Tuesday 6 December 2016

Travel: It's all uphill on sun-kissed Alps

French Alps

Published 07/11/2016 | 02:30

On top of the world: You don't have to be an expert skier to enjoy the many delights of the beautiful French mountains in winter
On top of the world: You don't have to be an expert skier to enjoy the many delights of the beautiful French mountains in winter
Highlight: Chair lift to the summit

Despite being a reasonably competent cross-country skier, the last time I attempted alpine skiing went literally downhill when a crash on a beginners' slope as a teenager in Canada left my long johns gaping out of the split seat of my trousers and my confidence as much in tatters as my jeans.

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But my love of the Alps - the crisp, pine-scented mountain air, the dazzling sun-kissed snow and breathtaking vistas - won over my self doubt and fear of heights and I happily accepted an invitation by Crystal Ski Holidays to take part in a beginners' skiing holiday in March at Auris-en-Oisans in the Alpe d'Huez Grand Domaine ski resort in the French Alps.

It's the fifth biggest ski area in France and includes seven inter-linked ski resorts, five of which - Auris-en-Oisans, Alpe d'Huez, Oz en Oisans, Vaujany and Villard Reculas - are connected by a network of 84 ski lifts and six cable cars.

Set in the Central Alps in the region of Rhone-Alpes about 60km from Grenoble in the stunning Grandes Rousses Massif mountain range, the region of Oisans is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise featuring mountain pastures and valleys bubbling with tranquil rivers and streams. It regularly hosts the Tour de France in the summer.

It is also home to "the biggest vertical drop in the world" - a 16km black run at La Sarenne from the Pic Blanc glacier at an ear-popping 3,300m above sea level - which was not what I wanted to hear being a novice skier with a fear of heights.

But I was assured by my consummately professional ski instructors, Mathieu Hostache and Elie Gaillard from the Auris Ecole du Ski Francais, that I wouldn't have to get off the bunny (beginners') slope if I didn't feel up to it.

So I put my life in their capable hands and got suited and booted - this time wearing proper ski trousers - and hit the slopes.

Although I'm familiar with the basic snow plough stance - knees bent, toes pointed inward - I felt awkward wearing clamp-like alpine ski boots that severely restrict movement as opposed to the flexible, shoe-like boots used in cross-country skiing, and I feared I would lose the run of myself as I stood nervously at the top of the slope before attempting my maiden run.

And I did lose the run of myself as I hurtled down what to me was a steep incline like an out-of-control steam roller about to flatten a group of schoolchildren.

I managed to avoid hitting them or even falling over and after a few practice runs I felt I was ready to take on the next challenge - getting on and staying on the intimidating chair lift as we ascended the heavens towards the neighbouring resort at Alpe d'Huez - the epicentre of which caters to a younger crowd with a vibrant after-dark apres ski scene.

At 1,860m above sea level, it's also a mecca for the more advanced skier.

But what I wasn't prepared for was the terrible beauty lying in wait as the chair lift passed over the stunning but terrifying La Sarenne gorge where, had I dared to look down, I might have seen some native chamois - wild goat-like animals - drinking from the raging river.

The only time I came to grief was when I failed to properly hoist myself off the chair lift as we arrived at the end of the Marmottes ski lift.

My patient instructors picked me up and dusted me off before we made our way to La Fruitiere, a swanky modern brasserie, for lunch. Here we basked in the sun on a patio that overlooked the slopes.

Part of the renowned La Folie Deuce chain, La Fruitiere features apres ski parties with sumptuous local gourmet cuisine and live music from the early afternoon.

More delectable local cuisine followed that evening at the charming chalet-style Auberge de la Foret restaurant and hotel in the quaint nearby village of Auris where we dined in front of an open fire after my colleagues skied back to base.

I had taken the chairlift (of shame), albeit a little less afraid of the vertigo-inducing heights this time, possibly due to the calming effect of the excellent local rose we had with lunch.

After more futile attempts to ski the following day, and despite the best efforts of my instructors,, I resigned myself to taking in the spectacular mountain scenery by chairlift and cable car, which is a viable option for anyone wishing to explore the area.

I wasn't disappointed as we travelled to the summit of the Pic Blanc glacier where I marvelled at the incredible views from the gondola.

On a clear day, a fifth of France can be seen from here - as well as stunning views of Mont Blanc, Mont Cervin and La Meije.

My final attempt at skiing came the following day as Elie more or less towed me down the slope at Alpe d'Huez, with me holding on to one of his ski poles like a drowning man would grasp a life-preserver.

At the base of the mountain we spent a delightful hour being whisked through the sun-dappled snow on a sled hauled by a team of happy yelping huskies.

It was an incredible experience for a reasonable €35 per adult (€25 per child) that made me forget all about my lack of prowess on the slopes.

While the resort at Auris caters to skiers of all skill levels and ages, it tends to attract more families and those over the age of 30 who are there to enjoy the outdoors and not the brash party scene, as well as those who have never skied before.

Being a lousy skier like myself is no reason not to go to the Alps. There is lots to see and do for those who simply enjoy being out in the snow and the exhilarating mountain air and sunshine.

Although conditions weren't ideal for Nordic skiing during my visit at the end of the spring ski season, there are also groomed walking trails, snowshoe treks and fat-biking - a form of mountain biking on rugged terrain and snow - through the forest to keep you busy.

Getting there

Crystal Ski Holidays offers a week’s self-catering at the four-star Les Balcons d’Aurea from €572 per person (based on two sharing), including flights from Dublin and transfers (price given is for departure on March 25, 2017). www.crystalski.ie 01 433 1010

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