TRANQUILLITY and stunning views are the reward for heading to the top of the mountain when most skiers are still in bed, says Nan Spowart
Few experiences can surpass watching the sun rise over the snow-covered Alps from a vantage point high in the mountains.
Watching the peaks glow in the first rays is a magical moment, especially if you are privileged enough to be one of the few people allowed high on the slopes before the ski runs are open.
For a mere e13, a sum which includes breakfast, anyone can sign up for the First Tracks experience at the ski resort of Les Deux Alpes in France.
Despite the area being popular with British skiers, few know about the weekly trip, which gives an insight into the safety practices operated on the slopes as well as the opportunity to travel up on the lifts an hour before they open officially.
It is a shock to the system to rise earlier than normal, but the stunning views are worth it and it’s wonderful to enjoy the tranquillity of the mountain before skiers arrive.
On reaching the top of the gondola, we were given a quick tour of the cabin used by the safety personnel, and our guide Olivier explained how the equipment is used as well as how they try to avoid avalanches through controlled explosions.
He then asked us to follow him down the slopes while he carried out his routine safety checks before the runs opened. We were slightly taken aback to be asked to help carry the heavy poles that mark the edge of the runs and it was a challenge to ski down with one and plant it securely at the edge of the slope.
The tour ended with steaming mugs of hot chocolate and croissants, which we felt we thoroughly deserved after our exertions. The experience was an unusual one but even our two teenagers agreed it was worth the early rise as it was fascinating to find out what goes on behind the scenes to ensure safety on the slopes – something taken very seriously at Les Deux Alpes.
It’s a resort that is ideal for beginners and intermediate skiers, with wide open slopes and, because of the glacier, guaranteed snow cover offering year-round skiing.
These slopes are a temptation for competent skiers to race, but a system is in place which helps protect nervous beginners from being intimidated by speed merchants whizzing past them as they attempt to carve their way slowly down. Some of the blue runs are as wide as motorways and, accordingly, there is a “slow lane” marked out by tortoise signs which warn fast skiers to keep well away. Safety men and women patrol the slopes on guard for anyone skiing dangerously.
Anyone who thinks that sounds too restricting need not worry: it’s a big enough resort for all abilities to enjoy.
Beginners are well catered for, not only with the slow zones but also a covered moving carpet which looks like a polytunnel and transports them to the top of the nursery slopes while protecting them from the elements. This is at the sunny Cretes area which also has a large expanse of roped-off slope to prevent anyone other than beginners using it.
There is a play area for children learning to ski, with fun obstacles for them to steer around. Improving beginners have plenty of green and blue runs to choose from, while intermediates have tremendous scope with fantastic red runs all over the resort, including up at the glacier.
As well as excellent free ride areas, experts are well served by black runs and good off-piste if conditions allow – and they often do, as the resort is one of the highest in the Alps at 3,600ft at the top.
The week we skied there, snow cover throughout the Alps had not been good, yet the conditions at the top of the resort, particularly at the glacier, were still excellent, although the runs down to the village were a bit short of snow.
The village, which boasts a lovely outdoor heated pool, ice rink and cinema, is well known for its après-ski because of its numerous bars, clubs and restaurants, but the fun starts up the mountain at the legendary Pano Bar where a resident DJ keeps the place buzzing from 3pm-5pm every day. It’s usually packed with skiers dancing in their boots before heading off down the mountain to continue partying at the Polar Bear, Smokey Joe’s, Pub Le Windsor, the Motown Cafe and the Avalanche Club, to name just a few of the more popular venues.
Those who enjoy their food as well as drink are well served by La Fee and Le Diable au Coeur on the mountain as well as our favourite, La Toura, which has excellent pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven. They are e12 but big enough to share between two.
In the village there is the Michelin-starred Le P’tit Polyte at Chalet Mounier, Le Raisin d’Ours, Le Cellier, La Porte d’à Côté, Le Grain de Sel and Crêpes à Gogo, which serves traditional meals such as raclette as well as crêpes and is a lovely place to spend some time.
However, we were so well fed in our newly built chalet, Le Renard Bleu, that we didn’t feel the need to eat out much.
Our chalet girls Bronte, Daisy and Ella cooked up a storm, with a hot breakfast every morning, delicious cakes and coffee on our return from the slopes, and a three-course meal plus canapés, aperitifs and wine in the evening.
The chalet is near the Diable chair and is extremely comfortable with an outdoor plunge pool and sauna. It is quite close to the Avalanche Club, so it can be a bit noisy at times when groups of revellers leave the club, but that’s the price that usually has to be paid for such a central location in a ski resort.
And if you party with the best of them that’s not really a problem.
Ski Total (01483 791933, www.skitotal.com) is offering a stay in the Chalet Renard Bleu in Les Deux Alpes for £749pp (was £779pp), travelling on 14 December. This price is based on two adults sharing and includes return flights from Edinburgh to Geneva, transfers, free wifi and seven nights’ chalet-catered accommodation including buffet breakfast, afternoon tea and a four-course evening meal with complimentary wine. “Two for one” ski and boot hire through Ski Total will also save more than £100 per couple.
First Tracks can be booked at the lift pass office and costs e13 euros per person.
Esprit Ski (espritski.com) and Ski Total still has plenty of availability on its Edinburgh-Geneva flights departing 15 February.