Travel Europe

Thursday 18 July 2019

Morzine: Alpine splendour without the snow

'It's arguably the best time of all to visit this most remarkable corner of Europe's rooftop...'

'We follow a pathway to Morzinette - a lush plateau of shepherds huts, dock leaves and cattle shuffling to the sweetly clanging rhythms of neck bells.'
'We follow a pathway to Morzinette - a lush plateau of shepherds huts, dock leaves and cattle shuffling to the sweetly clanging rhythms of neck bells.'
Chilly Powder's Morzine chalet Au Coin Du Feu
Paragliding in Portes du Soleil
Lac de Montriond

Hilary A White

It was never going to work out between me and skiing.

While I have tried the activity on a couple of occasions, and found myself picking it up rather quickly, there is one fundamental obstacle that prevents me from simply rocking up to the Alps every January and whizzing down its slaloms willy-nilly. Two of them in fact, both shaped like feet but in my case, obscenely large and elongated planks that are clearly the cruel joke of whatever law governs genetics.

But while ski boots, flippers, running shoes, and all manner of other activity-specific footwear is a constant thorn in my adventure-loving side, hiking boot companies seem to be better at catering for men of my illogical proportions, and so it is the uplands that I subsequently amble towards, one happily shod foot after another.

The good thing about the Alps and Les Portes du Soleil in particular is that being there in summertime is not merely some kind of consolation prize for yours truly - it is actually the real jewel in the crown and arguably the best time of all to visit this most remarkable corner of Europe's rooftop.

We arrive soundly in Geneva with a docile three-month-old and several fingers crossed in the hope that he will remain so as we crawl glacier-like through that city's evening traffic. Seasoned traveller that he is (well, if you include Connemara), he continues to snooze away as we shake free of the city, cross the border into France and begin our ascent on the curling tarmacked hairpins to Les Portes du Soleil.

Soon, our windscreen frame is being filled with the jutting noses and chins of the stars of the show - the mighty members of the Alps family. Here there are valleys within valleys and gigantic cliff faces can be mere preludes to cloud-carving peaks. Morzine does not concern itself with such dramatics, preferring to provide charm, comfort and facilities for local and tourist in equal measure.

Chilly Powder's Morzine chalet Au Coin Du Feu
Chilly Powder's Morzine chalet Au Coin Du Feu

On out the other side of the town we proceed, to Les Prodains, a cul de sac masquerading as a verdant canyon. There are only two ways to proceed. Either via the gondola lift that presumably takes winter visitors up on to another dizzying precipice for mountain sports and fondues and whatnot. You could also do it by foot if you were feeling hardy enough. We, however, have a very good excuse not to go any further - and that is Chilly Powder, our chalet holiday accommodation during our visit.

Formerly of these shores (where she trained as a chef before setting up her own catering company), Francesca Eyre took time out from caring for ill family members for a holiday in Morzine. There she met Paul, and after working in the chalet business, the pair decided to set up their own venture, bringing Paul's knowledge of construction and business to Francesca's expertise in cooking and hospitality.

Almost 25 years on, Chilly Powder has become one of the more renowned chalet companies in a part of the world littered with the things. As soon as our tyres are crunching over the gravel by the main entrance, it becomes apparent why. We encounter sincere greetings, as if arriving to stay with friends, before being shown around.

Unassuming though it may seem from the outside, inside the wooden exterior of Chilly Powder they have managed to squeeze an awful lot in without it feeling crammed. A large open central room sees an open fireplace and chimney divide things between the communal dining table and the bar/lounge. Climb a small wooden staircase and you are in a cosy library mezzanine with a pool table. Take another door and you are near the bedrooms, all individually themed, spacious, and en suite. (Ours was the "Wedding Room", a nest of Egyptian cotton and homely romance.) Another Escher-like route suddenly presents a games room, a cinema room, a creche and a kids' club. This, it turns out, is another part of the Chilly Powder philosophy - family holidays entail a bit of time off for everyone. "Adult time" is sacred here but so too are spaces for children to have fun with other young guests without boring grown-ups getting in the way. Rules exist. No children in the library, no adults in the movie room. Meal times are different for both tribes.

The company is able to provide in-house childcare, however. We are not quite at the stage yet of plonking his nibs into a playroom full of sticky strangers but we (gingerly) jump at the dodo-rare opportunity to leave him with a qualified nanny for a few hours while we put on the long-suffering hiking boots and take to one of the many hillside hikes accessible from the rear terrace of the chalet.

It's morning when we set off, the sun just beginning to stretch but the temperature still cool enough to keep the flies at bay. We climb through spotless, clearly signposted pathways to Morzinette, a lush plateau of shepherds huts, dock leaves and cattle shuffling along to the sweetly clanging rhythms of their neck bells.

