Conveniently close to Switzerland but without the high prices, the French resort of Morzine.
Beating the blues
Good snow. Tick. Close to Geneva. Tick. Charming old town. Tick. “The only problem with Morzine,” says a friend, “is that it’s so very English, almost as much as Val d’Isère.” Tick.
It’s thus that on my first night at the Au Coin Du Feu Chalet – the most French thing about it being its name – that an English friend and I end up sitting opposite a family of expat Britons from Abu Dhabi in a 16-roomed chalet filled, apart from some Dutch couples and a Turkish family, mostly with other Brits and their children, and owned and run by a British husband-and-wife team, Paul and Francesca. The place is also managed by a guy called Nick and fully staffed by young British chalet girls and a barman called Richie.
Thankfully, this isn’t a difficult relationship. Paul and Francesca are Francophiles who moved here 20 years ago and their three chalets blend in with the local architecture; they speak French and their children go to local schools and take part in ski competitions. The French businesses in town clearly value the income that English-speakers bring in, and the fact that it’s a family resort rather than party central means that there’s no hint of crassness. Instead, it’s a treat to be smiled at and welcomed as we are throughout the week, at small restaurants on the side of the slopes, by lift staff and locals in town, despite our poor command of the language.
The key attraction, though, is the skiing. For me, a relative beginner, the huge variety of blue runs is a bonus (on a scale of difficulty, French pistes are graded from green – the easiest – to blue, red, and, the hardest, black). Morzine is part of the wider Portes du Soleil ski area, which offers 650km of pistes branching out from 12 resorts including Avoriaz, Les Gets, Châtel and St-Jean d’Aulps, as well as Morzine itself. Our chalet is in the pretty hamlet of Les Prodains, outside of town but connected to Morzine and beyond by a free bus service, which runs throughout the day. The best thing is that we can access the cable car up to Avoriaz from directly opposite our chalet. Which is what, after a delicious, great-value pot-au-feu at La Kinkerne (www.lakinkerne-morzine.com), a typically French bar and restaurant at the foot of a slope next door to our chalet, we do on the day of arrival. We get onto the Prodains téléphérique, and within 10 minutes we’re in Avoriaz (since my visit, a new cable car, the TD Prodains Express, has opened, making the trip much faster).
Though car-free, Avoriaz, which has a base altitude of 1,800m, is a rather ugly modern resort with some monstrous looking apartment blocks on top of a cliff. It’s also crowded, but once you get away from the Avenue des Skieurs and the Snowpark, some of the best high-elevation beginner’s skiing in France opens up. We take another cable car up to the hugely scenic Pointe de Mossettes on the border with Switzerland, with a view towards Lake Geneva on one side and Champéry on the other. We ski down a variety of wide, attractive blue runs including Abricotine, Procleu, Seraussaix and Tetras – though, in some places, the slopes narrow into steep, twisting chutes, parts of which are more like red runs than blue ones.
Satisfied with surviving our first day, we return to our chalet and meet other guests in the dining room for pre-dinner drinks and canapés. The chalet’s 16 rooms are fully occupied with 32 adults and 15 children under five; we find the dining room full of people, but fortunately only the adults are present at dinner. The food is the highlight of our stay here. Apart from the Wednesday, which is the chalet staff’s weekly night off, there’s a hearty three-course meal presented each evening in gourmet style – roasted pigeon breast with chestnuts, salmon and sticky toffee pudding one night, chicken liver pate, lamb shank and crème brûlée another – and the talk around the table is interesting (to my right, a group of British bankers; opposite, the expat couple working in Abu Dhabi; the Dutch group to my left).
After dinner, there’s not much to do apart from retire to the lounge or read in the library (thankfully, there is a good, free Wi-Fi connection), as the buses into Morzine stop at 8pm and it’s too far to walk. A taxi costs around €20 (Dh118) each way, which seems excessive for the distance.
Day two and we get back on the Prodains lift, this time turning right at the top to tackle the eastern sections of Avoriaz via the Fornet and Lac-Intrets lifts. Signage isn’t great, but we manage the Bleue du Lac route down. It turns into a long, wide, rolling slope – just what we need to take in the view and the air. From the top of the Fornet lift (2,250m), there’s a lovely view of a ridge called the Dents Blanches – “white teeth” – and all the runs down seem to allow skiers to venture off-piste as much or as little as they want, bumping over moguls, making fresh tracks through ski fields, or, like us, simply coasting down.
Day three and the weather turns grey; this time we take the bus down to Morzine and board the Pleney lift up, which is as crowded as the London Underground during rush hour. This side of the valley has more trees and we take all the gorgeous blue runs down – some are simply labelled “D”, “B” and “C” – and are little more than gently winding snowy paths through the woods, taking us past old, romantic wooden chalets (note to self: think about renting one of these some day). We break for lunch – a suitably heavy tartiflette – in a cabin restaurant near the Belvedere lift, before descending on the surprisingly treacherous “G” piste down. I wait on a deckchair at an outdoor cafe at the bottom of the slope for my friend, who is petrified and can only slide down in stages.
Day four and it’s time to do the blue runs further round the corner via the lifts at Les Gets. Taking the Pleney and Belvedere lifts up from Morzine, it’s only a couple of blue runs down into the small resort’s main lift area. The Chavannes Express gives us access to the Violette run, while TS La Rosta provides not only a great view of Mont Blanc but also a choice of four lovely blue runs down. The weather is still cloudy, and I’ve forgotten my goggles, making it difficult to focus on the slopes in the flat light. I have a crêpe sucre citron (a crêpe with sugar and lemon) and a coffee before taking the idyllic Reine des Pres down. Meaning “meadowsweet”, it’s true to its name. While most of the skiers at La Rosta jostle to tackle black runs such as Yeti, I wind slowly and almost silently through a fairy-tale landscape of narrow tracks with icy-sided slopes, frozen waterfalls and streams and, in a small col, see a deer up to its knees in snow. I then work my way backwards to Morzine via the Ranfoilly Express and the Gentiane run part of the way down, joining Choucas to the right (by now, these blues have comfortingly familiar names), to traverse the wooded slopes of Col Lac de Joux Plane back to Morzine.
Day five and there’s a blizzard, so we decide to take the day off – later we hear that a 10-year-old French girl has been killed on the slopes at Morzine. At the chalet, guests report seeing emergency helicopters flying people from Avoriaz. Later, we learn that our snowboarding chef has broken his collarbone.
We take the opportunity to head into Morzine to explore the town, which is large enough to support a good range of shops and restaurants, and is pretty despite its heavy visitor numbers. The town has some gorgeous 19th-century architecture, a few high-end, traditional restaurants and a river running through it. Even after 10 years of using the euro, the cash machines still show the amount that you withdraw in francs.
On my last day, it’s time to go further afield, and Francesca has kindly offered to show me where the locals go to escape the crowds. The St Jean d’Aulps ski area is covered by Portes du Soleil ski passes but not by the free bus service, so the only way to get there is by car. I’m a little apprehensive, but Francesca assures me that you can do the entire 20-kilometre circuit Roc d’Enfer circuit on blue runs and “easy reds” only. I attack the steepest parts with more gusto than I have mustered all week – the lack of crowds and decent snow help – taking a couple of minor tumbles before coasting across frozen pastureland to La Cavaillon, a lovely restaurant in an old stable with ancient wood and oil-burning stoves and mountain food. Heavier after a delicious fondue, I’m only just in control as we speed downhill.
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