Who's for a spot of horseplay?
When I accepted an invitation to ski I didn't realise it would involve being dragged around a snow-covered circular racetrack by a horse called Homer. While it was happening, if I wasn't both screaming and laughing my face off, I might have paused to think of the striking similarities between my state and that of the original Homer's hero Hector in his epic poem The Iliad, who was also dragged around by a horse. Though he was dead and I was only half dead. Esoteric references, I know. Highbrow to super lowbrow all in one paragraph; I'm eclectic in my tastes, which is perfect because to say the French ski resort of Alpe d'Huez has something for everyone seems to be a bit of an understatement.
I feel an explanation is in order. You see, unlike Hector, I actually hitched myself to this horse completely voluntarily. I was in the resort of Alpe d'Huez with Crystal Ski for a week of skiing, après skiing, relaxing and apparently ski-joering. Ski-joering is all about donning a short pair of skis (called snow blades), grabbing hold of the reins and holding on.
Basically it looks like water skiing on snow except with a horse instead of a boat and is fantastic fun. My rudimentary French interprets the ski-joering brochure as promising "speed and sliding with direct contact with a horse" – it seems to say nothing about the animal strongly resisting direct contact with you. The horse spent our entire session together trying to gallop away from me and taking corners at lightning speed in attempts to unhitch me from the reins behind him. I reiterate that it is brilliant fun and even if you are not enamoured of the idea of actually taking part, it is every bit as enjoyable for the spectators.
At the end of my evening session I didn't know which parts of me ache more; my arms from holding on for dear life or my face from laughing. At this point the light was fading on my first day in the wonderland of Alpe d'Huez and I made my way back down the ski trails towards the lights of the village, a nice reward of vin chaud and a delicious meal in one of the gorgeous local restaurants.
A couple of hours from Chambery airport, the resort of Alpe d'Huez is situated at the top of one of the French mountain roads made famous by the annual visit of the Tour de France. Twenty-one fearsome bends from the bottom of the road to the top take you to an altitude of 1,860m above sea level. From here, it is possible to explore approximately 250km of pistes and an impressive 2200m of vertical descent.
This unique resort manages to combine the efficiency and variety of the large-scale resort with the charm, friendliness and community vibe of a much smaller village. The 81 ski lifts process over 100,000 skiers per hour but is designed so well that whether on piste or in the chair lift queue you never feel like you are grappling for space. The ski runs themselves are also so varied and long that far from having the perception that you are on a conveyor belt being shuttled from one lift to the next it feels like you are exploring the mountains.
The skiing in Alpe d'Huez is legendary for a number of reasons. Alpe d'Huez boasts the longest ski run in the world, Sarenne, which is 16 kilometres long, beginning on a south facing glacier at the top of the ski area and descending a staggering 1900m. Like much of the skiing in the resort, Sarenne is challenging and breathtaking in equal measure, winding down through the narrow passages and quiet gorges of a neighbouring valley before eventually winding back towards the main ski area alongside a gurgling mountain stream.
In contrast to the quietly beautiful Sarenne there is the famous and fearsome jet-black run the Tunnel. The Tunnel is the run that every skier asks you about on hearing that you've made the pilgrimage to Alpe d'Huez. The Tunnel is indeed a tunnel that passes directly through the mountain and emerges at the top of a steep (and frankly quite terrifying) precipice. The average black run has a gradient of about 25 degrees but the Tunnel pushes the heart rate way up with a 35-degree gradient. Apparently it is not uncommon to see skiers emerge from the Tunnel, behold their fate and turn back accepting the inevitable derision of friends and families – anything but face that steep drop off. I wish I could boast that I was brave enough and conquered the Tunnel but, alas, I still don't know if I would've had the moxy as the Tunnel was out of bounds during my trip due to weather conditions.
Of course there are other ways to explore the ski area apart from skiing and being dragged behind a horse. There are the dedicated sledging areas, paragliding, snowshoeing, cross country skiing and skidooing. The skidooing (or snowmobiling) circuit is located high above the resort villages and allows for stunning views of the surrounding peaks and access to more remote parts of the ski area.
Each evening as the day's skiing winds down, guided skidoo tours depart from an altitude of 2,100m and take guests on a scenic, and at times hair-raising, tour of some of the quieter parts of the mountains.
Guides instruct on operating the snowmobiles, which resemble a jet-ski on snow, but typical of the French laissez-faire attitude, there isn't too much hand-holding during these sessions. This leaves drivers free to tootle along like Driving Miss Daisy or to discover their inner hell's angel. I chose the latter tack and nearly made a life-long enemy of my passenger. After a few near misses with other skidoos and almost overturning the entire machine we retired to the bar Le Free Ride for a wind down after the adrenaline pumped evening.
If all this is sounding a bit too taxing on the nerves, there are gentler ways to enjoy the beauty of Alpe d'Huez than horsepower and diesel power. So after another day's adventures on the ski slopes it was a pleasure to go a little more old school and try out husky-power. Old style sledges each with a driver stationed on the back are pulled by trained huskies and take one on a relaxing jaunt around the lower parts of the mountain on tracks far from the hurly burly of the pistes, enjoying the view as the sun sets over the peaks.
I admit I found myself even more taken by the antics of the dogs themselves than the view. Though they are toiling to pull what must be pretty heavy cargo, the dogs are forever jumping all over one another or having play fights with the rival husky crews pulling other sleds. It beats people watching any day.
On my last night, I found myself exploring my hotel – Hotel Royal Ours Blanc – and the resort itself . The community of the resort takes real joy in their home and this spirit is evident in how it has evolved. The ski area has been utilised in every way possible to create an outdoor adventure land of non-stop variety and fun while respecting the beauty and nature in the surrounds.
Outside the streets were decorated and filled with revellers in all manner of fancy dress (or undress!) as Alp d'Huez hosts the annual Gay Ski Week Festival. Like I said there's something for everyone. I think Homer would've approved.
Crystal Ski Holidays fly every Saturday to Chambery from Dec 21 to March 22, 2014. Transfer to Alpe d'Huez is 2hrs, 15mins
Prices start from €449 per person in self catering 3 star apts (e.g: Jan 11 based on 4 sharing in apartment). 3 star H/B in the Petit Prince costs from €789
Crystal Ski plus is also available and prices include flights, transfer, accommodation, lift pass, ski or board hire or ski carriage. Prices from €605 for this all-in package. Ski plus is bookable till November 30, 2013.
www.crystalski.ie for more info.