As we chomp juicy apples in the sunshine and lean on our walking sticks, rock faces and mountainous horizons are all about us at eye level, but we are standing in a meadow rich in floral colour, sparkling gossamer and butterflies. The contrast takes on an intoxicating quality that goes beyond the basic adrenaline fix of a medium-intensity hike.

A little while later, at a small resting point on the way down, a trough of babbling spring water delivers sweet hydration to tongues that have dried out from uphill exertion and untroubled chit-chat. It's all a bit splendid, truth be told, and we've accessed this sumptuous cornucopia straight from our bedroom door.

Another chance to tear ourselves away from He Who Shall Remain Nameless comes the following evening via another booking with Chilly Powder's unflappable babysitter. The only thing remotely challenging we now have to deal with is how exactly to go on "a date".

As far as our memories serve us, this mythical activity usually involves two people spending time together while enjoying something common that they can both relate to. Doing an excellent job of this is the somewhat head-spinning view from the terrace of Chalet des Mines d'Or, a lakeside restaurant that seems to look down on the rest of France from its stratospheric perch. The sun is going down, throwing blades of light through the rocky passes as swifts swoop and wheeze about the place. The fondue is rustic and the Chardonnay buttery.

Altitude-wise, I'm probably not far off when I do a tandem paragliding flight the following afternoon from one of the hill crests above Morzine. The strings are pulled by one of the excellent and highly qualified paragliding pilots of the local L'Ecole de Parapente, meaning my only job is to savour the peerless perspective that you get of the world when you soar in the skies on nature's thermals. Portes du Soleil looks like an elaborate train set from way up here, and the forested hillsides no more than a moss-green stubble. And minutes later you land without any fuss and shake the hand of the man who sailed you through thin air. Probably best not to think about it too much or else you might get a bit overwhelmed.

Something more terrestrial is called for the following morning, and our timing couldn't be better. The weekly farmers market is on in Morzine, so we load up on local fare (bread, cheese, sausage and cherries) and make for Lac du Montriond a few minutes down the road.

The lake in question is a long turquoise thing that bisects the steep forest valley before culminating in a spectacular framed vista of blue, grey and green.

It has all been laid out very cleverly, with mountain water feeding into a bathing pool for children and adults to splash about in at a safer depth and a slightly warmer temperature than the lake itself. The families tend to set up camp here while others stroll along the lakeside path that leads down to cafes and cold bottles of beer. This and the clean reassuring cool of the lake mean the sun's mid-afternoon bite is not as threatening as it might otherwise feel.

We begin to wonder are we about to become one of these countless families that we've been hearing about since we arrived, the ones who come once and then give up on everywhere else and just lock-in the time every year to return, again and again.

It's plausible. We love the Gallic practicality and pride that manifests as excellent environmental planning and zero litter (things I bitterly wish we could boast about in Ireland).

There is also a romantic seduction to reap in the myriad folds and contours of the skyline, each a world of its own with stories and folklore to discover, your heart tells you.

That ambient soundtrack - flowing water, bickering jays, creaking rock - could just be the antidote to vibrating phones and message alerts, as one regular visitor from London swore to me that it was.

And whether it's gourmet cuisine and red wine at the Chilly Powder banquet table or torn bread and goats cheese with a trickle of alpine honey from the market, the constitution will most likely be spoiled. It is France, after all.

And unlike winter, there are infinite ways to work up that appetite during the summer, from zip-lining across an open valley to mountain-biking to golf to hundreds of miles of glorious upland trekking with the scent of pine filling your nose.

You can keep your winter fun on the cold slopes. Sign me up for summer.

Take Two: top attractions

Reach for the sky

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Paragliding in Portes du Soleil
 

Paragliding is a must-do in Portes du Soleil. Booked through our hosts, our tandem flight over Morzine was unforgettable, and, in the capable hands of the state-certified pilots of L'Ecole de Parapente, oddly relaxing.

Lakeside leisure

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Lac de Montriond
 

Located a short spin from Morzine, Lac de Montriond is an alpine beach, swimming area, picnic destination and breathtaking waterside stroll, all rolled into one. A gorgeous natural setting for quality family time.

Getting there

Aer Lingus operates a daily service from Dublin to Geneva with fares starting at €55.99 one-way including taxes and charges (aerlingus.com). Geneva to Morzine by car takes 90 minutes. 

Chilly Powder operates year-round, offering active summer holidays for individuals, groups and families looking to experience the stunning Portes du Soleil region. Summer prices start from £595 (€690) per week based on two adults sharing a standard bedroom, or £1,660 (€1930) for two adults and two children sharing a standard family bedroom. Prices based on a half-board basis with wine included in the evening meals. Self-catered chalets are also available.

* The chalet runs a winter programme and also caters for weddings and events.

* For more info and to book, either contact info@chillypowder.com or else visit chillypowder.com

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent

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