It can be a long way to the top aboard a ski resort chairlift. As we climb out of the treeline, the surrounding peaks of the Italian Alps reveal themselves with all the drama of a theatrical performance. Pillows of perfect white snow lie beneath our dangling feet and, as the chill wind glides across our faces, Enrico begins talking.
"I am a man of the mountains," he says. "I have worked in the city but I do not like."
What he likes is skiing in Pragelato, where the name means frozen meadow and even the pronunciation has a chilly connotation. "Say it 'larto' like gelato," he instructs.
But there's more to the man born to live at high altitude. "My vices ..." he begins as we draw closer to the tip-off point of Anfiteatro chairlift, "they are cigarettes, wine and women ... in that order."
As we push off the seat and our skis glide across the hardened snow, you sense he's maybe rethinking. A (single) ski instructor. In Italy. And women come third in line.
But there's no time to rib him about that. With a shrug of the shoulders and a casual push of the stocks, we're off. Enrico leads our group of three across the mountain and then on a long descent of perfect powder.
We're on the Via Lattea, Europe's second-largest ski domain (Italy's biggest). It's renowned for powder snow, every skier's dream. There are 400 kilometres of runs across six resorts, much of it upgraded for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.
At one end of Via Lattea - or Milky Way - there's Sauze d'Oulx, where freestyle Olympians did their stuff and town planners created some rather ugly concrete housing blocks for them to live in.
The ski fields high above, on the other hand, are a joyful mix of wooded descents and open snow bowls. The region is paradise for intermediates and beginners, with some tricky blacks thrown in for experts' amusement.
Moving east across the mountain ranges, Pragelato sits at 1600 metres and includes a few tiny hamlets in the valley. It's just a blip on the map, but the opening of a new Club Med village, with 234 rooms and 684 beds, does its bit to boost the population.
If its neighbour is all concrete, this new village is all-timber chalets in classic European alpine style. My room, with a small lounge, large bathroom and decent coffee machine, is on the ground floor of a two-storey, snow-decked chalet. It's at the farthest reaches of the site and, during my holiday, it buckets with snow. But the three- to four-minute walk to the resort centre is a lovely stroll along cleared footpaths with expansive mountain views when the sun gets a look-in.
The spa is close by and that's a bonus. At the end of a long day on the slopes, the large indoor pool, heated to 30 degrees and with jets to ease aching limbs, is pure joy.
For the brave, or foolhardy, there's also a challenging combination of Finnish-style sauna, steam room and outdoor, frozen shower. Not for me, but a definite "yes" to a soothing massage. That's an extra charge, but one of the few.
The Club Med price includes all food, most drinks (champagne and XO cognac are extra), with some decent wines, ski pass, equipment, lessons and, if you have any energy left, entertainment in the evening. We found hanging out in the large bar with a glass of good red wine did the trick.
Food is good and plentiful. Breakfast can be a continental baker's basket in your room or buffet style at the resort. The main restaurant seats 550, in four dining rooms, and the choice of savoury dishes, desserts and gelato (we're in Italy, after all) is extensive.
There's a more formal restaurant included in the price, but my favourite is La Trattoria, a casual eatery in primary colours with big overhead lights. Here, you can choose parmigiano cut from a huge wheel, prosciutto sliced to order, olives, soft cheeses, salamis, breads and pickled vegetables. The pizzas are outstanding.
The main bar is large and, at night, full of skiers with tales about the size of the neighbouring mountains.
Next day, it's a short walk to the cable car in the Club Med village square. In four minutes, it takes you high on the mountain and from here, it's skiers' playtime from the Sauze d'Oulx in the west to Les Chalmettes in France to the east.
It's possible to ski the entire Via Lattea in a day, taking 21 lifts across six resorts. It takes an estimated six hours to complete, but that's one for next time.
The writer was a guest of Club Med Pragelato Vialattea.
Emirates flies daily to Rome with onward connections to Turin. The drive from there to the resort is about 90 minutes. emirates.com.
The cost of staying at Club Med Pragelato Vialattea includes accommodation, food, drinks (including wine, beer and most spirits), entertainment, ski hire, ski school and lift pass. The accommodation is in classic alpine chalets with various room configurations.
In Club Med rankings, it's a four-Trident resort and, if booked before July 1, costs $1803 an adult and $1394 a child (aged four to 11 years) for seven nights. After July 1 and before September 9, it's $1905 an adult and $1476 a child.
There are children's club facilities for ages two to 17. Activities, including skiing for older youngsters, are organised throughout the day.
You will never go hungry in a Club Med resort. The main restaurant, which features four dining rooms, is buffet style with a choice of interesting, well-prepared dishes at breakfast, lunch and dinner. La Taverna serves Savoyard cuisine, La Trattoria is all about pizza and pasta, and for those on the slopes, there are Club Med restaurants on the mountains.
More information clubmed.com.au.
- Sydney Morning Herald