Thursday 19 July 2018

Ski: it's a beautiful thing

Val D'Isere

Val D'Isere offers high quality, snow-sure slopes for everyone
Val D'Isere offers high quality, snow-sure slopes for everyone
Skiing in Val D'Isere
La Folie Douce is the cheesiest and most fun place for apres ski in Val D'Isere

Shane Fitzsimons

It might be asking a lot (and in some cases, an awful lot) but can you cast your mind back to the day you took the stabilisers off? The day that you, for some crazy reason, decided that the time was now, that your destiny lay in your own hands, that the day had come and you were going to seize it?

I can. In fact, I've never forgotten that first giddy ride on a two-wheel bicycle - with no sisters or friends or parents keeping me poised, balanced - speeding up the road with the wind in my hair. Exhilaration. The glossy adrenaline thrill of triumph.

It's the same feeling that you get when you push off your first ski slope, legs braced into a gentle snow plough - telling yourself that 'Yes, you can do this'... while all the time pushing back the nagging doubt that keeps tugging at the back of your head. 'You're going to crash and die.'

Though where I was now, at the Club Med resort on the lower slopes of the French ski resort of Val D'Isere, I was more likely to slowly glide towards a steaming mug of hot chocolate, or the mound of freshly baked croissants and pain au chocolats that the Club Med staff like to bring outside to offer skiers a quick after-breakfast snack before setting out for the morning.

We had made our way up to the all-inclusive Club Med hotel in Val D'Isere from the airport in Geneva (a beautiful drive through the valleys and passes of the Haute Savoie, slowly making our way up to the ski town of Val D'Isere, situated 1.8km above sea level), and as soon as our transfer bus rolled up to the door I swear you could hear the clicks. Switching off, powering down, entering holiday mode.

We walked into the foyer and we could hear the welcome tinkling of glasses from the bar, smell the aroma of freshly roasted coffee - and I swear I heard those same clicks again. But this time we were switching on - entering fun mode, as the realisation hit home that it's an all-inclusive hotel.

If you've never stayed at an all-inclusive hotel before, it's probably time that you did. Sure, backpacking was once the thing, but then so was indentured labour. Because we all know that skiing can be expensive, with add-on costs at every turn making inroads into your budget. But when you're all-inclusive, you know what the bottom line is going to be. It's the smart move.

And when you're going all-inclusive, do it somewhere nice - somewhere like at Club Med, where the all-inclusivity goes far beyond food and drink on tap 24/7, extending into making every part of your stay as sweet as can be - but we'll get back to that later.

It wasn't actually my first time going skiing. I'd done it a couple of times before and I'd loved it - but the last time was six years ago and a glance at the jagged snow-covered Alps brought the metallic tang of fear to my mouth. Yes, I knew the theory, but I was sorely lacking in practice. And my training plan had been pretty rudimentary too: a couple of 'how to ski' videos on YouTube and a week doing wall squats every night. For two minutes. As they say: fail to prepare, prepare to fail - but honestly, I was more worried about stopping. And I was convinced that whenever I did manage to ski off the edge or whatever, I was going to take a pisteful of other skiers with me.

But as always happens in situations like this, the cavalry appeared to save the day. In this case, they arrived in the shape of the sun-kissed ski instructors from the Ecole du Ski Francais. English-speaking, compassionate and encouraging, they help you find your courage and will have you skiing safely in hardly any time.

Club Med being an all-inclusive hotel (I love those words), you can enrol at the hotel for morning and afternoon classes with these most trusted of all ski instructors. And you can get fitted out with skis and all the gear at the hotel's ski shop within minutes, so there's no wasting time trying to find a ski rental outlet. You get your boots on in the adjoining locker room and then step out on to the snow - because this hotel boasts that most wonderful of alpine facilities: a ski in/ski out entrance.

I won't bore you with how all my fears were unrealised and how quickly the muscle memory kicked back in. I will tell you that skiing is one of the most wonderful things you can do. It's both thrilling and deeply relaxing at the same time. It's a beautiful thing. Yes I fell, but I got back up again.

I reckon that if you can cycle a bike without stabilisers, you can ski. You learn the essentials in a day, maybe two, or you take the time to remember them - and you're there. Within hours you're skimming over an alpine snowfield maybe 3km above sea level - and every movement of your body travels down through your torso, through your legs and into the skis.

