Skiing the dream in the French Alps
I always remember my island dweller's excitement the first time I drove across a border. Now I can say I've gone one better, I skied across a border from France into Switzerland for hot chocolate. It's one of the many lovely opportunities available during a stay in the breathtaking La Ferme du Lac Vert in Montriond. It's the sort of place you go to treat yourself - luxurious but comfortable, high-end but relaxed, delicious, but sure you'll burn it off. It's a ski holiday.
The nearest airport is Geneva, and the transfer to Montriond is an hour and a half, very short for a ski break, which we did via the nice folk at Skiidy Gonzales. Montriond is a pretty village in the Portes du Soleil ski area, and La Ferme du Lac Vert is a big chalet at the end of the village. The original building dates from 1842 but it was restored in 2010 by English couple Rob and Lucy Mundel and now comprises the larger chalet, La Ferme (which can sleep between 24 and 30 guests in 11 bedrooms) and the very cute Petite Ferme (which can sleep 4-6 guests in three bedrooms). They're all alpine wooden style with furs and open fires and the lovely objets Lucy has collected over time, it's eclectic and elegant and it feels luxurious but welcoming.
Shoes are left in the onsite ski room so there's the automatic relaxation of wandering around in slippers. I was lucky enough to be put in the honeymoon suite, complete with a claw foot bath that would prove very welcome to a cold and soaked-through post-ski body.
Operations and events manager, Tipperary man Tadhg Ryan made us feel more than welcome before ski concierge Nicolas Evquoz took us off to get our gear. We waited our turn to be kitted out in the Ardent Sport ski shop in the buzzing village bar, La Marmotte d'Or, where a few tipples softened the prospect of a post-Christmas weigh in.
Gone are the days of lashing on your boyfriend's Dad's skis and taking your chances down a mountain. It's all gone high tech and your weight is needed to calibrate your skis for minimum risk of injury. Helmets are not obligatory but most people wear them now and if you book in advance, skis, boots, poles and helmet rental costs about €125 for a week.
The principle of La Ferme is that each guest or couple has their own room but that meals are taken together. Breakfast, like a hotel, is ordered from a menu, lunch is on the slopes - and dinner is the big evening event.
Everyone meets at seven in the evening, there is a cocktail of the day or a drink from the bar. There are world-class hors d'oeuvres passed around by the truly sweet young staff, who get to know everyone's name, even if it's Aine. Then everyone takes a place at the big wooden table.
It's a very companionable way to eat - sociable and fun - and you can have a different selection of people around you every evening. You don't pick from a menu, it is set, bar for vegetarians or people with special dietary requirements.
The kitchen is run by chef Tom Burton and sous-chef Grace Palmer who came out to introduce each course. The food is really, really good and there's lots of it with three courses, wine and a fantastic selection of cheeses to follow up. It is France after all.
Ski holidays mean early starts so the dashing Nicolas took us off early to our first slope. La Ferme provides a shuttle service to the lift at Ardent, where the tremendously Frenchly-named ski instructor Jean Marc Dubois, of ESF Montriond, assessed our skills. Two went off for lessons - groups are limited to eight people and the weekly cost is from €166 for adults, €186 for kids (from age three and a half) and a daily rate of about €50 for private lessons.
The rest of us were deemed fit for mid-level purpose and hit the bubble lift to get to Avoriaz, then just two more lifts and over into Switzerland.
I've been skiing for years but I never really learned properly, it was all a bit ad hoc, and so now I ski in survival mode, staying upright is the goal - style and grace matter not.
An instructor in Italy once averted his eyes in distaste announcing that watching me was "Horrible."
But the skiing from Avoriaz into Switzerland was that kind of 'beautiful, blue sky, twinkling snow, wide, powdery piste perfect' that made even me feel if not graceful, glidey and deserving of my foody reward of hot chocolate and lovely vanilla and cinnamon cake in Alpage Lapisa, over the Swiss border in Champery.
The local Gentian liqueur, made from the root, not the flower of the plant, is warming and delicious. Even at 11am.
There are border guards and smuggling apparently can be issue - but we mustn't have looked too suspicious. The Portes du Soleil ski pass, which offers access to the largest ski area in France (and that border into Switzerland) covering some 650km of pistes and 217 lifts over 12 resorts, costs just over €50 a day for an adult. There are cheaper passes for anyone wanting to cover a more limited area.
It was easy-to-medium-level skiing where you could cover a lot of ground and know exactly why you got up so early on your holidays to put on lots of clothes.
A brief section of the route we took, high up on an Alp was uphill and instead of having to do that hideously exhausting sideways walk with giant ski feet we got towed on a rope by a skidoo - a really unique experience.
We paid for that by attempting our very own half pipe, which is essentially a big curve, made out of snow and ice, which you descend by skiing up one side, sharp turn, ski up the other side, sharp turn and so and so forth until the end. I did it, substantial parts of it on my bum/back/face but I got to the end in one piece.
You really enjoy your ski meals and the half pipe meant I was more than ready for delicious fare provided by our charming and also very Frenchly-named hostess Sandrine Duchemin at her restaurant, Le Chaudron, in Montriond. Then, another little ski, some apres-ski, a bath and more amazing food back at La Ferme.
The weather had deteriorated overnight so our second day on the slopes was limited by wind and visibility. We still got to explore the Les Gets/Morzine side, more expanses of beautiful wide, slopes. Lower down it was rain and sleet so that day's hot chocolate stop in La Paika in Les Gets was especially welcome.
Above a certain altitude we got snowed on, below it we got rained on - and it was there that I discovered that my ski gear had been washed too often, or was rubbish, because it was entirely un-waterproof.
I was not, however, the only cold, wet, bedraggled team member to land for lunch in Le Vaffieu at the top of the Belvedere ski lift near Les Gets, where we huddled wrapped in blankets in a super cute attic space.
The ingredients arrive by skidoo, but that in no way limits the quality of the food which included trio de foie gras, quadrilogie du canard, scallops and rack of lamb.
The location was amazing and the hosts utterly charming. It would have been lovely to sit in the sun, have a vin chaud, only the sun had gone AWOL.
I got separated from the group on the way back, cunningly without my phone so I had to make my own way, thus I can say that it is well sign-posted and easy to navigate.
La Ferme du Lac Vert was an even more welcome sight than ever before and Prosecco in the hot tub felt positively deserved - as did the massage from Belfast lady Kerri McCauley. She isn't based in La Ferme but can be booked to come and give massages and beauty treatments as the guests wish.
It's a lovely way for a group of friends or a family to travel, but it is also very romantic.
Tadhg had described some of the weddings they had organised and hosted and it does sound like a very special way to get hitched.
It is unquestionably one of the nicest places I have ever stayed, the sort of place you remember, so if you fancy a treat, this is really something worth considering.
Even, I suggest, if you don't ski.
Prices are based on half board, two people sharing: includes Irish breakfast, afternoon tea, pre-dinner cocktail, four-course dinner with wine. (Wednesday is the chef’s day off, so continental breakfast is served and there’s no catering in the evening, giving you a chance to check out the village).
Seven-night stay: From €1,095;
Four-night, Sun-Thur: From €675;
Three-night, Thur-Sun: From €715:
Sole occupancy of the chalet from €23,995 — for up to 24 guests sharing.
Special offer short-breaks from €595 are available from time to time — call Tadhg Ryan at La Ferme du Lac Vert for details.
More details: www.lafermedulacvert.com, +33 610 605040/ +33 450 794933
Aer Lingus fly direct to Geneva (aerlingus.com)>