A snowflake in Morzine: My ski trip in an Alpine town of gingerbread gorgeousness
'Skiing isn't the only game in town and I jump at the invitation to spend an afternoon snowshoe walking...'
Snow falls softly on my shoulders as I duck deeper into the warm, bubbling water. My hot tub is surrounded by majestic mountains and I'm alone in the chilly night, apart from a handsome, bearded man standing metres away wielding an axe. He's chopping wood for the fire that will warm the families gathered inside feeding their children pasta.
This intense scene is taking place in Morzine, an Alpine town of gingerbread gorgeousness in the French departement of Haute Savoie. Its location, between Lac Leman to the north and Mont Blanc to the south, ensures superb snowfall. We're right in the heart of Les Portes du Soleil ski region, one of the biggest in the world, with 600kms of trails varying from atmospheric fir-lined runs and wide, undulating slopes to dramatic descents and tough mogul fields. Morzine is also home to the infamous Swiss Wall; this blackest of black runs is so steep it is in fact concave.
My daughter Natasha and I have flown from our respective homes in London and Dublin to Geneva, from where we take a 90-minute transfer to our base for the week, Au Coin du Feu, flagship property of the Chilly Powder group. This delightful chalet brims with charm, style and personality, a testament to the formidable English couple whose brainchild it was.
Francesca and Paul Eyres met in Morzine in 1992. Francesca was a Cordon Bleu chef (trained in Dublin by Alix Gardner, she worked in various stately homes here - Castletown House and Luttrelstown Castle among others) when she went to France for a working holiday and met quantity surveyor Paul. They fell in love and a few years later, their business Chilly Powder (she thought up the name sitting in London traffic) was born, with Francesca looking after the creative and culinary side of the business and Paul in charge of construction and finance.
Today their portfolio comprises several chalets and apartments offering catering and self-catering options. Au Coin du Feu is a hotel but doesn't feel remotely like one. It is more like the family home it once was and this is the ambience Francesca wanted to create. Her late mother's memorabilia was used to furnish the 16 bedrooms, each of which has its own theme; our Oriental chamber features a silk jacket, fans, chopsticks and delicate prints. The library mezzanine is a cosy area with comfy leather sofas, framed family photos and bookshelves bulging with well-thumbed thrillers, cookery books and travel guides. Lola, their golden retriever, wanders in and out.
Everything here is thought through in detail. For example, our equipment has been organised for us through Doorstep Ski, a local company and we've just unpacked when we get a call to go down to the garage where two English lads fit our skis, poles, boots and helmets (we've emailed our sizes in advance) which means we're good to go the next morning. The chalet is located a five-minute walk from the gondolas which whizz up to nearby Avoriaz, but you can also ski right to the door.
I'm a complete snowflake when it comes to skiing - nervy and needy - and it's only when I see a man with a prosthetic leg carving his way down a demanding run, that I tell myself to get a grip. I sign up for a private lesson and an hour works wonders, so much so that Natasha is amazed by the increase in both my speed and my confidence. My instructor, the endlessly patient Pierre has been teaching for 30 years and such is his skill that I feel equipped to spend four hours the next day skiing on my own. The one-on-one hour-long class costs €45 and is worth every cent.
Chilly Powder staff are also first rate. Nothing is a problem and they combine ultra-efficiency with a relaxed, friendly manner. When they ask you, as they frequently do, how was your skiing (a question they must pose a thousand times over the course of a season), you feel they are genuinely interested in the answer. Natasha strains her neck - too much looking over her shoulder to see if Mama has come a cropper - and they are solicitous and helpful, providing ice packs and advice.
Post Christmas and pre half-term, the resort is pleasantly quiet, apart from a couple of apres-ski forays when we bump into bunches of happy Trinity students. During our mid-January week, our fellow guests - British, Australian, Brazilian and Canadian - are a mix of retirees and young families. The latter are catered for superbly here. The creche is on site - so there's no dressing up your toddler in all their outdoor gear, dismantling the buggy and tramping into the frosty air - and operates from 8.45am to 4.45pm. The little ones also get taken out for treats to the local creperie and down town for spins on the carousel. A children's tea is served at 5pm. Food is always a highpoint on hols. But it takes on special significance if you've spent all day cutting up the slopes and inhaling that heady mountain air.
Chilly Powder has it down to a fine art. Guests gather around 7.30pm for cocktails and canapes - tiny quiches, duck blinis, goat's cheese bruschetta - and a gong sounds precisely at eight bells. Dining is communal and convivial around two large tables and the food is hearty and tasty: standouts from the week include fragrant carrot and coriander soup, excellent lamb cutlets with creamy mash, lemon posset with almond shortbread, and every dinner concludes with a cheese board.
They're big into sustainability here so meat-free Monday doesn't come as a surprise - excellent truffle and mushroom risotto precedes sticky toffee pudding.
Another evening, after a wine-tasting in the bar with their local supplier (the vino is organic and sulfite-free) we are treated to curry night. The aforementioned hot tub (the chalet also has a sauna) is a lifesaver: every afternoon Natasha and I peel off our sweaty salopettes, throw on swimsuits and head outside to join the prosecco-sipping snow boarders in the bubbles.
I also book a sports massage which takes place in an outdoor yurt and it is one of the best experiences I've had in a long time. The yurt is a warm and beautifully scented space, curated with all the flair and care evident throughout Au Coin du Feu.
Ada knows her stuff and with supple hands and a blend of essential oils of geranium and ginger, works my overstretched muscles back to something resembling normality.
Skiing isn't the only game in town and I jump at the invitation to spend an afternoon snowshoe walking. Organised by Indianaventures.com (it also offers evening sledging, igloo dinners, snowscooter tours and the like) this turns out to be spectacular.
Six of us are driven to Geopark Chablais where we don snow shoes - plastic rackets with tiny crampons which attach to your boots. Then armed with ski poles we head uphill.
My fellow walkers are sophisticated sexagenarians and very fit they are too. They effortlessly follow our guide Yann, (a font of lore on local flora and fauna) climbing through silent forests and over frozen streams, eventually reaching the Lac des Mines D'or. As if on cue, it starts to snow and the already exquisite scenery takes on a magical cast.
We continue walking for a couple of hours, with a short stop for a tot of mint tea with honey and a shot of absinthe (so gorgeously Gallic) returning full circle back to our van. Even though I'm soaked to the skin after my snowshoe shuffle, I'm utterly exhilarated and despite the trek, curiously energised.
Later, during a final feast (duck a l'orange and Eton mess) with my compadres, it snows ceaselessly. The next morning, I wake up to a fairyland, the mountains and trees and roads covered in a blanket of white crystals.
Having long regarded L'Hexagone my spiritual home, this snowflake turns into a snow angel in an ivory heaven.
Chilly Powder operates all year round, so it’s the perfect choice, whether you’re looking to hit the ski slopes or hop on your mountain bike.
There are extensive winter holiday packages on offer for individuals, groups and families with winter prices starting from £795 per week based on two adults sharing a standard bedroom or £2,195 per week for two adults and two children sharing a standard family room. Prices based on a half board basis with wine included in evening meals.
Childcare facilities also available with prices starting at £270 per week and ski school for £240 per week. The chalet also runs a summer programme and is available for weddings and events. Contact Chilly Powder on firstname.lastname@example.org, (020) 7289 6958 or visit www.chillypowder.com.
NB: This feature originally ran in The Sunday Independent.