Sunday 24 September 2017

Portes du Soleil: Slopes, snow and rock 'n' roll in the Alps

On the piste in the French Alps.

Les Gets
Les Gets
The Cheese Bar at La Chamade
The location of Portes du Soleil

Katy Harrington

Dylan Moran once said 'Why go skiing, when you can just stay at home and smash your knees with a hammer?'

It's funny, but it also illustrates how skiing tends to polarize people - there are those who love the exhilaration, the adventure, the altitude and the snow, and the there are those who could think of nothing worse than spending a month's wages on lugging skis around while dressed in an ill-fitting neon ski suit last worn in 1987.

So, with a suitcase full of my parent's archaic ski gear and a healthy respect for my knees I head off on a four-day ski 'safari' in the French Alps.

About an hour's drive from Geneva airport is Les Portes du Soleil - described as a skiers' paradise because of its 650km of runs, 12 resorts across France and Switzerland, 197 ski lifts and 11 snow parks. The season here begins mid December and finishes on the last day of April. Our safari takes us across three resorts - Les Gets, Morzine, Avoriaz and Chatel. Les Gets is known as the most family friendly resort of the three but there are more challenging red runs, off piste skiing and snowparks to practice jumps if you've got bottle.

2014-11-09_lif_4442440_I2.JPG
The location of Portes du Soleil

A non-skiing fact, Les Gets also has its own Mechanical Music Museum, which sounds like something desperate parents drag their kids to but is genuinely a weird and wonderful experience. The museum pays homage to the ingenuity and construction of musical machines, some dating from the 17th century. Music boxes, phonographs, Barbary organs, automatic pianos, all in perfect working order are exhibited chronologically including the museum's prize possession - an Aeolian philharmonic organ. Ask them to turn it on, I guarantee even your bored kids will be impressed.

The best food in Les Gets is at Fruitière des Perrières, a typical Savoyard restaurant with local cheeses made on-site, and as you are already wearing an 80's ski suit why not eat 80's food? The fondue is a life changing experience, but the best thing on the menu is the Raclette, for psychedelic cheese dreams. Fruitière des Perrières has been an institution in Les Gets for over 100 years but today it's a young Japanese man who makes the cheeses used here, and he's happy to share his know-how on guided visits. It might be useful to get used to drinking the local aperitif Génépi here too, which when drunk during the day will 100pc make you believe you should attempt a black run.

The next day we get to really ski the Les Gets and Morzine areas, touring around the Perrieres' videopark where snowboarders congregate to do risky things and the purpose-built zones for children as well as some breathtaking panoramic views of Mount Blanc and Les Dents Blanches (the white teeth).

Weather permitting you can do some off piste skiing in Chamossière or Nyon too. A word on skiing off piste, if what happened to Michael Schumacher hasn't deterred you from trying it then you should know a few things. One - everyone wears helmets skiing now and so should you. Two - you need to be fully confident of your level before you even think about it and even then, only ski off piste with a qualified instructor because even if you were born on skis you have no idea where rocks or tree stumps lie under the snow.

The Cheese Bar at La Chamade

For those with a genuine death wish, the Swiss Wall in Avoriaz awaits. It's a mogul filled slope at a 90-degree incline but thankfully on the day we were there it was closed as a precaution because of the weather.

We skied into Avoriaz but didn't stay, it has a reputation as a party town - the type of resort where you'll always find young men skiing down the mountain wearing only their knickers. After stopping for a very long lunch in one of the bordercross restaurants we skied back to Morzine, for some lively apres ski at Le Tremplin where by late afternoon there's a large crowd and a DJ on the decks. It's a bit like Ibiza, but everyone keeps their clothes on. Drinking isn't the only option at night. There is night skiing for the non risk-averse and after-hours tobogganing once the skiers have cleared off the mountain for the evening. We opted for a more sedentary activity - a horse-drawn carriage tour of the village before dinner in La Chamade, a modern French restaurant where you can sit at the chef's table and experience a highly adventurous tasting menu. The highlight is a trip downstairs to the 'cheese bar' (you'll smell it before you see it) where you can get drunk on cheese.

For those who do like to party after the ski lifts shut, it's worth mentioning that in March every year Portes du Soleil hosts Rock the Pistes, a free, open-air music festival held in a different resort each day between France and Switzerland.

The final day of our ski safari takes us to Châtel, where after a full day's skiing we settle in the Hotel Macchi and have a treatment in the spa, which is the best idea in the world after three days in indescribably painful ski boots.

Not to end on a downer, but one of the strangest things about skiing is that although the people who love it tend to love the outdoors, the mountains and the environment, the skiing industry is bad for them all. Bulldozing trees to clear space for ski slopes, soil erosion, ruining plant life and depriving the wildlife it supports means skiers gets the same stick as golfers, who conservationists would say spoil good walks all around. Add in the environmental toll of making snow, and the energy to run ski lifts (and the practically year-round Christmas lights) and you can see why.

Thankfully, some ski resorts are now thinking and acting green. In Les Gets they have introduced energy saving and recycling initiatives to deal with some of the bigger problems. One of the instructors explained that it is incredible (and horrifying) to see what is left on the mountains when the snow starts to melt, and then proceeded to chuck her cigarette butt from the chair lift. I'm not suggesting that the next time you book a skiing holiday you pack some guilt along with your socks and goggles, but it's worth a thought. 

Getting there...

Geneva international airport is 55 km away (about 1 hour's drive) from Les Portes du Soleil. For more information visit www.france-montagnes.com

Les Gets: www.lesgets.com      

Chatel: www.chatel.com

Morzine: www.morzine-avoriaz.com      

Hotel Alpina in Les Gets www.hotelalpina.fr      

Hotel Macchi in Chatel: www.hotelmacchi.com      

Hotel Equipe in Morzine: www.hotelequipe.fr      

Rock the Pistes festival: www.rockthepistes.com

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