My taster of what the new-normal of traditional chalet holidays will be like begins when I arrive at Geneva Airport, where I’m picked up by our driver Renaud from MV Transport.
He whisks us across the border to the beautifully crisp and mesmerising Meribel, found in the heart of the 3 Valleys in the French Alps – the world’s largest ski area. Those wanting to stay in their own protective bubble can of course arrange independent car hire or arrive via ferry, rather than being transported around.
So, what has changed? Apart from the fact I’m travelling in summer – with a lack of snow-capped views replaced by greener terrain – to get a preview, it seems like quite a lot.
I’m among the first to experience how Ski France (the UK branch of French hotel group, Madame Vacances) has been preparing for the winter season ahead, with fully vaccinated Brits now permitted to travel to its resorts quarantine free.
It has been busy flipping what we know about ski holidays upside down to accommodate for travellers in the current climate.
We arrive late evening to Chalet Etienne, met not by staff, but a fully stocked fridge, cool beer, chilled wine, beds neatly made and rooms perfectly organised. Say goodbye to chalet hosts and chefs and hello to their new Contactless Catered Chalets. While the idea sounds designed for a pandemic, it was actually conceived long before Covid-19.
The difficulties of employing English staff in France post Brexit – coupled with the higher cost of employing French staff – meant it was challenging to keep an attractive price-point for the chalet experience, Joanna Laforge, co-owner of Ski France and Sales and Marketing Director, explains as we enjoy dinner on the first night. When Covid-19 saw people favouring ‘contact-free’, they rolled with the concept.
Ski France has more than 50 chalets, divided into Classic and Premium across various French Alps resorts.
The price difference between the two options is around 10/15 per cent, with a week’s stay at our Premium chalet costing from £8,929 for up to 14 sharing on a Contactless Catered basis.
Despite differences among the resorts in prestige, accommodation and food offerings, both provide local produce and for breakfast, afternoon tea/snack, a three-course dinner and drinks daily.
Our extra perks include Champagne on the first night and croissants and coffee delivered daily from the local bakery.
Menus, recipes and easy-to-follow instructions are laid out, with fresh ingredients pre-delivered and pre-stocked in the kitchen. ‘HelloFresh’ hits the slopes, you could say.
On our first night, the suggested meal is goat’s cheese and lardon salad with balsamic dressing, salmon en croute with white wine and dill sauce (plus roast new potatoes and broccoli), summer fruit crumble with crème anglaise and after dinner chocolates. As a vegetarian I tuck into a veggie cannelloni instead.
A local delicatessen currently provides the food, but Ski France is planing its own central kitchen to better cater for veggie, vegan and gluten free guests, for whom there will be set menu options.
Skis or snowboards will be reserved at the local hire shop and lift passes booked, helping to avoid queuing.
The ‘backstage’ chalet crew will only sweep into the chalet – when guests are out – halfway through the week to clean, replenish and re-stock the accommodation. They’ll be at the end of the phone, but ‘contactless’, unless requested otherwise.
Our first proper day starts with breakfast in the chalet, then we’re off to experience some bike action in the Alps.
Cycling, along with many other activities, is available in both summer and winter seasons for those who want to break up ski days.
We meet our guide Alexandre from MCF bike school for adventures on e-mountain fatbikes. After a firm but fair taster lesson, practising emergency brakes and keeping very straight legs, we head off into the dreamy Meribel Valley.
Some might say ‘boost mode’ is cheating, but I certainly appreciate it to help me climb the mountains.
With resorts filled mostly by the domestic market, Alexandre says there has been a shift to “slightly lesser known activities, such as the fatbike, ski trekking, snow shoes…a different way to enjoy the mountain”.
Back at the chalet I enjoy some downtime in the wooden sauna, before a dip in the Jacuzzi before taking in the views from the balcony of my large en suite room, visualising the triangular chalet rooftops, tall trees and mountain-peaks shrouded in snow come December 4 when Meribel officially reopens.
My dip into e-transport and “lesser known activities” isn’t over as we head for e-skateboarding escapades at Lac de Tueda, a beautiful circular lake surrounded by pine trees. I slowly make my way around clutching a controller that allows me to add power to my skate. “Bend your knees!” my guide from EM Skate shouts as I wobble along.
On our last day, we enjoy some fun at Aquamotion, nestled in Courchevel, an aquatic centre with indoor and outdoor pools with mountain views, steam rooms, ice buckets, cold and hot Jacuzzis, a salt pool with neon lights, a surf experience, and most importantly…slides. Whenever we enter a venue or facility, we present our passe sanitaire on the French TousAntiCovid app.
Feeling truly Zen, I snooze as we head next in our mini-van down the valley to Chambery. Waking up to Ski France’s very own 14th-century Chateau de Candie doesn’t turn out to be the worst experience.
We sample some of the Viognier produced from its very own vineyard, from which it makes 2-3000 bottles of Candie 1891 dry white wine a year. After a very satisfying three-course meal at the chateau’s La Cantine, I reach the conclusion that French ski resorts are fairly well-prepared for the season ahead.
How to plan your trip
A week’s stay at Chalet Etienne, with Ski France, costs from £638 per person (£8,929 total) for 14 people sharing the Premium chalet on a Contactless Catered basis. Visit skifrance-premium.co.uk or call 0203 475 4756.
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