Pure joy, pure life, pure slopes: My Club Med ski holiday in Val Thorens
Val Thorens, French Alps
It's mid December and I'm in a coach winding its way into the French Alps. The higher we climb, the more that snow flurries obscure our visibility.
The coach driver seems confident enough, but a few cars have pulled into the side to work out how to make it along this narrow, winding road without something awful happening. The light is fading fast at the same time as the snow is falling more heavily.
There couldn't be a more perfect introduction to a few days' skiing.
Eventually, we arrive at our hotel. Club Med's Val Thorens is said to be the highest resort in the Alps, and is right in the heart of the famous Three Valleys region, which boasts 600km of pistes. It's so far up in the clouds that we're pretty much guaranteed snow. As anyone who's ever been skiing before can attest, this is the only thing that really matters.
Anything can be endured - patchy facilities; terrible food; basic accommodation - so long as the weather keeps its end of the bargain.
By the time we get to our rooms, it's almost dark. Mine has a large window overlooking the ski slope, which at that time of the day is deserted. I open the window, letting in a cold blast of icy air. Everywhere is muffled and beautiful and white.
Tomorrow we'll be out in the midst of it. I can't wait. Skiing is good for the mind. Good for mine, anyway. There's no time for morbid self-examination. Superfluous thoughts have no place on the mountain.
That's why, despite the long drive, I don't mind being called away from the window and taken down to the basement to get fitted out with our ski gear and sorted into classes. It's a bit of a pain, but at least it won't eat into any skiing time tomorrow.
Next morning - disaster! Visibility is terrible. There's even talk of no skiing at all. Thankfully, these fears are quickly put to rest. We're divided into our groups and before long, are skiing down to the chairlifts.
I can barely see my skis, never mind the way ahead, but I tell myself it doesn't matter. Just follow the instructor. It always works. They know what they're doing. They do this every day. Lucky things. It quickly becomes apparent that conditions are not going to improve and, because so many runs are closed, the ones that are open are very busy. Inches away, snow boarders whizz past. If they don't make you fall, the dips and bumps in the snow (impossible to see until it's too late) will.
Suffice to say there's a fair bit of falling, but that's the beauty of skiing. Even a wuss back home turns into an adventurer up here. Falling is just part of the experience.
Next day, the weather has improved markedly. I look out of my window and realise there is actually a mountain in the distance. Until then, all I could see was cloud. Skies are blue, the air is crisp. Best of all, because more of the slopes are open, the runs are much less hectic.
Conditions today are perfect. The snow is soft and powdery. There is nothing here to dampen the enthusiasm. It's this aspect of a skiing holiday which feels so serene. Everything comes together in harmony, mind and body, spirit and landscape.
Each day of this regrettably brief break passes in the same way. Life takes on a natural rhythm that can't help but make you feel good. Tired, aching, sure, but happy. You keep grinning for no reason. Just because.
It's in the nature of most resorts that there's not much to do apart from ski, and that's not a problem because why would anybody want to do anything with their life apart from ski? But it does mean that the hotel takes on added importance, because you're going to be spending more time in it than on a summer holiday to the sea and sun.
There are a few shops and pubs in town, but at five o'clock, it's dark and freezing and what's the point of heading out when you've already paid for everything back at the hotel?
With Club Med, it's an all-inclusive price, and you can drink and eat to your heart's content. And though I noted earlier that dedicated skiers will put up with any inconvenience as long as the right amount of snow is provided, luckily there's no need to worry about sacrificing any comfort here.
Cynics might think the hotel would palm guests off with bad food, knowing that the limitless free booze will make willing captives of them anyway, but they don't. The restaurant is a connoisseur's delight. It's worth making a few rounds before picking. The choice is ridiculously wide, and all delicious. There's also a more formal sit down restaurant included in the package, but tables there must be booked in advance.
There's nightly in-house entertainment too, though our guide conceded with a smile that it might be more to the French taste. It's a bit cheesy, but, at the risk of repeating myself, none of that matters. A skiing holiday is all about the skiing. The clue is in the name. Best of all, this is what's known as a "ski in, ski out" resort. That means, instead of having to get shuttle buses to the slopes, lugging cumbersome boots and equipment around, you can ski straight from the front door.
I've never had that luxury before, and it's stupendously exciting. There are no wasted moments.
Some of the men in the group had downloaded an app which tracks your stats, to see who could log the fastest speed. On the last day, I got the app too and was immediately sorry I didn't do it earlier. It definitely makes you a speed freak as you try to outdo your previous fastest run.
Throughout our days in the Alps, we can hear the soft (and sometimes not so soft) thud of explosions that authorities set off as part of their avalanche safety programme. It's a good reminder that this is a dangerous environment if it's not respected. It all adds to the experience.
It's the same with the weather. Ordinarily, I hate the cold, but at one point the thermometer reads minus 14 degrees and I just feel thrilled by the purity and extremity of it all.
The end comes much too soon. The coach snakes back down the mountain, sending us on our separate ways to normality. Did I mention how much I love skiing?
Life at ground level is seriously overrated.
A seven-night all-inclusive stay in a shared superior room at Club Med Val Thorens, departing on December 9, 2019, costs from €1,679pp.
This includes return direct flights from Dublin to Geneva or Lyon with Aer Lingus, transfers and one checked 20kg bag. It also includes a full area lift pass for six days and five full days of snowboard/ski tuition or guiding. Ski equipment is not included. Price includes an early booking discount of €293pp and is subject to availability and change.
Sunway is Infinite agents for Club Med in Ireland. Contact Sunway on 01-2366800 or visit sunway.ie.
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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