It’s bizarre to find myself writing about skiing again. As I may have mentioned, the very thought of it makes me nervous. A quick trip to Corvara in Italy at Christmas to keep my sons happy was one thing. But heading off for five days on my own? It certainly wouldn’t be my first – or even second – holiday of choice.
But when my good friend, André, invited me on a “lads’ weekend” in Courchevel, how could I refuse? He owns a gorgeous chalet with six bedrooms, a steam room, a Jacuzzi, two loud and lively chalet girls and amazing views.
At Gatwick Airport, I met three more “lads” whom André had invited… they were already tucking into their first bottle of pink champagne with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, and it wasn’t even 9.30am. Some £90 lighter, and feeling suitably debauched, we set off on the easyJet flight to Geneva.
Courchevel is a two-hour drive from the airport and the route is a very pretty one, taking you around the huge lake at Annecy, the “Venice of the Alps”. Finally you climb up into this extraordinary other world. My first thoughts were how enormous it all was. And how white.
The weather was gorgeous when we pulled in. Courchevel is part of Les Trois Vallées, with access to around 375 miles of ski slopes, and it has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other resort. There’s a new, very impressive swimming pool complex called Aquamotion, built at a reported cost of £50 million. What’s not to like?
My troubles began the morning after my arrival when I woke up to find that someone had come in during the night and closed the curtains. Then I remembered there were no curtains. A closer examination revealed clouds so thick that the entire outside world, including Aquamotion, the mountains and even my own balcony, had been obliterated. It was also snowing – nasty, wet snow that made everything cold and dangerous. Even when the sun is shining I am a cautious skier – and, seeing this white hell, I would have happily stayed in bed. But it seemed a little early to be disrupting the group dynamic, so hiding my terror behind a wobbly smile, I hit the slopes – quite literally. I fell over after about three seconds.
I think it takes a very special person to ski in total white-out with snow streaming in your face. Personally, I don’t much like the sensation, or the sickening lurch in your stomach as you plunge down a steep bit you hadn’t seen, or the moment when your skis decide to go in a different direction to your legs and all your bones collapse in on each other like a lost game of Pick-a-Stix. We did five or six runs and André was brilliant, guiding us to safety and uttering not one word of criticism when I lost control and slammed into the entire group.
We had lunch. Actually, we seemed to spend as much time having lunch as we did skiing. Unlike other resorts, Courchevel doesn’t go in for those barn-like self-service places where everyone clumps around with trays carrying hot soup in hollowed-out bread bowls. We visited excellent restaurants such as Le Casserole and Le Bel Air, never staying for less than two hours – or parting with less than €50 (£39) a head. I’d also been hit for €225 for a four-day lift pass and €150 for ski and boot hire. When Steve, an easy-going advertising director who was part of our group, suggested a Domaine Ott pink wine at €90 a bottle, what could I do but smile? Being one of the lads is not cheap.
I might as well put my cards on the table and say that Courchevel is not what you would call lovely. And despite attempts to rechristen the three “villages” that make up the resort, they are still called 1550, 1650 and 1850 – their altitude in metres. How romantic is that?
The higher up you go, the more expensive they become. At the top, the shops are ridiculous, selling fashion and furs at insane prices and artworks so ludicrously ugly that even a lunatic asylum would think twice before putting them on a wall.
We were just outside 1650, which was merely drab with its rather grim little High Street, an over-reliance on prefabricated concrete and an assortment of slightly Stalinesque blocks of flats.
If you want my advice, stay further down at Le Praz, which is much cheaper and prettier. It has a proper square, lots of good cafés and restaurants, a lift that connects with 1850 – and a name! Nobody says they are staying at 1400, which should tell you something in itself.
But if the resorts are unattractive, their surroundings certainly aren’t. As the white-out continued I went off on three unforgettable hikes, through snow-covered woodland so huge and desolate that I could imagine myself as Leonardo DiCaprio and wouldn’t have been surprised if I had been eaten by a bear.
There are dozens of routes. I climbed the toboggan path to 1850, scrambled down a precipitous hillside to Le Praz and followed the charming, fairly gentle Chemin des Ecureuils to Mirabelle. If you go off the beaten track, rent snowshoes. Also, be aware that the local mairie hasn’t been too clever with the signs and it is all too easy to get lost. Take satnav and a hip-flask of brandy.
My five days sped past all too quickly. We had a superb dinner at the L’Oeil de Boeuf at 1550, a tiny restaurant that cooks much of its food on an open fire. We downed endless cups of hot chocolate and tea: the chalet girls made wonderful cakes. We drank too much Génépi, a herbal liqueur poured from a huge bottle into tiny glasses at the end of each meal. As skiing breaks go, there wasn’t much skiing – but perhaps that was all to the good.
And that, I promise, is the last time I will write about skiing. Unless André invites me back, of course.