Les Orres: How to ski - and save money - in the southern Alps
Deirdre Conroy discovers a best-kept secret budget ski resort in the Southern Alps...
Blessed are the piste-bashers, for they lull us to sleep, and their distant hum ensures well-groomed slopes are ready for the morning ski.
It's worth mentioning that the hamlet of Les Orres is quiet and not a place for bachelor parties, which is a major plus for young families or couples who want a sporty holiday combined with French cuisine, lots of snow and a good rest.
Les Orres 1800 is set on a hillside with panoramic views of the surrounding forest, even more breathtaking as you ascend to 2,650m. The resort is in its infancy compared to the well known French destinations of Chambery, Courchevel and Chamonix. At only six years old, it has all the high notes, easy lift access, good runs and, best of all, no queuing. One French fan asked me not to be too enthusiastic as it's their hidden gem.
I travelled in mid-January, on a direct two-hour flight from Dublin to Turin, departing at 6.30am. The transfer takes three hours, through some pleasing countryside. While this sounds arduous, it isn't: you arrive in time to organise your ski pass, rental and enjoy a snack. Plus, the chair lift is a stone's throw from the village centre which allows you to spend your first afternoon on the slopes.
An hour later, you're well awake and ready for a hot drink on the terrace of Le Chalet des Fontaine before skiing back to Bois Méan. Early January can be a risky time to ski as the higher resorts, particularly St Anton in Austria, can be utterly freezing and beset with white-outs. In Les Orres the sun shone, skies were blue and on our second night there was a 20cm fall of snow, providing perfect conditions for all levels.
Back in the Tyrolean-style village, timber clad apartments range from three to five-storeys, and with hardly a car in sight, the atmosphere is particularly pristine. There is an excellent Sherpa food market for stocking up on wine and cheese for your own après ski. If you're not watching the budget, Les Orres 1800 and its older sister, 1650, have some serious Provencal cuisine.
In the Winter Lounge, which serves some of the best fillet steaks outside of Ireland, you could go totally native and order mouthwatering tartiflette, raclette made with wild boar, fondue savoyarde or comforting galettes made from buckwheat and stuffed with local ham, mushrooms and Queyras cheese.
The staff could not have been friendlier and they rounded off each evening with the local digestif, génépi. We were first offered the hearty liqueur at the ski rental shop, home-made from the family farm, to help us on our virgin descent. An alternative eatery is Snow Fever which is at the base of the piste and is good for early evening meals. Both restaurants have free Wifi.
I stayed in a one-bed apartment with a pull out sofa for a family with two small children. Though it was basic, it was well heated, and included an ample balcony with stunning views of the unspoilt landscape. The complex also houses a heated outdoor pool where many plunged after the sauna or steam room.
As snow fell on our second night we ventured down to the older village of 1650, through a winding, lamp-lit forest path. Branches swooned with fresh snow surrounded us with the magic of Narnia. Though the village has the look of a 1970s fast build, not unlike Courchevel 1850, it retains much of the local character in its restaurants. Bryce, the patron of Le Grand Cabane, made us feel very at home and delighted in serving up local cuisine, complemented by rosé to fortify us for the uphill climb home.
1650 is the place to go if you need a pharmacy or the doctor. Or a cinema, ice rink and rollercoaster, aka the L'Orrian Express. You could also try snow-shoeing, led by a guide through forest trails, the silence only broken by your soft tread through the snow. If you've still got some energy after a morning session on the slopes, you could try being pulled on your skis by a horse: it's called snow-joëring and can be organised for a fun family afternoon. A final thrill-seeking expedition might be the Snow Glisse, an interconnected toboggan which swivels down the mountain at frantic speed.
Having taken my then teenage sons on their first ski-trip in 2007, I'd highly recommend this resort for first-timers and improvers. All the amenities are central and access to the higher slopes is not difficult. The runs are well marked and besides all the other activities, I'd happily ski there all day. Our instructor, Thierry, was invaluable with information and technique. On our last day we took the Pousterle chair lift to Marmottes at 2,720m and stood amid soaring peaks.
The typical cost of a weekly ski pass, skis, boots and helmet rental can be daunting, especially multiplied by a family. This is one of the most attractive assets of Les Orres: a 6-day ski pass is at least €100 less than that of Les Trois Vallées. The ski rental is also competitively priced and Crystal Ski provide a discount card for local amenities which gives 10-20% off purchases.
So if it's a reasonably priced and gentle introduction to skiing you want, with easy access to a variety of slopes and great local food, Les Orres is the place. With some spectacular views and exhilarating hours on the slopes, I came home well refreshed.
* Prices start from €519pp for 7 nights, for 4 sharing in January 2015. To book your holiday, call Crystal Ski at 01 433 1055, or visit www.crystalski.ie
* A private instructor for 1-2 people is €82 for 2 hours at the ESF Ski School. Group tuition for 5 days costs €98 for 2 hours and €88 for small children
* Ski and boot rental for adults costs €80 for 5 days and €65 for under 12’s
* A six-day ski pass costs €163.50 per adult or €132.50 each for a family of 4
* A guided snow shoe walk for 2-3 hours costs €20
* The L’Orrian Express (Le Luge) is open from 12pm-6pm and costs €4.50 per adult and €2 per child
* The Indoor Ice Rink is open from 10.30am to 7pm and costs €5 per adult and €4 per child