Ski in France: True grit and following the Tignes dream
I never crawled. I simply hoisted my baby self upright and toddled off on two fat legs. A good thing, you’d think. The mark of a super-smart baby.
Well, you’d be wrong. Crawling is essential for a child’s development, and my fast-tracking from babe-in-arms to perambulating has led to a lifetime of difficulty in mastering any skill involving coordination, dexterity, or spatial awareness. The technical term is neuro-developmental delay.
Basically, I’m a slow learner. And downright useless when it comes to sports. So it was with a mix of trepidation and excitement that I signed up for my maiden skiing trip, to Club Med Tignes Val Claret, in the hope of mastering the alpine pistes and challenging my adult self to feel the fear and do it anyway. What doesn’t kill you, and all that, eh?
Tignes actually comprises five villages — Tignes Val Claret is 2,100m above sea level — which are adjacent to the Val d’Isere (val means valley), in the French Alps, close to the Italian border. While the charming village of Val d’Isere boasts an 11th-Century baroque church, Tignes, by contrast, is a purpose-built resort.
The shared ski area, named Espace Killy after France’s Olympic skiing champion Jean-Claude Killy (a descendant of an Irish mercenary soldier who fought for Napoleon), has 300km of pistes for all abilities, served by 78 lifts. My companions and I flew into Geneva — which had the best airport food ever — and from there it was a two-and-a-half-hour transfer, with endless spectacular snow-covered vistas en route.
Club Med Tignes is a ski-in, ski-out resort, which is self-explanatory; there’s no scrambling for buses or transport links, you just gear up and off you go — this is a major plus, even more so if you are holidaying with smallies.
The all-inclusive aspect also makes it a no-brainer for families, and means everyone gets to enjoy their break to the fullest. This Club Med was built in the 1970s and is due an upgrade, but while its decor has an undeniable retro feel, the immediate and ongoing impression is one of comforting cosiness.
The ground floor is an open-plan layout of reception area and bar/chill-out zones, decorated in a gorgeous palette of red, orange and dark wood, with endless cosy couches in which to snuggle up and relax by the blazing fires. It’s like a great big Mammy-hug when you come in frozen from frolicking in the snow.
On arrival, it was straight down to business — namely, getting fitted for ski gear. Skis, boots and helmets are all provided at the resort, but you will need to bring your own goggles and clothing, including gloves.
If you’re a beginner, do as I did and borrow kit until you can justify investing in your own.
The staff at Club Med are renowned for their bubbly, nothing-is-too-much-trouble attitude, and Benjamin, who fitted me for ski boots, was no exception. He was the personification of patience and determined to find me the perfect pair — and rightly so, as boots will make or break your ski experience. They must fit perfectly and not rub or chafe, otherwise you’ll know all about it!
Gear sorted, I retired to my restful room, which had a quirky trompe l’oeil ‘floorboard’ carpet, and a chocolate-box view of the slopes, for a pre-prandial snooze.
Club Med runs to a timetable, and it’s traditional to meet in the bar for drinks and nibbles before dinner. You can dress up or down — all-out glam and caj-as-you-like were in evidence throughout my stay — depending on your mood of an evening.
Rested and refreshed, I repaired to the bar to rendezvous with my group. There’s an extensive drinks menu, and a mixologist on hand if a cocktail is your thing (I’m a grape girl), not to mention an array of delicious bites, from hummus to nuts, olives, flatbreads and fresh oysters! Heaven. (Most drinks are part of the all-inclusive deal; premium offerings, for which you pay extra, are clearly listed on the bar menu — I saw no reason to stray; the vin rouge is superbe.)
Dinner, which is buffet style, is served downstairs in Champagny restaurant.
It quickly became clear to me that in a skiing resort, your holiday is really about two things: skiing and food, so it’s vital both are good. It remained to be seen how my skiing would go, but the food surpassed all my expectations.
The buffet consisted of endless delectable offerings, from salads, cheeses, hot and cold vegetable, fish or meat dishes, pizzas and roasts, to a cornucopia of cakes, pastries, breads and ice cream. Oh, and I can’t omit mention of the chocolate fountain. Or the macarons. Or the crepes. Or the waffles… oh, you get the picture. It was five-star food and then some.
There’s always some sort of entertainment going on in the bar afterwards, but I had a big day ahead, and despite having a few vin rouges aboard, sensibly eschewed the disco lights for my cosy bed.
Next morning, I was up with the lark for a breakfast from the buffet of dreams, before getting geared up, and down to the exit to meet my skiing instructor, Laurent Mazet, of the Ecole du Ski Francais (ESF), at the pre-agreed time.
There are certain skiing-related traditions at Club Med, one being that the staff see you off in the morning, offering coffee or booze to warm you (they also welcome you back when you return with an apres-ski party vibe: more coffee/booze/whatever you fancy, food, and a DJ). I gratefully accepted a shot of schnapps, hoping to block out the gnawing fear rising in my gut.