You make sweeping turns in narrow arcs, and throw out a fine spray of snow, carving your way down now to 2.5km, connected to the bulk of the mountain and in control of your speed. Congratulations, you've shaken hands with gravity, you've skied down to 2km and now you're looking for a ski lift to take you back up and do it all again.

You know from your science books that at this altitude the air is thinner, with less oxygen - but it tastes crisp on your tongue, delicious like breathing bubbles. Go skiing. It's a beautiful thing.

Evening times in Val D'Isere are enchanting. The altitude does something magical to the elements - with the dark skies the perfect backdrop for the millions of stars twinkling above. But inside the Club Med hotel it's warm and cosy - and the dinner buffet rivals the skies for wow factor.

The main dining area for us all-inclusives was a treat for foodies. The menus change every day, but still feature fillet steaks and seared scallops, salads of peach and tomato, healthy options with nuts and seeds - and the greatest French bread that you can imagine. Alongside all this there are child-friendly dishes that even the most picky child will dive straight into - pizzas and burgers if that's their thing.

Every night the army of chefs serve a new regional dish - from warming onion soups to hearty cassoulets. And it being buffet style, you can keep filling your plate until you've sampled everything. You've been burning calories all day on the mountain, so you deserve it.

Special mention has to go out to the desserts - remember, this part of France is nestled right in beside Italy, so you're in at the ground floor when it comes to pastries, with flaked and toasted almonds, fresh cream and sweet berries dancing a mazurka on your palate. And the cheeses. Every night meant a trek of discovery, with the sweet and nutty flavours of Gruyere, Beaufort and Comte all competing for space on your plate.

Val D'Isere itself is a small Alpine town with massive peaks all around. While there is a summer season for hillwalkers channelling their inner Heidi (don't knock it - summer in the Alps is really something else), it really opens up in the snow season. And while the mountains are about the skiing, the town is more about the apres ski which is full on.

You may remember the scenes from Absolutely Fabulous when Patsy and Edina went to Val D'Isere to find the ultimate apres ski. The streets of the village are filled with bars and restaurants offering a place to unwind after a day on the slopes. But I have to say that the most incredible apres ski we found was on the mountain itself, at a place called La Folie Douce.

It's a huge bar - more accurately, a day-time nightclub - set in the cradle of a mid-mountain plateau between Val D'Isere and Tignes. And it draws skiers like bees to honey. (Though you can also catch a cable car up to it.)

As you ski closer to it, you begin to hear the boom of dance music of the Italian house variety - cheesy as the most pungent brie. Ski closer still and you can make out hundreds of people in dayglo ski onesies dancing on tables, hands in the air, all laughing and having what the cosmopolitan ski set might call le craic.

Yes it's noisy. Yes it's garish. Yes there are a couple of restaurants and a merchandise shop that knows how to sell the concept. And yes, you had better bring a fully charged credit card.

I've probably never seen more gilded youth rubbing shoulders with Russian millionaires on a mountain before. Patsy would have loved it.

Getting there

Shane travelled with Sunway to the 4-Trident Club Med Val d’Isere in France. Club Med offers 64 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.

It’s ideal for families with children (from babies to teenagers); perfect for couples or solo travellers who can enjoy the finest ski domains with highly qualified instructors.

Some Club Med resorts also offer cross-country skiing, and all Club Med ski resorts have a ski service where you can rent your equipment quickly and easily.

Club Med ski holidays to Val d’Isere start from €1,479 per adult on an all-inclusive basis departing December 17 — 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 01-2366800 or visit www.sunway.ie.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Fondue

Let’s hear it for over-eating. For far too long it’s been a real no-no but when you’re out on the slopes all day, working up an appetite, you’ve sort of earned the right. Get stuck into that thick, creamy fondue. Enjoy that extra sliver of steak cooked on the raclette stone. You’ve earned it.

Ski instructors

At its core, skiing is basically about falling down a mountain. So having the Ecole Ski du Francais (ESF) to teach you how to do it safely, with grace and maybe even elegance, makes me very happy. Let’s raise a glass to these sexy skiers in red. Like Baywatch on skis!

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