THE empty slopes of a hidden gem in the French Alps mean ample room for improving your ski skills, writes Jennifer McBain
Take a chairlift to 2,800m and you will most likely have some interesting encounters. There I was on the ascent in Valmorel, in the French Alps, enjoying dazzling sunshine and the last snows of spring, when I found myself sitting next to a man who defied common conceptions about the inevitabilities of ageing. A lively local, somewhere in his eighth decade, he was passionately engaged in a lifelong love affair with skiing that began when equipment amounted to little more than a pair of leather boots and some wooden planks, and you walked up the mountain in order to reap the rewards of skiing down it. He used to be a ski instructor but now spends just a couple of hours a day on the slopes.
Enjoying life’s pleasures in moderation is a cornerstone of traditional French culture. You eat what you like in small portions –washed down with good wine – and you seek out enjoyable activities in order to keep physically fit. Thus, that inspiring early encounter was to set the tone for the entire trip.
My nine-year-old son and I were guests of Club Med at their brand-new flagship resort in the Grand Domain region, which completely does away with the endurance test atmosphere that used to surround snow sports and instead lays on every possible facility to smooth your path to the slopes. Extensive childcare is there for the booking and ski lockers are conveniently located in the basement of the hotel, allowing you to ski directly from door to gondola. The company works to an all-inclusive format, so you don’t have to bring much spending money, and there is a choice of two self-service restaurants plus an à la carte option, at which you need only think of a dish and you’ll find it on the menu.
Things at Valmorel have moved on considerably since the days of the wooden skis once enjoyed by my chairlift companion. There is now a network of lifts servicing 150km of piste. The runs themselves are generously wide and peaceful and there is plenty of room for the modest number of people who have discovered this stunning region. There is a sense of space and freedom – granted by the absence of the crowds who opt for higher resorts, where snow is still guaranteed this late in the season – and lift queues just don’t seem to occur.
Before this trip, my skiing was a triumph of courage over accomplishment. For many years I was able to hurtle down a slope at speed but my body positioning and execution of turns did not stand up to scrutiny. This was the perfect opportunity to become a better skier, thanks to local instructor Nicole, who was determined that all her charges would make progress. She was the very epitome of elegance; sashaying down the mountain, making easy work of the gradient, while we followed in her tracks like a herd of straggling colts.
Bit by bit we tamed our flailing limbs, and after a few days Nicole led us into a canyon, which acted as a natural half-pipe, and encouraged us as we went up one side and down the other until we either lost momentum or fell over. She also managed to cajole us over a series of modest jumps and even got us skiing backwards.
Back at the hotel, as guests unwound by tucking into either afternoon tea or cocktails, the staff geared up for their second shift. Receptionists and nannies became dancers and acrobats in nightly shows that were a somewhat surreal blend of cabaret and karaoke. Even the manager leads a double life, dealing with spreadsheets by day and donning a Mad Hatter ensemble (complete with steaming teapot) after dark.
As enthusiastically as the entertainment was laid on, ultimately this trip was all about the joys of zooming down the slopes. Snows sports are the perfect antidote to the modern malaise that comes of large parts of the day being hijacked by cyberspace. Sunshine and clear air sharpen the appetite for good living, and craggy iced peaks imprint themselves on the imagination, re-emerging in daydreams that make you vow to keep returning to the mountains for all the decades to come.
• A seven-day all-inclusive break in a club room costs from £1,410 per person (including a saving of £180 each) at Club Med Valmorel (0845 307 0707, www.clubmed.co.uk). Flights depart from London on 7 April