow conditions. It is not uncommon for skiers to peer over the ledge, look into the cavernous run, and decide to take the chairlift down instead - this is no disgrace! It is hardly surprising the promoters of this Franco-Swiss ski area refer to it as the 'Ski Sans Frontiere'. The Portes Du Soleil is an excellent and massive skiing area with plenty of options for the absolute beginner as well as the powder hound and extreme skier.
Then there is Les Trois Vallees (The Three Valleys) which serves the fashionable resorts of Meribel, Courchevel and Val Thorens. More than 200 lifts serve 600 kilometres of piste in this Savoyarde region which, with its excellent on and off slope facilities, played an integral part in the 1992 Winter Olympics.
Skier comfort is a top priority and you do most of your lift riding in gondolas (mini-cable car lifts which can seat up to 10 people). If your skiing ideal is never to ski a run more than once then your dream can come true in Les Trois Vallees. This area also boasts one of the most enjoyable runs through the trees that I have ever come across: called the Les Jockeys, it takes you down to Courchevel 1300.
But the champion of skiing worldwide still has to be Val d'Isere. The capital of L'Espace Killy skiing region, Val d'Isere and the adjoining resorts of Tignes, Val Claret, La Daille, Brevieres and Fornet provide everything for the skier.
With pistes covering 320 kilometres and skiing up to an altitude of nearly 3,700 metres, the skier is spoilt for choice in this region named after the French skiing ace Jean Claude Killy. There are the notorious bump runs of Solaise, the sweeping snowfields of La Sache down to the charming village of Brevieres and year-round skiing from the 3,656-metre high glacier La Grand Motte down into Val Claret. Even if the weather closes in there is always perfect tree skiing in Fornet where the shelter of the pines also provides perfect visibility.
For the beginner, the nursery slopes at the bottom of the Belvarde and Solaise lifts and the latter section of the old downhill course at La Daille provide ample opportunity to get to grips with this popular winter sport.
With heaving bars like the famous Dick's T-Bar, Playbach and the Morris Bar, along with the many cosy hostelries and restaurants, Val d'Isere is also the liveliest of the apres-ski bunch. With so much to offer both on and off piste, it is not surprising Val d'Isere in the heart of the Savoie Alps is the Everest of skiing.
HOW TO GET THERE For details on accommodation, ski hire, tuition provided by international ski schools, creche facilities and lift passes call the following tourist office numbers: St Anton (43) 5446-22690; Avoriaz (33) 507-40211; Val d'Isere (33) 507-42424; Meribel (33) 790-86001; Verbier (26) 316-222. For flight details, Flight Connection Centre information and transfers to Europe, contact the British Airways flight enquiry line on 2868-0303.