Meribel: Living the high life both on and off the snowy Alps
So there you are shuffling across the side of a mountain. It's snowing, visibility is zero, you're cold, you're wet, you've just nearly fallen off the side of a cliff (okay, a small verge) because you didn't see the drop, when suddenly the ski instructor stops.
"Over there," he announces in a grim voice, pointing into the near distance, "is where Michael Schumacher had his accident."
There are probably better times to hear this news if you're a less than confident skier. Like never. Even if the instructor does go on to point out that the former Formula One driver was simply the unlucky victim of a freak accident. The reassurance helps a bit, but what helps more is the snow stopping. Before long the mist lifts too and we're zooming down the mountain, jumping over little bumps and staying upright (more difficult than it sounds) and generally having a whale of a time again.
That's the great thing about skiing. It pushes every bad thought from your head and forces you to concentrate on the job in hand in order to get yourself to the bottom of the slope in one piece. It's just you and your skis and it's guaranteed to give you the best fun you're likely to have involving any strenuous physical exercise. Or maybe that's just me.
Our eclectic group had come here to Meribel in the French Alps as guests of Highlife, an award-winning Irish ski chalet company which specialises in tailor-made holidays for individuals and groups of any size. Basically, you just sit back and let Highlife take the strain. Flights and transfers are all arranged. Shuttles to the resort each day come as standard. All food and drink is laid on in the chalet from delicious breakfasts (pancakes, yum) to three course dinners. There are saunas and hot tubs. Log fires. A complimentary bar.
Plus… drum roll, please… homemade cakes, the perfect post-piste treat for a Bake Off buff like moi. Those fine wines I can manage without, but just let me at those cakes.
All this pampering is great if you want to know how much you're going to spend before you spend it, because you know how it is usually. You go on holiday, promising to be sensible with your money, but one thing leads to another. There's always something you've forgotten to budget for, or an unpleasant surprise when the bill comes at the end of dinner.
Not so with Highlife. Work out the right itinerary for your family and friends' needs, then relax. For those who just want to concentrate on skiing, with minimum distraction, it's the consummate high end solution.
This was skiing like I've never done before. We flew into Geneva and the transfer to Meribel took only a few hours, with snacks provided to keep us going. When we arrived at the chalet, Carine the chef had just prepared lunch. Did I say chef? Yes, all guests of Highlife have their very own personal chef who cooks for you in the chalet. Since we'd had an early start we were ready to hit the slopes the same afternoon, supplied with more delicious cake wrapped up ready to pack into our rucksacks if we fancied a quick bite on the mountain. And let's face it, who wouldn't?
The best thing of all is that, in this part of France, it's possible to ski well into April, when there are more hours of daylight to fill on the slopes. Having come skiing for a few years in a row, I naturally imagined that I was now approaching Olympic standard and that a gold medal for Ireland was in the bag.
It didn't take long for that notion to be despatched. I was barely on my skis and already I started falling over. Countless times.
My excuse? Well, the snow was very slushy and I'd never skied on that type of surface before. It's a testament to the thoughtful service you get at Highlife that Alan Moynihan - the CEO of the company, who was with us that day - didn't bat an eyelid. Not once did he get impatient with my incompetence. Instead he just kept telling me how great I was for getting up. Though come to think of it, what else could I do? I was hardly going to slide down the mountain on my rear end!
Next day I voluntarily demoted myself into the group below, which was more suited to my skill, or lack of skill, level, and that was when the proper fun began. Being in the right group is important, so you're not putting yourself under too much pressure to do things that you're not ready, or competent enough, to do. The instruction we received was excellent. I was only there a few days, but still picked up a few tips that I'm sure will stand me in good stead on future holidays. The facilities were second to none, as might be expected (Meribel hosted the women's alpine skiing at the 1992 Winter Olympics), and the scenic Tarantaise Valley is a living picture postcard of snowcapped peaks, forests and snaking silvery rivers.
Though to be honest, I'm not that bothered by scenery, or even what country I'm in, when skiing. All I ask for is a mountain that I can get down in one piece whilst pretending I'm in a James Bond film. Or even James Bond himself.
My one concern before arrival was how I'd cope being in a situation where we had our own chef and host. I didn't grow up in Downton Abbey. I'm not used to being waited on like the lady of the manor. What if we, you know, didn't get on with them? Would we feel the need to talk to them all the time? Was it going to be awkward at dinner time if we didn't like the food while the chef was standing in the kitchen awaiting our verdict?
In the event, there was nothing to worry about. In fact, I could seriously get used to it. The food was delicious and, because the chef's right there in house, there's a certain amount of input that you can have when it comes to tailoring menus to each guest's individual tastes. Trust me, as a vegetarian that can make all the difference away from home.
In addition Highlife are clearly experienced enough to choose people who blend in smoothly and make their presence lightly felt. The chef and chalet host were both great company and easy to get along with. More importantly, the food was fantastic, especially the chocolate pudding on our first night. Even after all these months, I'm still yearning for that pudding.
Aer Lingus fly daily from Dublin to Geneva and once a week, starting 20 December, from Cork to Geneva. Fares from €65.99 one way. You can also fly Dublin to Lyons. Fares from €69.99 one way. www.aerlingus.com
Eilis O'Hanlon stayed in Chalet Carine, Meribel as a guest of Highlife. Their ski season runs from November 30th 2014 to April 19th 2015 and holidays are available from €840 for an adult and €686 for a child under 11. Short breaks are also available from 3 to 4 nights from €529. Prices include; minibus transfers to and from the chalet, delicious food, good wine and a complimentary bar, however the price does not include flights or ski tuition.
Highlife will organise your flights from any point of departure to ensure that you enjoy flexibility as well as the lowest possible airfares. The company is a fully bonded licensed travel agent.