If you want to ski in the Alps and avoid the madness of the 1992 Winter Olympics, in Albertville, France, consider the Valle d'Aosta in Italy's northwest corner. Largely French-speaking, this wine- and cheese-producing region has world-class ski resorts on some of Europe's highest mountains.
The Valle d'Aosta is rich in historical and cultural attractions, too. You can see the remains of Roman aqueducts, and throughout the region, medieval castles and monasteries perch on the hills. Many of these sites, such as the castles of Fenis, Aymavilles, and Issogne, are open to visitors. For an extra diversion, you can go to Europe's largest casino in St. Vincent.
Valle d'Aosta also stands out for its hearty cuisine. The high slopes produce a small but fine selection of wines. The pungent local Fontina cheese appears on rice and potato gnocchi, in soups, and in fondue. Soups such as bagna cauda are seasoned with mountain herbs and flowers. Prosciutto lovers should try mocetta, a salt-cured meat made from chamois, a goatlike antelope. After the meal, sip grappa flavored with fruits and herbs.
Cervinia, the largest resort, has a dizzying choice of downhill trails at the foot of the Matterhorn. Modern lifts, such as a new cable car that carries 140 people per cabin, have done away with lines. Ninety miles of trails include a 14-mile ski from the Plateau Rosa down to the next village, Valtournanche, where a gondola will take you back up.
For an extra $21 with your Cervinia ski pass ($30 for one day; $150 for six days), you can ski over the Swiss border to Zermatt, where cars are banned. Closer to Cervinia, a town of modern buildings, lies the secluded village of Chamois. Dating from the Middle Ages, this cluster of chalets and churches can be reached only by cable car. From here you can ski to Valtournanche and back to Cervinia.
Among the wide choice of hotels, one of the most romantic is Les Neiges d'Antan, a 28-room rustic chalet on a pinnacle two miles from Cervinia's busy center. A double room without meals costs $74 a night.
Courmayeur offers 80 miles of ski trails at the foot of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak. In spring, if you're an expert skier, hire a guide for the 11-mile run along the glaciers of the Vallee Blanche to Chamonix in France. For the less experienced, there's a cable car to Chamonix. Or you might drive 10 miles to Italy's La Thuile, where a $30 day pass gives you 83 miles of cross-border trails with La Rosiere in France.
LESS GLITZ. Courmayeur has some of the best hostelries and restaurants in the valley. Try the elegant Hotel Pavillon ($179, double) or the small Palace Bron ($160 to $235), with its first-rate restaurant. In the nearby gingerbread village of Entreves, taste regional dishes at La Maison de Filippo. The locals prefer to eat at the Armandina trattoria in the hamlet of La Palud and to meet for coffee at Courmayeur's Caffe della Posta in Via Roma. Italiatour (800 237-0517), Alitalia's tour operator, offers one-week packages to Courmayeur and Cervinia from the U. S. for $1,350 to $1,900.
Cross-country skiers and those who don't like the mink-and-Mercedes crowd would do better at the less glitzy Cogne, a medieval village inside Gran Paradiso National Park. One of Cogne's great attractions is the Hotel Bellevue ($130 to $160, double), where, until World War II, Italy's royal family stayed on hunting expeditions.
For a more intimate atmosphere, there's Notre Maison, a chalet with only 10 rooms ($73 to $85 per person, with full board). Lou Ressignon, Cogne's top restaurant, serves an array of dishes made with Fontina cheese. A last bit of advice on dining: If you're with a group, drink from the after-meal coppa dell'amicizia, a covered wooden "friendship cup" with multiple spouts, filled with coffee, sugar, grappa, and orange or lemon peel. If you're alone, it's worth befriending the folks at the next table.