CONRAD SUTCLIFFE: Discover the attractions of cost-effective, mid-mountain resorts
THE retired British couple on the chairlift were horrified when I told them what I was doing in Italy for the week. "You've come to write about La Thuile — do you have to?" she said with convincing indignation.
"Tell them the slopes are crowded and there are huge queues for all the lifts," she added.
"Can you say the skiing isn't very good and the people aren't that friendly either," chipped in husband.
"We come out here to our second home every winter for four months because it is so lovely. Please don't spoil it for us!"
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I didn't need telling the last bit as it was easy to work out.
La Thuile is that couple's special place in the Alps and the last thing they want is hordes of Brits jostling them in the queue to get on a lift.
I broke the news to them gently that word was already out about La Thuile judging from the chatter I had heard in La Cage bar the previous night and it might be time to sell up!
The slopes are quiet, the lift queues negligible, the skiing varied and the people friendly. And that just touches a few of La Thuile's attractions.
More and more British skiers are discovering the attractions of mid-mountain resorts such as La Thuile, which are a cost-effective option for the couple or family on a budget in these straightened times.
Trois Vallees and Espace Killy veterans should look away now as I reveal you can buy a coffee for 1.50 euros, three decent-sized glasses of hot red wine for nine euros and a medium beer for five euros.
Those are mountain prices by the way.
Down in the town, the Italian equivalent of a pint of house larger will set you back, wait for it, four euros.
You can get a fast food snack of hot-dog, chips and a can of Coke for eight euros at the foot of the slopes.
It's a bit more up on the mountain, but not much.
Agreed, they are not exactly bargain basement prices, but any French veteran can tell tales of the five euros can of Coke, the eight euros pint of beer and the plate du jour at 12 euros — bread roll extra.
These things add up over the week, especially if mum and dad have a couple of children in tow.
Mid-mountain is a term you hear resorts apply to themselves more and more on the Alpine circuit.
What it means is open to individual interpretation, but generally it applies to resorts that know their place in the grand scheme of ski things and are comfortable with it.
Mid-mountain resorts don't bristle with expensive hotels, gourmet restaurants or boutique shops.
They don't have the newest lift networks or piste maps running to 300km of claimed slopes.
That is not to say you can't get a decent meal and a comfy bed for seven nights — in La Thuile the places to go are the Miramonti hotel and the Planibel complex where Thomson and its Crystal affiliate are well entrenched — or have a great day out on the slopes.
La Thuile sensibly hooked up with the neighbouring French resort of La Rosiere some years ago to create the Espace San Bernardo — a network of almost 40 lifts serving 160km of marked pistes when everything is open.
Be prepared to ride in chairs rather than bubble lifts, or be tugged up the hill on a poma from time to time.
For those contemplating a day out on the Rosiere side, a drag lift is the only way back.
Experienced skiers will have got to the top of mountains a little faster elsewhere, but the wait is worth it.
For La Thuile's network of red runs is a joy to explore and being Italian reds some of them are really blues anywhere else, just a little narrower in places.
What you also get on the La Thuile side of the St Bernard Pass is piste length and some decent vertical as well.
The longest piste of all — the San Bernardo — wends an 11km route from the edge of the piste map back into town.
Boarders may find it a bit flat in one or two places.
There are four pistes of 6km or more — and by joining some together in the middle you can create a bespoke run of around 10km.
The way the reds criss-cross each other in Arnouvaz and Argillen sectors mean there are numerous possibilities for the creative piste-map reader.
Get it right and you can drop almost 1,200 metres without getting on a lift.
Blacks are a little harder to find and not all of them are as ferocious as those found in France or Austria. That's not to say they aren't challenging though.
Piste Three — named after local hero Francois Berthod — touches 78 degrees pitch in places.
That's steep enough to qualify for a place on the World Cup circuit, which resort managers hope to achieve in 2014 or 2015.
There is a cluster of blacks trailing away from the main uplift arrival point at Les Suches — and all are do-able by decent intermediates. Even Piste Three. Give yourself the best chance of getting down in once piece by tackling them in the morning when the sun is out.
La Thuile has a plenty to offer the off-piste enthusiast — and judging by the snow shovels and avalanche transceivers I saw being sported that's another ill-kept secret.
Monica Berger in the tourist office marketing department told me one of the attractions for the off-piste brigade is the low risk of avalanches in the domain.
Even so, she recommends hiring either a guide or a ski instructor if venturing the other side of the poles.
For those who have been saving hard, helisking is available on the Italian side of the border.
The favoured drop-off point is Mont Miravidi, up at 3,000 metres, which nestles in the lee of Mont Blanc.
Off-piste areas can be found at the top of the Chaz Dura lift, adjacent to Piste 27 in the Belvadere sector, or in the area marked Arnouvaz on the piste map.
Although the off-piste is generally safe and not-too remote, local advice is to avoid the area accessed from Piste Four in the La Tour sector.