Magical Morzine

After a five-year gap, Carolyn Boyd soon finds her ski legs on the pistes of this popular resort in Haute-Savoie

They say it’s like riding a bike, but when you’re standing at the top of a mountain about to embark on your first ski run in five years, skiing still seems pretty daunting. Yet sure enough, as the skis tip over the edge of the piste and the crunch of the icy snow gives way to powder, it seems that I have got my ski legs back. And it’s wonderful.

I’m here in Morzine in the French Alps just after Christmas, the perfect way to prolong the festive feeling, gastronomic treats and all. Twinkling lights still hang in the streets and, by day, the sky is bright blue, the air bracing. My accommodation is the wonderful Ferme du Lac Vert in nearby Montriond, a stylish chalet that I had first encountered on a visit in 2008, at its very conception.

From the window of a minibus en route from the slopes to the chalet in which I had met Rob and Lucy Mundell, I had peered through a blizzard at a crumbling 19th-century farmhouse which, they told me, had ‘great potential’. In the intervening years – when my ski jacket sat gathering dust – Rob and Lucy were turning this shell into a stylish retreat named after the nearby emerald lake.

We had kept in touch – I was fascinated at how this story would pan out – and through emails and Facebook I watched with glee while they transformed this ancient building into an inviting, cosy chalet with bags of individual character. While Rob took care of the structure, Lucy was busy sourcing antique and vintage furniture, and bringing her distinctive vision to the place, with quirky ideas such as papier mâché cow heads, upholstering bedheads in Swiss Army blankets and commissioning a local artist to create an impressive staircase.

From the pictures, the result looked amazing, and so after five years of invitations (my two babies conspiring to keep me away from the ski slopes), I jumped on a plane and came over. And I am very glad I did. The place is cosy, quirky and adorable, as the photos promised it would be, and when you’re there, sitting in front of the roaring fire enjoying the pre-dinner cocktail of the day, it’s as if the chalet were giving you a gigantic hug. With a hot tub, massages on demand and amazing evening menus created by their talented chef Sharif ‘Chiefy’ Gergis (who reached the quarter-finals of BBC TV’s MasterChef in 2006), it’s a wonder that I can tear myself away to actually do what I’m here to do: ski.

To help me back in the swing of things, I have booked a lesson with a local instructor, Pierrot, who meets me at the ski lift and helps me to negotiate the pre-piste palaver of carrying one’s skis and poles and walking in clumpy boots into the cable car. The bulky clothes and inflexible gloves feel unfamiliar as I shuffle around and finally get comfortable.

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Then I look out of the window. As the cable car whisks us up the mountain I gaze out to the snow-covered peaks that stretch as far as the eye can see, the buzzing town below becomes a model village in the distance, and the empty slopes are peppered with skiers and snowboarders making their descent. With the sun shining, I breathe in the cool, pure air and sigh. It’s great to be back in the mountains.

Morzine is part of the Portes du Soleil ski area in Haute-Savoie and is linked by lifts to Avoriaz, a smaller ski-in, ski-out resort on the mountain top. Horse-drawn sleighs dash about at the foot of the high-rise apartments, bells jingling as they go, and we transfer briefly to a chairlift to climb ever higher and into the snowier areas. And then I’m at the top of the slope, embarking on my first ski run in five years; muscles tense, knuckles white. It’s thrilling and nerve-wracking in equal measure.

As I do a series of gentle turns, I find that the adage is indeed true; it is like riding a bike. With Pierrot there to guide me towards the next lift, we go up, ski across, down and up again. An hour later, he points to a peak in the distance. “That’s the Mur Suisse,” he says. “From there you can ski into Switzerland.” It seems miles away, but before long, I’m standing there, looking down a very steep piste into another country. Thankfully, we’re not descending it, but staying on French soil (or snow), bound for a café for a chocolat chaud. I have earned the calories on the adrenalin production alone.

The skiing, meanwhile, earns me calories that I am happy to gain back at dinner at the chalet. After a cosy cocktail around the fire, it’s time to take a seat at the long communal table. Different hats hang all around us – everything from a fireman’s to a gendarme’s kepi – and act as the perfect ice-breaker. While my fellow guests and I were strangers on arrival, all it takes is one drink, the swapping around of the headwear and we’re friends.

The chalet staff swoop in with everyone’s starters – beautifully presented on slate boards, every dietary requirement catered to – and ‘Chiefy’ stands at the foot of the table presenting the first course: flame-grilled scallops, crispy pancetta and black sesame seeds and peas. The scallops melt in the mouth.

An equally delicious main follows: maple-glazed duck breast, crispy leg and a sweetcorn cream, with winter vegetables. Each course is the perfect quantity, so there is room for dessert (which there often isn’t after raclette/tartiflette/fondue): a Valrhona chocolate mousse that disappears almost as quickly as it arrives. The wine flows as easily as the conversation, and soon aching muscles drive everyone towards bed.

Next day, after I have had a change of pace with a morning’s snowshoeing (see panel above), lunch is booked for the hottest table in town – La Chamade. This family-run business has evolved from a simple crêperie to an elegant restaurant. In 2013, Thierry Thorens, son of the original owners, took the brave step of changing focus completely, and now it is a gastronomic hotspot, offering cheese and wine tastings, chef’s table sessions and relaxed but high-class dining.

