Pragelato, Club Med's new ski resort on the Milky Way, Italy
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It could hardly have been a more auspicious day for the opening of a new ski resort. Snow, perhaps ten centimetres, had been falling through the night. This being the week before the Christmas rush there were few other skiers or snowboarders on the Via Lattea to spoil it. Even at the end of a long day I was still bending my ageing knees in the lightest of fresh powder - with straying more and a few metres from the piste.
The Via Lattea is what Brits call the Milky Way. The new resort in question is a Club Med in Pragelato. You may be familiar with the Milky Way, whose 450 kilometres or so of prepared runs connect resorts such as Sestriere and Saulze d'Oulx on the border between France and Italy. But you could be forgiven if you have never heard of Pragelato, where Club Med has converted a village built for competitors at the 2006 Winter Olympics. This has enabled it to provide accommodation in clusters of chalet style buildings - something the company has never done before in the mountains.
Has it worked? Pretty well, I think. Not everyone is comfortable with Club Med's all inclusive concept but here, because everything is separated rather than being under one roof, you might almost be fooled into imagining you are staying in a genuine mountain village. And there is certainly no denying its convenience. No need for cash unless you want something more sophisticated than the house red or white - most other drinks are thrown in, too. There are even three restaurants on the slopes where you can lunch without dipping your hand in your pocket. There's a dedicated locker for your equipment when you come off the mountain. Ski lessons and lift passes are covered by the package price, as is access to two saunas, a Turkish bath and an impressive indoor pool. Best of all, there's a small cable car that starts a few metres from the ski room. All of which combines to avoid the need to clump around in boots.
If you fear you may be deluged by noisy kids - been there, a weekend with the grandchildren is quite enough thanks - relax. The resort's three restaurants include a trattoria where you are less likely to encounter them, and one with an adults only area. The food is pretty good, too, with buffets offering a vast choice of antipasti, for example, mains and deserts. One restaurant has what amounts to a full scale gelateria.
For skiers this has been a December to remember across much of Europe and the Milky Way is no exception. I skied to Sestriere, a resort built by the Fiat car company in the 1930s - where Club Med operated another resort until couple of years ago - and on to Saulze d'Oulx. On piste there was barely a rogue stone to be seen. Off it there was an absence of those lurking hazards beneath the snow which one expects this early in the season.
In such magnificent conditions this is ideal terrain for those who longer search for testing bumps and steeps. There's plenty of delightful intermediate skiing and the lift system - or what I've seen of it during and all too brief visit - now includes many more of those high sped chairs which slow down to allow a sedate departure, rather than those which clout you on the calf muscles. If I have one negative observation it is that the new homeward piste for Club Med guests, newly cut through the forest, will need careful attention, particularly in spring, for it is relatively narrow and will inevitably be prone to knee juddering iciness.
There was just a hint of that potential unpleasantness yesterday morning. Pragelato lies at a fairly modest 1600 metres. Such is the fickle nature of mountain weather that, after another night which had delivered several centimetres more fresh snow, the temperature rose above freezing and black clouds brought depressing rain showers.
Could it be this would wreck all that champagne powder? Visitors bound here for the festive season need not worry. Above about 2000, metres the rain had become snow and as the day progressed and the sky cleared there were new flurries even in the valley. I'm far too long in the tooth to count chickens, but it's an odds on bet that, here in North west Italy, this will be a vintage season.
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