27 September 2017

Hotels – the good, the bad and the hopeless

At heart, hoteliers really want their guests to have a pleasurable experience and a good night's sleep. (Those that don't should stop pretending to be Basil Fawlty and get another job – preferably one far removed from hospitality.) More often than not, however, they slip up on the simplest things, leaving their guests spitting with fury.

I know I've ranted about hotels before, but some things need repeating – namely that it's immediately obvious when hoteliers have never spent a night in their own hotel. They've never turned up – with luggage and a companion – and discovered all the niggly things that set your teeth on edge. They've never noticed that there's only one plug socket. They've never figured out that the huge expanse of bare wall in the room's entrance would be a really handy place to hang up your coat.

But no. Some designer or architect has convinced them that style comes before function. So you dump your coat on the bed, or hang it on the only chair in the room – despite the fact that it's a double room. Hoteliers: buy some hooks. There are some very stylish ones on the market. They don't cost a bomb.

You then check out the desk, and realise that you have to move the bloody thing to get to the room's second socket. I stayed in a hotel recently that had undergone a complete refurbishment, with all new furniture – furniture that was an inch higher than the existing sockets. This room cost £250 a night.

I've noticed a new trend in which shiny new bedside lamps come with a USB port. This is a good thing. More of this, please.

I've also noticed minibars with an insidious notice warning you that if you move anything in the bar, you will be charged for it. Even if you don't drink it. You pick it up, you pay for it. Apart from the fact that it's complete tosh, you're left with a feeling of animosity. This is a bad thing.

Hotels like to show their appreciation of their guests by leaving little treats, such as bottles of mineral water. This is a lovely touch, especially when there's a tag around the bottle saying "with our compliments". This is also a good thing. Otherwise, it's not obvious that it's free. I once witnessed a stand-up row at reception when a guest was charged for the bottle of water he thought was free. It wasn't. Bad feeling all round.

Espresso machines are a nice touch too. What's not so nice are the hotels that offer you only one free capsule before they start charging you. Stop being so stingy.

Bathrooms are another story. There's a bathroom designer somewhere rubbing his (or her, but probably his) hands with glee because everyone seems to be buying his long, flat basin with the too-short taps. Looks very sleek, but totally impractical. Water gets everywhere except where it's supposed to be. And showers without shelves are a nuisance.

And if hoteliers actually slept in their own hotel rooms, they would notice that the curtains don't meet in the middle. Or that the minimalist white blind doesn't come close to blocking out the light.

Don't even get me started on wall panels with absurdly complicated light switches. Especially when they're in bright LED lights that are right in your line of sight. In addition to clothes pegs to keep curtains closed, I now have to travel with BluTack and a piece of cardboard.

These things usually happen in four- and five-star hotels. I've stayed in the simplest little two- and three-stars that have managed to get these things right, even if the materials are on the cheap side. But as design hotels seem to be following the same uniform pattern, the same mistakes are being made.

And as far as hotel websites are concerned, those that refuse to give you any indication of rates but ask you to fill out an email form ... well, those can sod off. And there's never, ever, an excuse to put music on hotel websites. Ever.

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.