What makes it even more special is that, as well as being a chef and cookbook author, Thierry is an artist. He fashions sculptures from metal, mostly industrial parts. Cogs, nuts and bolts become candlesticks and on the first floor of the restaurant, his artwork has taken over a wall – copper calligraphy is bolted on to other industrial parts. Elsewhere, a huge canvas portrait of a woman is adorned by a necklace created from dozens of real, leather-strapped cowbells. Thierry is keen to showcase other artists too, so he organises exhibitions in the basement throughout the year.

After an aperitif – a delicious adaptation of kir royal using sparkling wine and chestnut liqueur – I opt for the salmon with reblochon potatoes and a liquorice cream. It sounds a little odd, but is absolutely delicious and beautifully presented. The staff tell me about their renowned Bar à Fromage, a cheese-tasting hour that works perfectly for après-ski at 5pm. I’m torn – Chiefy’s cuisine or the cheese. It’s a tough one, but the chalet’s open fire is too hard to resist. After an afternoon looking around the town, I return to the chalet for afternoon tea and cake, and later a glass of vin chaud in the bubbling hot tub. It’s a hard job, this.

By day three, I’m itching to get back on the slopes. There are calories to burn and gastronomic treats to earn. Nicolas Evéquoz is the chalet’s own ski guide, but a back injury has put him out of action for a few days, so Lucy is my ski pal. I feel slightly less tense than on the first day as we zip around the pistes, taking on the moderate and intermediate blue and red runs.

The joy of skiing with a guide or someone who knows a resort well is that the piste map can stay safely in one’s pocket – no battling a flapping piece of paper in a blizzard. The other perk is that those in the know can take you to the best watering holes. Lucy is keen to show me Chez BaBeth, a tiny restaurant behind the Pierre-Longue chairlift between Châtel and Avoriaz. We squeeze through the narrow door, and it is like Santa’s grotto, packed with fairy lights, Christmas decorations, faux-fur blankets and tartan curtains. Gingham tablecloths adorn the tables, which each occupy a cosy nook. Lucy orders chocolats chauds and tells me more about what has happened since they finished the chalet: the renovation of the mazot (the small adjoining house), a pop-up restaurant in the summer. “There are just so many outdoor activities in the summer: mountain biking, walking and the via ferrata (climbing routes),” she says. “The scenery is amazing and the lake is just stunning – so green. You should come back, you really should.” Well OK then, you’ve twisted my arm.

Our final stop is for a late lunch at Le Vaffieu in Le Pléney, towards Les Gets, where we are meeting everyone from the chalet. Some have skied there, while injured Nicolas has brought the non-skiers on a snowmobile. We all bundle into the cosy upstairs room, which is decorated with charming wooden ornaments and knick-knacks.

The waitress brings a tray of sparkling wine and chestnut liqueur for everyone. Menus are bandied about, while ski jackets come off in a flurry of hats, gloves and scarves. The speciality is a huge pot au feu, a casserole full of steaming meat and veg, served with a bowl and ladle. We all tuck into our various meals, sharing stories of ski adventures, near and far. Amid a cheer, the guests raise a toast to our hosts Lucy and Nicolas, and before long we are ordering the Irish coffees and digestifs.

When we finally come back downstairs, the restaurant is empty and the sun is sinking behind the mountains. The ski lifts are grinding to a halt and we have to make it down before the light goes. It is the toughest test of my ski legs, as areas have started to freeze in the falling temperature. But despite the challenge of icy snow and bare patches, the skiing is a joy and on reaching the base of the mountain I’m proud of myself. Just two falls and ski confidence regained. Will it be another five years before I book my next ski trip? Five minutes, more like.

FRANCOFILE

Hit the Alpine slopes in the resort of Morzine

GETTING THERE

By air: Morzine is a 75-minute transfer from Geneva Airport, which is served by a number of airlines. There are many transfer services to the resort; we used Skiidy Gonzales (tel: (Fr) 4 50 37 36 85, www.skiidygonzales.com) whose reps can be recognised by their sombreros. Transfers cost from €40pp.

By road/ferry: Morzine is about an 8hr drive from Calais.

By rail: The nearest station is Cluses on the TER line from Annemasse to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.

WHERE TO STAY

La Ferme du Lac Vert

169 Vieille Route

Montriond, 74110 Morzine

UK office tel: 01483 890 044

Chalet tel: (Fr) 4 50 79 49 33

www.skizeen.com

The chalet has 11 en-suite rooms and a family apartment. Stays cost from £895pp for a week and £580 for a short break, including cooked breakfast, afternoon tea and three-course evening meals, and minibus transfers to the ski lifts. Massages can be arranged or booked in advance with Nicole Coryton and cost from €30 (tel: (Fr) 6 04 49 42 32, www.mobilemountainmassage.com).

WHERE TO EAT

La Chamade

90 Route de la Plagne

La Crusaz, 74110 Morzine

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 79 13 91

www.lachamade.comThierry Thorens’s restaurant, cheese and wine bar. Main dishes from €22.

La Chaudanne

590 Route de la Plagne

74100 Morzine

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 79 12 68

www.lachaudanne-morzine.comPopular traditional Savoyard restaurant, menus from €18.50.

Le Vaffieu

Le Pléney

74260 Les Gets

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 79 09 43

Mountain restaurant between Morzine and Les Gets.

TOURIST INFORMATION: Morzine tourist office, tel: (Fr) 4 50 74 72 72, www.morzine-avoriaz.com; An adult ski pass for the Portes du Soleil area in the 2015/16 winter season costs €49.50 for one day and €247.50 for six days. For the Morzine-Les Gets area only, the pass costs €38 for one day and €191 for six days.