Suddenly, Laurent appeared, dressed in the red and white livery of the ESF; there was no ducking out now. I explained my absolute-beginner status as we trudged, skis in hand, through the knee-deep fresh snow to the practice area at the front of the hotel.
Laurent, a native of Marseille, has been teaching in Espace Killy for nigh on 30 years. His father, he told me, owned a stockings factory, but young Laurent decided the tights business wasn’t for him, despite it having been handed down through the generations since before the French Revolution. Skiing was, and remains, his primary passion.
The chat relaxed me and momentarily banished my sense of dread. It was time to get cracking. First, Laurent showed me how to put my skis on: slot in my toe, heel, click! and repeat. We were in business. We start on the gentlest slope, me gliding along and learning to snowplough (bring one’s skis together in a V) to a stop. I begin to enjoy myself. This skiing lark, hard? Nah! Pride comes before a fall, they say, and as we step on the magic carpet — a travelator — to bring us to the nursery slope’s crest, I panic.
One of my skis shoots out behind me and I hit the deck, legs akimbo, losing my poles and pride in the process. Laurent helps me to my feet — no easy task on a travelator — and we make it safely out the other end. The all-too-familiar “I can’t-I can’t-I can’t” mental monologue begins grinding in my brain.
Laurent beams his encouraging smile, unaware of my inner turmoil. “You are doing great! We will take baby steps, yes? Look, we have the slopes all to ourselves!” I draw on whatever reserves of inner grit I can muster, and resist the urge to bolt. The remainder of the morning is spent navigating the nursery slope (and the now hated magic carpet), with Laurent instructing and correcting my technique every step of the way.
I fall and fall again; I crash into a flagpole, Laurent, and a large snowdrift; I lose my poles; I lean forward when I should be straight; and I cannot get my left leg to turn right. But not once in the hours we are together does Laurent get annoyed or impatient, and when our time is up, my fear has gone, and I am excited for what challenges the next day might bring.
There’s plenty of opportunity for apres-ski in Val Claret (or you can get the free shuttle to other parts of the valley) it’s a great wind-down after the exertion of skiing (or trying to!) Club Med has a pool and a fabulous Payot spa, so I indulged in a massage (extra, but worth every penny) on that and another afternoon: the skiing/pampering combo is truly complementary.
Day two saw me tackle a blue run. Full disclosure: having edged gingerly down the piste, I bottled it completely when the slope dropped vertiginiously away, and ended up face down in the snow. Again. It was back to the nursery slopes, where I regressed further and did everything I shouldn’t.
Disconsolate, I bade farewell to Laurent at noon; I still couldn’t manage anything approximating skiing, and was struggling to stay positive. He assured me it would all come together, and with a final flash of his beaming smile, he was gone.
The morning of my final lesson dawned bright and blue; conditions were perfect (the region has had stellar snowfall this season). I headed to meet Laurent, convinced the morning would be fruitless. Back to the fearsome blue.
I took a deep breath, and did a mental run-through of everything he’d taught me. Moments later, I was gliding, no, flying; at one with the snow, the mountain, easily shifting my weight left-right-left as I swish-swooshed down the piste. OMG, I was SKIING!! Sweet mother of the Divine! I was KILLING IT! Waiting at the bottom of the run, proud as punch, was a grinning Laurent. “Geema, I told you eet would all come together!” All I could do was laugh.
When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. Ain’t that the truth?
Take Two: Top Attractions
Tignes is in the Savoy region, and the area has many delicacies, including bugnes (doughnuts); diots (sausages); and Genepi, a digestif. Try the excellent Sherpa supermarket or one of the many artisan food shops.
La Folie Douce, on the piste under the Plein Sud chairlift, has DJs, a fur-clad sax player, banging tunes, dancing on tables, and champagne. At 2,600m, it’s the ‘dance floor on top of the world’. Go around 2pm. lafoliedouce.com
Gemma travelled with Sunway to the 4-trident Club Med Tignes Val Claret in France.
Club Med offers just under 80 all-inclusive sun and ski resorts worldwide. Its ski resorts in France, Italy, Switzerland, China and Japan offer a full range of snow sports on the All-Inclusive Club Med formula —which includes ski lift passes and skiing or snowboarding lessons for all ages and abilities.
All are welcome — families travelling with babies, kids and teenagers, couples or solo travellers.
Club Med Ski holidays to Tignes start from €1,849 per adult on an all-inclusive basis departing January 13, 2019 and from €2,089 per adult departing March 18, 2018 including flights from Dublin, transfers, lift pass and ski/snowboard lessons, superb accommodation, gourmet food, endless snacks and drinks from the bar, fantastic children’s clubs and a multitude of sports and activities. Call (01) 236-6800 or see sunway.ie.
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