Peaks of perfection
Head to the beautiful Alps for a ski break and enjoy the crisp mountain air and stunning views. Eve Middleton takes to the pistes
For those who love the great outdoors, there’s nothing more invigorating than a short break away in the mountains. The winter months in particular offer the perfect conditions for an uplifting mini ski break in the crisp, cold mountain air.
If you’re looking to spend a few days away on the slopes, the Alpine destination of the Portes du Soleil is easily accessible and offers a wide choice of skiing, as it encompasses 12 resorts. Eight are in France (Abondance, Avoriaz, Châtel, La Chapelle d’Abondance, Les Gets, Montriond, Morzine-Avoriaz and Saint-Jean-d’Aulps) and four are just across the border in Switzerland (Champéry, Morgins, Torgon and Val-d’Illiez-Les Crosets¬Champoussin).Three resorts in particular – Les Gets, Morzine-Avoriaz and Châtel – lend themselves to a short break away from it all in the amazing Alps.
Wander through the snow-covered streets of Les Gets and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in a winter wonderland. Here the traditional wooden buildings, carved balconies and warm mountain ambience all point to Les Gets’ roots as a historic Alpine village established long before the advent of snow sports. The three main roads running on a parallel one-way system take in various welcoming accommodation options ranging from self-catering apartments to your own chalet. Cosy restaurants and artisanal food and craft shops are frequented as much by locals as they are by visitors.
The appeal of skiing on fresh powder-white snow is hard to ignore in Les Gets. Yet happily, with more than 120 kilometres of runs, the wide open slopes show no sign of overcrowding. My visit to the Portes du Soleil took place in January, shortly after the post-festive season rush, and the village was still thriving as I began with a trip up Mont Chéry on the cable car direct from the centre of Les Gets. Day visitors can also take advantage of the underground car park at the foot of the cable car.
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Passing the snowpark where freestyle aficionados were doing their thing, I paused at the summit to take in a spectacular view of Mont Blanc. Skiing here is a real pleasure; as a self-confessed leisure skier, I enjoyed the variety of pistes as I made my way down the mountainside. Children are well catered for, with the native-Indian-style Grand Cry and penguin-themed areas, as well as a purple slope where the Milka cow appears with free chocolate for all.
Away from the slopes, adults can visit the Chalet du Chocolat or Fruitière des Perrières fromagerie and restaurant. If time permits, combine skiing with some down time to take in Les Gets’ famous Musée de la Musique Méchanique which has more than 500 exhibits. The museum is run by the eponymous association that hosts the biennial Festival International de la Musique Méchanique, which next takes place in July 2014. Alternatively, pause on the slopes at one of the free French rock music concerts held as part of the Rock the Pistes festival staged across the entire Portes du Soleil area every year.
There are no high-rise buildings in Morzine-Avoriaz – more commonly referred to simply as Morzine – and with good reason. Much like Les Gets, Morzine retains a sense of authenticity thanks to dreamy wooden architecture, light-strewn evergreens and winding village streets.
Sitting alongside Les Gets, Morzine can be accessed easily either via the slopes directly from its neighbour, or by road. Thanks to its central location in the Portes du Soleil, many visitors are families in search of beginner to intermediate slopes alongside non-ski activities.
My day on the slopes in Morzine took place in glorious sunshine. Keen to rise to the highest point, I took the bus to Avoriaz and ascended to the top of the Col du Fornet. Although Avoriaz is purpose-built, the ban on cars in the centre means the only way of getting around is by horse-drawn sledge. From the chairlift above the heights of the modern apartment blocks I heard the jingle of bells and spotted several equine taxis. I spent the day wending my way across perfect pistes, enjoying the gentle exercise in the sun.
If a day’s skiing is not enough physical exertion, thrill-seekers will love the option of night-time sledging on the slopes.
An hour or so after the lifts shut and the pistes are cleared, participants assemble at the top of the mountain to take their seat in a plastic sledge equipped with two metal brakes for steering and stopping. After ensuring that everyone has their head torches strapped on, the two organisers take their place at the front and back of the party respectively, before launching the group down the mountainside.
Should you prefer a gentler activity, Morzine’s new indoor aqua centre has
a 25-metre pool alongside learner and paddling pools, as well as a well-being space with three saunas and two hammams. With muscles relaxed, you
can tackle the variety of après-ski activities with gusto.
As ever in the Alps, eating and drinking feature highly on the menu in Morzine. At the foot of the slopes, restaurant-bar Le Tremplin is a fantastic spot. Following a well-deserved aperitif, try the local speciality croûte aux fromage. Unchanged through the years, it’s a delicious reminder of Morzine’s traditional past.
The village of Châtel on the Franco-Swiss border is only 20 kilometres away from Les Gets and Morzine but takes about 50 minutes by car. It shares the charm and authenticity of its companions but, being smaller, has a more relaxed pace. For skiers that means 83 kilometres of undulating north-facing runs, with opportunities for off-piste beginners to try creating their first tracks in the ‘Happy Valley’ area.
Skiing novices will appreciate the Super-Châtel area above the village – although not directly connected with the rest of the Portes du Soleil area, it can be reached by a gondola from the centre of the village.
I also explored runs in and around the forest areas, and enjoyed a long, winding blue slope through the trees in the adjacent Linga ski area of Châtel. Further afield, the Pré-de-la-Joux area is where the main off-piste action takes place. Here
I enjoyed half an hour finding my feet (or rather, spending time falling over a great deal) with a thrilling wend through fresh powder right up to my knees.
A lunchtime feast of berthoud, yet another deliciously fortifying cheese dish with potatoes, charcuterie and salad leaves, led to the revelatory discovery of Abondance cheese, made only in the valley where Châtel lies. The Abondance cows (or ‘vaches à lunettes’ as they are known due to the markings around their eyes) are looked after with a quasi-religious fervour by farmers. The cows spend the summer on the flower-strewn slopes of the valley, where they gorge on the lush pastures, before being brought down for the winter and safely installed in haybeds.
Thanks to a minimum three-month maturation process, Abondance cheese is said to have a fruitier flavour when eaten in winter, due in large part to the milk drawn in the summer from cows grazing on the mountainside. The status of Abondance cows is celebrated at La Belle Dimanche, held in the high pastures on the third Sunday in August. Attractions include cheese making, Alpine crafts and a ‘beauty contest’ for cows.
Châtel had originally tried to promote itself as a thermal spa resort, but its move into winter sports doesn’t rule out spa treatments. If you need pampering after a long day on the slopes, Hôtel Macchi’s ayurvedic massage, based on Hindu medicine, is a soothing way to end a stay.
By air: Geneva airport is the closest international hub to the Portes du Soleil. Transfer by road takes about 1hr 15mins.
Adult winter lift fees start from €34.50 for a five-hour pass.
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel La Marmotte, Les Gets
Hôtel L’Équipe, Morzine
Hôtel Le Tremplin, Morzine
WHERE TO EAT
La Fruitière des Perrières, Les Gets
La Grange, Morzine
Le Fiacre, Châtel