Up, up and away in the French ski resort Valmorel
As I huddle on skis on the edge of a snowy hill overlooking Valmorel, Franck is behind me untangling a rainbow of ropes. “These,” he says, “are our best friends.” I’m already looking at Franck as my new best friend: he has my life in his hands – along with the ropes and the giant parasail they’re attached to. We even skip the formal French “vous” and go straight to the chummy “tu”.
Franck’s technique for dealing with nervous novice paragliders (or parapentistes, as they’re called in France) is to pretend that there’s nothing remotely insane about taking off from a mountain on skis and attached to a parasail. He accompanies children as young as 8, so there’s nothing for me to be worried about. Presumably, these are the same 8-year-olds I’d seen earlier, speedily skiing past me in that fearless way children do.
Franck straps me into the tandem harness and thrusts a GoPro on a stick into my hand so I can film what I hope won’t be my last moments on Earth, before we gently but inexorably slide off the crest of the hill. Within seconds, we’re airborne and soaring over woods and the village. It’s serenely unreal, this feeling of floating over the forests, bird-like, but without any effort. I have Franck to thank for that, as he works the parasail’s strings like a master puppeteer.
“Do you like carousels?” he asks.
“What do you mean?” I reply.
“Like this.” Franck suddenly swoops us downwards like a merry-go-round horse gone berserk.
“No. I don’t like carousels.”
He laughs as we go back to imitating birds on a lazy afternoon jaunt in this quiet corner of France’s Tarentaise Valley. The wind echoes in my ears as we sail over Valmorel’s sloped Savoyard rooftops.
The village was created in 1976, but its architecture bears no resemblance to some of the modernist horrors that evolved in France in the 1960s. The planners took note of their predecessors’ mistakes and went back to Savoyard basics: lots of wood and slate, a pedestrianised high street and no buildings higher than four storeys. One of them is the new luxury residence where I’m staying, La Grange aux Fées, which I can see as we prepare to land on the slope about 100 metres in front of it.
Taking off is a breeze, but I come down with a bit of a bump. Franck lands a split second before I do, but I make the mistake of digging my skis in too quickly, bringing us to an abrupt halt. That means trudging 100 metres down a slope that has very little snow cover and quite a lot of mud and rocks. Still, I’d flown like a bird, and nothing much mattered after that.
I’d spent the morning checking out some of Valmorel’s 165 kilometres of pistes that make up the Grand Domaine, which includes St-François-Longchamps and the green beginners’ slopes in the hamlet of Doucy. Just outside my residence is the Lanchettes chairlift, a rickety relic from 1976, but it still competently does the business of taking skiers up to 1,828 metres, where Franck’s Here We Go Parapente is based. The wide blue runs are perfect for my first day on the slopes, even if the lack of fresh snow makes the going a bit icy. Valmorel’s cold climate and north-facing slopes mean that whatever snow comes down has a tendency to stick around, helped by the many snow cannons that keep going through the frosty nights.
My guide, Sébastien, intended to take me over to St-François-Longchamps, where I’d been looking forward to skiing along the Col de la Madeleine – one of the Tour de France’s most arduous climbs – but piste conditions aren’t on my side. That means more time for a leisurely lunch on the sunny mountain terrace at Les Voiles du Nant (www.skiroc.com/voiles-du-nant), where I enjoy delicious parmentier de lapin aux cèpes – a rabbit and mushroom version of shepherd’s pie. It’s the sister restaurant to Ski Roc (www.skiroc.com) in the village where, the night before, I try gorgeous tartiflette ravioli. This is certainly the place to feed my Alpine cheese addiction.
Valmorel, as I discover, is also a place with a very special atmosphere. Its heart is the pedestrianised high street, Le Bourg, where there’s a surprisingly large number of restaurants, cafes and shops for such a small village. Come 4pm, the street begins to fill with people – mainly families – stopping for hot chocolate at neighbouring cafes such as Le Petit Prince (www.restaurant-lepetitprince.com), Le Petit Savoyard and La Source. La Flambée crêperie was doing brisk business in crêpes and savoury galettes, and the furry seats outside La Perce Neige pizzeria were all taken. Farther along, past the Hotel du Bourg – the only hotel in the village – the jungle theme inside Jimbo Lolo (www.jimbololo.fr) attracts people to its wooden swings round the bar and its appealing jumble of Tex-Mex and tapas.
So much of the resort is focused on families – with plenty of activities for children – yet its ambience is lively enough to keep the grown-ups and even bored teenagers happy. The only problem is the same lack of fresh snow that has afflicted so many parts of the Alps this season. This means that some of the activities that usually kick off once the pistes close can’t safely take place – airboarding, for example, and the linked toboggans known as snake-glisse – because the slopes are too icy.
The lack of deep snow doesn’t get in the way of the following afternoon’s activity, when I discover that snowshoeing doesn’t actually require a huge amount of snow. My guide, Sylvain, takes me out to L’Aigle Blanc on the outskirts of the village, where we climb the hill to get sweeping views of the valley and its hamlets. The snowshoes’ spikes make easy work of the icy and rocky bits, and their crunching sound is the only one heard on the empty mountainside. About halfway through the 90-minute walk, Sylvain brings out a flask with his own brew of sweet thyme tea – a sublime flavour that I’ll never forget. In the distance, clouds hover, hinting at fresh snow.
After the snowshoe trek, I feel that I can justify having a raclette at La Flambée that evening – blithely ignoring the fact that my lunch had been an equally cheesy one at Altipiano mountain restaurant after a morning skiing around the foot of Col du Mottet. There, they hollow out a large rustic bread roll and fill it with melted reblochon cheese. A reblochonnade it’s called, and it’s simply fabulous.
The snow clouds eventually deliver what they have promised, along with zero visibility, so it’s time to check out the spa facilities at La Grange aux Fées, which include a large swimming pool, two hot tubs, two saunas and one of the most agreeable hammams I’ve ever used. The smartly furnished apartments have the warm wooden walls, dark leather furniture and deep-red fabrics that you want to snuggle in if you’re in the Alps. The kitchen is – unlike many self-catering apartments – equipped to do some proper cooking. My big balcony overlooks the village, where through the veil of snow, I can see the rooftops turning thickly white.
It’s back to blue skies the following morning, when I finally make it across to St-François-Longchamps. Back up little rickety Lanchettes, zigzagging up and down pistes and chairlifts until I can ski across to Col de la Madeleine. For this Tour de France fan, it’s a thrill to ski the wide treeless pistes to the 2,000-metre Col de la Madeleine, stopping for a rich hot chocolate at La Banquise (www.labanquise2000.fr). I find it amusing that this notoriously tough climb on the Tour de France is a gentle green run during the ski season.
As I have a flight to catch in Geneva two hours away, I can’t linger too long in St-François-Longchamps. My last treat is lunch at the friendly Le Grand-Pic in the picturesque hamlet of Celliers, reached by a shiny new cable car not far from my old Lanchettes chairlift. I sit in blinding sunshine on the terrace, savouring my final fix of Alpine cheese (tomme and Abondance this time) and feeling my skin glow.
The day after I depart, most of the Alps are covered in heavy snow. If I’d stayed in Valmorel one more day, I could have gone airboarding, done a night-time snowshoe trek followed by a fondue in the forest and landed in soft snow with my new best friend Franck. I’ll have to save that for next time.
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Published: February 19, 2015 04:00 AM