Pistes of Paradise: A ski holiday with my own personal chef in Val d'Isère
Living the Highlife
Fancy a ski holiday with a personal chef, cosy chalet and pristine slopes on your doorstep? Conor Power sings the praises of a chalet ski break in Val d'Isère.
It's day two of my ski adventure in Val d'Isère, and I've just hopped gracelessly off the ski-lift and am sliding slowly towards the start of the first piste of the day. This should be easy for me: I've skied on red slopes before and this is an easy-peasy blue. So why am I trembling like a frightened kitten that's been fitted with kitten-sized skis?
But that's the beauty of skiing: it's about riding an ever-present fine line between having the best fun ever and feeling absolutely terrified and/or exhausted.
One minute, you've got it; you're achieving your turns perfectly, swishing down the magnificent mountainside with the menacing grace of a masked Bond assassin. The next, you're tumbling and clattering, wrenching a calf muscle and lying on the snow watching your detached ski skid away in front of you, making soft whimpering feline sounds.
Skiing is essentially a sport, as someone once pointed out to me. You have to prepare your body for it and you have to get your body to do it. And if your body happens to be 40+ years of age, then it's just that little bit less willing to do what you tell it to do.
Hence my nerves. The day before, Alan from Irish ski and snowboard operator, Highlife, had been telling me how one of their clients last year was an 80-year-old lady from Dublin. There's no excuse for me then, standing trying to capture the essence of a Bond baddie before I set out. So off with a low snarl I slide.
"Allez, Conor!" our instructor Olivia encourages. "Go, go!"
I'm with two others in the slower section of our group of six. Highlife specialises in chalet skiing holidays; the ones where you don't have to wonder about what to make for dinner tonight; where you don't have to think about packing your lunch or your snack bar because it's already done; the ones where you don't have to worry about your ski gear if you want to hang out at Chez Jules or Cocorico for a few pints afterwards - because you can ring the shuttle bus to come and take it back to the chalet for you.
Back at the aforementioned chalet in the evening, things are always warm, cosy and Alpine, with a timber fire already going, prepared by chalet host Emily. It's set amongst a charming cluster of traditional-style stone houses gathered around a gurgling stream at Val d'Isère's quieter eastern "suburb" of Le Fornay.
Next to the boot room, where all wet boots and gloves become magically warm and dry overnight, are the Jacuzzi and sauna. I'm no fan of the warm bubbling bath, but after a day on the slopes, it really comes into its own, gently tickling away at those niggling minor injuries and putting a smile on your face.
Then there's dinner. Tonight, it's braised beef with celeriac purèe, creamed spinach and bitter chocolate sauce, with something equally fantastic for starters and dessert. And, this being France, there will be cheese. The wine and the beer are available for as long as you can stay awake and you never go hungry between meals, with an array of aperitif snacks within constant reach.
There's a television and Wi-Fi in our chalet too, in case we want to know what's going on in the rest of the world. But when you're living in a real-life recreation of Wham's 'Last Christmas' video (complete with guitar and songbook), why would you bother?
As for the slopes, Val d'Isère has a great range of skiing and, thanks to its high altitude, one of the longest winter seasons in Europe. Along with Tignes, it forms the Espace Killy, covering 10,000ha with over 300km of runs, covering all levels from beginner to off-pister. It carries the "Famille Plus" family-friendly resort label and its lively streets and slopes boast one of the most cosmopolitan mixtures of any ski resort - from Russian billionaires to Roscommon butchers.
The eating options are superb too - from the zany cabaret show at La Folie Douce (it must be seen to be believed - a Euro-trash-tastic apparition halfway up a huge mountain; lafoliedouce.com) to relaxing lunchtime restaurants with a view such as La Grande Ourse (grande-ourse.com). It's got two Michelin-starred restaurants, some truly brilliant shopping and an authentic charm that's rare in French ski resorts. But the chalet experience is an eye-opener of how it should really be done. Having all the work taken out of catering for oneself makes a huge difference and a really relaxing experience.
Back on the blue piste, I've abandoned all thought of trying to become a black-run skier - not on this particular trip anyway. I'm re-learning the basics of skiing again and finding that I've probably learned to ski a bit too quickly. All credit to pushing the limits and dreaming of off-pisting down Val d'Isère's steep valley walls, but it's important to remember that you're on holiday too and it would be a shame not to be able to come back and do this all again tomorrow.
Pondering that thought, I point my skis downwards, and purr like a kitten.
How to do it
Dublin-based Highlife (highlife.ie) operates a highly personal service at the French resorts of Morzine, Méribel and Val d'Isère, with comprehensive packages that include shuttle buses at the resort, minibus transfers from the airport, three-course evening meals on six of the seven nights, breakfast to order and snacks and water for the slopes. Seven-night stays start at €840 per adult and €686 per child (U12). Flights are not included in the prices.
Get me there
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Geneva and Lyon. In Val D'Isère, ski lessons with Evolution 2 (evolution2-valdisere.com) cost €215 per group for a three-hour morning lesson (eg €50pp for a group of four). Ski & boot hire from Snowberry (snowberry-valdisere.com) starts at €150 for six days. Ski passes cost approximately €280/week with discounts of up to 17pc for family packages.