My Secret Ski Paradise: An Irish-run chalet in the French Alps
An Irish-run chalet is one of the best-kept secrets in the French Alps, says Ireland's Travel Writer of the Year.
It's a crisp morning bathed in sunshine that sparkles on top of the world.
At least, that's how it feels, watching a row of mountain peaks like a giant white Toblerone bar capped by Mont Blanc on the horizon.
Standing on the border between France and Italy, above the French ski resort of La Rosiere, I breathe in the splendid surroundings before skiing off down slopes supposedly travelled by Hannibal and his elephants in their famous crossing of the Alps. The impassable snowy January challenges they faced don't bear thinking about as we cross today's terrain. The slopes are perfectly layered, with both tree-lined blue runs and long reds enjoying snow as snappy as freshly dried sheets.
La Rosiere's slow pace is quite different from its famous neighbours Les Arcs, Val D'Isere and Tignes. Tiny by comparison, south-facing and sunnier, the resort is ideal for families and first-timers who love mountain scenery and the opportunity to country-hop to La Thuille in Italy (linked by easy slopes, though there are some long drag-lifts involved), instead of high octane skiing and après-ski night life.
I've come to La Rosiere from the medieval hamlet of Villaroger, 25 minutes away by car. There, I'm staying in a chalet that may just be the best-kept secret in this part of the French Alps... and I'm not just saying that because its staff drove me between the two resorts.
Until last season, I had always resisted the urge to try out a chalet ski holiday. I visualised macho 'free riders' boasting about their off-piste adventures, or cliquey groups coupled with the musty smell of drying ski socks, a lack of privacy and hastily rustled-up grub.
I've since changed my mind, thanks to an Irish-run luxury ski chalet called 'Perle des Neiges', nestled away in a village so traditional its communal donkey Edelweiss functions as the local weather forecaster - braying loudly and retreating inside her stable as the first snowflakes fall.
Perle des Neiges is one of six catered chalets run by Galway woman Sarah Kearney Last and her husband Dan in La Rosiere, Villaroger and Val d'Isere. A double chair lift on our doorstep, delectable dinners, flowing wines, super comfortable rustic surroundings, wonderful views and transport to and from Les Arcs confirmed my decision. Ski equipment delivered to the chalet was the icing on the cake.
You need to allow about €80 a week for ski gear and €20 a day for lift passes, and be prepared for sociable evenings during communal meals at the long table, but I'm now firmly sold on chalet holidays.
Sarah and Dan set up their More Alps chalet company 14 years ago. They discovered the joys of Villaroger - "like stepping back in time to another era" - a few years ago, Sarah tells me, and set about organising the conversion of farm buildings into two gorgeous chalets side by side. Today, over 70pc of their business is repeat, and she puts that down to their personalised service - with everything from airport transfers to ski passes, children's activities and babysitting laid on.
The narrow medieval street on which Perle des Neiges is set also houses the local bar and restaurant La Ferme (restaurant-la-ferme.com), heart of the après ski action. Local band Heart Attack Blues were playing when we called in.
My Villaroger base also boasts a ski-in, ski-out back route into Les Arcs and the vast Paradiski ski area beyond the village. Not a bad option on the doorstep.
Truly, this is one of France's best little ski resorts - and it's also the end point of the legendary Aiguille Rouge, Europe's longest continuous descent at over 20kms. We made a partial descent of back to Villaroger one day, but lumpy snow, ice and poor visibility made the going tricky.
Oh well, you can't have everything.
Isabel travelled to Villaroger-Les Arcs with ski holiday specialists Butler & Lloyd (butlerandlloyd.com), who specialise in finding unusual luxury chalet accommodation across the Alps.
More Alps (01 431-1359; morealps.com) has fully catered, two-room chalets from €2,450 for a family of four in low season, including airport transfers from Lyon, Chambery or Geneva (see Ryanair and Aer Lingus for flights). High season rates from €1,300 per adult and €800 per child. See villaroger.fr for more.
Read more in our Ski Special 2016/17:Top 10 ski deals for 2016/17 - make the most of those snowy slopes! Magical Morzine: Living the high life on a chalet ski holiday in France Austria: Thick snow and traditional towns on a super ski break Ski 2016/17: What's new on the slopes for Irish skiers this season? Top 10 ski tips for beginners: Am I too old? What are the best resorts?