Sunday 25 September 2016

Spring in Portes du Soleil: The St Tropez of snow and sunshine in France

Le Printemps du Ski

Isabel Conway

Published 19/02/2016 | 06:57

MORZINE, FRANCE: Skiers and snowboarders on La Combe piste in Morzine resort, part of the Portes du Soleil ski area. Photo: Deposit
MORZINE, FRANCE: Skiers and snowboarders on La Combe piste in Morzine resort, part of the Portes du Soleil ski area. Photo: Deposit
La Ferme a Jules, Morzine
La Ferme a Jules
Al Judge of Alikats does warm up stretches in his shorts...

March and April offer some of the best skiing (and ski deals) in France, says award-winning travel writer, Isabel Conway.

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Gentle slopes stretched out below, groomed to within a glittering snowflake of perfection. The brilliant sunshine, cloudless sky, magnificent panoramic views across the Alps and purity of that ozone rich air take my breath away.

Some skiers wear Bermuda shorts and bikini tops. The rest of us peel off the winter woolies down to our minimalist ski wear.

The French call it Le Printemps du Ski - the period from March into late April that those in the know claim is best to head to the slopes. The days have lengthened, and the sun’s rays warm body and soul without melting the snow.

Pistes are quieter and there’s every chance of spotting elusive wildlife, too.

The elements don't always click like this. On the same slopes in January, I was knock-kneed and blown about in a blizzard that obliterated any view beyond my nose above Morzine/Avoriaz in the heart of Portes du Soleil.

All was not lost. Resigned to a light dusting of hypothermia, and the hopes of whizzing down a crunchy perfect slope in Le Printemps du Ski  ‘tomorrow’, I made for a warm mountain restaurant.

Back then, our long suffering (“please don’t take us down anything steep and icy, we can’t see anything” ) ESF teacher Francine Rulland, a national downhill champion in her youth, had coaxed us into covering two of the five areas in this, the world’s largest integrated ski region. She'd done it in a couple of hours of blind man's buff - up over high rise Avoriaz and later back down to Montriond via forest fog free trails.

La Ferme a Jules, Morzine
La Ferme a Jules, Morzine

As a warm-up, before the blizzard took hold, we had earlier skied below Les Lindarets on fresh snow up to our knees into a cluster of Grimms Fairytale-style shops and rustic restaurants. One of the shops displayed a tantalising row of hanging sheepskin rugs in great garish colors behind a snow drift.

Toasting our hands at the open hearth inside Les Cretes, a chalet restaurant clinging to the mountainside in Super Morzine, we ordered Savoyard tartiflette and croutes au fromage - local dishes that taste ever more delicious for some reason the higher the altitude.

The conversation naturally turned to the weather. "We never know what’s coming next here in the French Alps,” Francine explained.

That's not strictly true. What locals and the ex-pats who run the chalet operations and have second homes in these parts do know, is that spring skiing is the way to go. January and February can be cold and challenging, but from March into late April plenty of snow and sunshine is the norm.

That means you can look forward to a relaxed atmosphere, spectacular sunsets and lower prices. It's also an especially good time to travel with children - because the family is not battling the elements, as Al Judge points out.

Al and his super-cool wife Kat, helped by a small army of seasonal chalet staff including Emma O’Connor from Kiltealy, Co. Wexford, run award-winning Alikats (alikats.eu) mountain holidays. The niche, catered chalet operation includes La Ferme a Jules - a luxury chalet (accommodating up to 25) - and several smaller chalets in the peaceful hamlet of Montriond, just a five-minute drive from the main Ardent Gondola that whisks skiers into the middle of Portes du Soleil.

“It’s like a summer and winter holiday in one here in spring," Alex says. "The weather is amazing - beautiful long sunny days and the snow stays put right into late April on the slopes. Avoriaz-Morzine is renowned for how they hang on to the snow using advanced technology; even the neighboring Swiss give Avoriaz-Morzine high praise for that."

The old-style Savoyard town of Morzine, a favourite winter sport location for us Irish because of its authentic charm and the wide array of good restaurants and bars plus non-ski activities (some of them free), used to be the St Tropez of Snow.

Al Judge of Alikats does warm up stretches in his shorts...
Al Judge of Alikats does warm up stretches in his shorts...

Linked with car-free Avoriaz, developed in the sixties by a visionary local Olympic skier Jean Vuarnet and Gerard Bremont CEO of Pierre & Vacances, the identity of both is quite distinct, yet the marriage works well.

What you have here is high altitude skiing over a huge terrain with some of the best springtime slopes found in the Alps.

Skiing into Spring

Morzine-Avoriaz  is among the sunniest and most snow-sure resorts come late season - staying open until April 24. Look forward to good snow, no lift queues, longer days to ski later and sun soaked terraces.

Cheaper Lift passes and accommodation are another plus.

A treat for body and mind

Health and Fitness Week at Alikats lasts from April 10 to 17.

There's a hint of boot camp about it, but with life’s luxuries such as the hipflask filled with toffee flavored Vodka for the slopes and 'recovery muffins' packed with healthy ingredients for afternoon tea.

Flavorsome menus keep an eye on those calories. Skiing, yoga, pilates, trail running, hot tub soaks (with an optional glass or two of champers) and post-ski revitalizing revival massages are nice too. See alikats.eu.

Festivals on the Slopes

Skiing action has the added spice of two of Europe’s famous Alpine festivals, Snowboxx and Rock the Pistes from March 13 to 19 in Morzine-Avoriaz.

Famous names like Sigma, hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash, award winning Stormzy and Izia on pop up stages all over the slopes.

Outdoor film screenings, snowball fights, karaoke cabins, igloo raves and more are promised. See rockthepistes.com and snowboxx.com.

Getting there

Portes du Soleil has one of the shortest transfer times from Geneva, with daily flights available from Dublin and Cork with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com).

Our transfer with Skiidygonzales (skiidygonzales.com) lived up to its name and we easily found the driver wearing a huge sombrero in the crowded arrivals hall.

A weeklong, Alikats chalet stay at delightful La Ferme a Jules or their new cosy chalets De L’Ange and Riverwood Lodge in April includes transport to and from the slopes, a hearty cooked breakfast, afternoon tea, four course dinner and unlimited wine from €569pp sharing in April with child discounts.

For free delivery and collection of ski and snowboard hire to your chalet door, see ski-mobile.com. A six-day Portes du Soleil pass costs €247.50 (discounts during spring/low season) with a Morzine-Les Gets pass priced at €191.

See also alikats.eu and morzine-avoriaz.com.

NB: All prices subject to availability.

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