02 April 2017

Late-season skiing in Les Menuires

While many people are happy to see the back of winter, some of us can’t get enough of larking about in the snow – specifically on skis. There’s much to be said for late-season skiing – milder temperatures, longer days, lazy lunches on mountain restaurant terraces, generally quieter slopes and cheaper accommodation. The downsides? Well, be prepared for icy slopes first thing and slushy pistes at the bottom.

Altitude helps, of course. I was based in Les Menuires in the third valley that makes up the Trois Vallées, the largest ski domain in the world. The base village is at 1850m, but I was staying in Reberty at 2000m, which is right on the blue Boyes piste. It’s a newer, traditionally styled village that isn’t filled with the modernist architecture that makes Les Menuires one of the less aesthetically pleasing resorts in France.

But what Les Menuires lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in its ski area and ease of skiing to the other resorts in the Trois Vallées. I’d had a brief taste of it a few years ago when I stayed in its smaller neighbour, Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, and had wanted to come back and explore it properly. I’d known it had excellent skiing, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how good it was.

Over three gloriously sunny days, our ESF guide Jérôme (Saint-Martin native and all-round great chap) showed off the best of his resort. Long, wide, cruisey blue runs – including Grand Lac which started at 2,704m – snaked their way down to Saint-Martin and its extremely pretty village centre. If we wanted to, we could have swung into Méribel from several peaks. Instead we carried on back to Les Menuires and up to Reberty, where La Ferme de Reberty’s large sun-trap terrace was a convivial spot for a lunch of diots (smoked Savoyard sausages) and crozets (tiny pasta squares) smothered in melted Beaufort.

On the western side of Les Menuires is La Masse, another playground of wide blues and reds plus a few blacks that I left to more adventurous skiers. The long red Fred Covili run (named after a local champion skier) started just below the 2804m Pointe de la Masse and was an exhilarating way to get down the mountain before we had to endure the slushy lower-altitude run that led down to the village.

By the time we made it back over to the southern side of Les Menuires and up the Sunny Express, we had more than earned our lunch at Chalet du Sunny. While I was diving head first into a tartiflette, a party was getting under way on the slope side of the restaurant. Out came the silly hats, costumes and onesies as a Polish DJ and dancers did a fantastic job in re-creating the raucous atmosphere at La Folie Douce. It saved me the effort of having to trek over to Val Thorens – and back – to experience it first hand.

As it happened, Val Thorens was the destination for the final day, which was very easy to reach via the runs coming down from the 2786m Mont de la Chambre. Europe’s highest ski resort had a decidedly different atmosphere from its family-focused neighbour, appealing to a younger, rowdier crowd. It also has a giant ear-popping gondola that takes you up to Cîme Caron at a dizzying 3200m for superb views across the Maurienne Valley and over to Les Deux Alpes.

As we skied down towards the sinuous Cumin run that leads back to Les Menuires, I could see just how vast this area was – especially as we were heading all the way to Saint-Martin for lunch. Friendly family-run Le Corbeleys sorted out my cheese fixation with a bowl of gooey Beaufort ravioli.

If the lunches were superb, the evening meals were taken to another level in our catered chalet, Le Chamois, run by Powder N Shine. Professional chef Shaun Francome came up with one exquisite dish after another: succulent beef fillet, delicate goat’s cheese mousse, velvety white onion velouté and probably the best cheesecake I’d ever eaten. The high quality of the food, wine, afternoon tea and early-evening canapés matched the warm welcome from hosts Heather and Layla, faultless service, relaxing atmosphere and the cocooning pine sitting room with its big squashy sofas. Tired post-ski legs were instantly soothed in the terrace hot tub, where we basked in the sunshine and views of the slopes. For a final fix of winter, it was unbeatable.

Travel with voyages-sncf.com, which has direct trains from London St Pancras to Moûtiers. Transfers can be arranged with Skiidy Gonzales

All photos © Adam Batterbee

12 March 2017

Kind of blue

When I tell people I learnt to ski in Canada, they immediately say: "Cool! Whistler? Banff? Quebec?" Er, no. Ontario, actually, that mainly low-lying province that's livened up considerably by the Niagara Escarpment slicing through it. It's thanks to this escarpment that you can do some skiing, even if the altitudes don't go above 500m. Still, what else is there to do during the long, seemingly endless Canadian winter?

I hadn't skied in Canada for more than 30 years, having since skied in most of Europe's top resorts. But in the same season when I'd skied in Zermatt and Megève, I was off to Blue Mountain. Never heard of it? Well, it's Canada's third-busiest resort (after Whistler and Mont-Tremblant, in case you were wondering). Since I was last there more than three decades ago, it's been bought by Intrawest and expanded out of all recognition. There's now a "village", a greatly extended ski area of 42 runs and faster lifts. In spite of all the trappings, you can't ignore the fact that its top elevation is only 452m and its longest run is 1.6km. This was definitely going to be small fry, I thought, and kept my expectations as low as the altitude.

It didn't help that I chose what was possibly the busiest day of the year to visit: a bank holiday weekend in February. What looked like the entire population of Toronto had driven the two hours up north towards Collingwood and dumped itself in the resort. That meant queues. Queues for lift tickets, which were bearable. And queues for equipment rental, which were mental. You queued for a temperamental iPad to fill in your requirements, then queued for your boots, then the skis and helmet. At least 90 minutes later, I was finally able to face my first queue for the chairlift.

But the sun was out. And there was fresh snow. And there was a stall in the village selling poutine. (That was lunch sorted.) Once you reach the summit, you're greeted with the somewhat surreal sight of Georgian Bay down below. I'd skied overlooking Alpine lakes before, but none the size of this sprawling offshoot of the Great Lakes. Yes, the runs were a bit on the short side, so we meandered our way down, taking our time with lots of big loopy turns. No need to rush into another queue.

In the end, it turned out to be a hugely enjoyable day out. There's a good amount of varied terrain, as well as a snowpark and some mogul fields if you have any knees left. My main quibble was the price. For two people, day passes and equipment rental came to just over £170. A similar day out at one of Intrawest's French outposts, Flaine, would have been £50 cheaper, and you'd get slopes at 2,500m and views of Mont Blanc. If I were to go again (and I might), I'd book passes online, where it's cheaper, and I'd try one of the off-site rental shops to save both a bit of cash and my sanity.