By Isabel Conway
If you thought winter sport in the Alps was about wrapping up like a ‘Yeti’, shuffling out under the fairy lights, teeth chattering and knees knocking with apprehension and cold, during the coldest of months think again.
Between early March and late April many of the popular resorts of Europe remain open, offering longer sunnier days, cheaper lift passes and accommodation. Another bonus for the less experienced novice are less crowded low season slopes where you can take your time avoiding collisions.
Music mingles with the mountains from March onwards. Festivals such as Rock the Pistes’ (Portes du Soleil) and ‘Snowboxx’ in the Alps are among the leading events with free gigs attracting the ski spring break party crowd in their tens of thousands to outdoor stages featuring a top line up of performers and DJ’s as the days lengthen.
In the past only the rich could afford a ski holiday as we know and the price of lift passes, classes and equipment rental cut a large hole in your ski holiday budget. Crystal (www.crystal.ie) and Topflight (www.topflight.ie) are softening the blow somewhat with more creative pricing and ski plus (all for one price) deals.
Chalet holidays have taken off big time with Irish skiers especially groups of friends and families who can hire one all to themselves or singles who want a sociable laid back experience.
Many of my skiing friends rate catered chalet based holidays (complete with gourmet menus, transfers daily to and from the slopes, fun and games in situ and complimentary wines all evening) as much better value for money and nicer than your average hotel or apartment accommodation.
Yet until now I resisted the urge to try out the chalet experience. I visualized mingling with macho ‘freeriders’ boasting about their off piste adventures or cliquey groups who would shut the rest of us out coupled with the musty smell of drying ski socks and lack of privacy. But it wasn’t like that at all.
Each of my three short chalet breaks in the French Alps were quite different in terms of ambience and facilities ,situated in some of the best skiing terrain anywhere and I can’t wait to return. What they all shared was luxurious accommodation and more indulgent food and wines than I have ever enjoyed on a skiingholiday before plus the good company of fellow guests.
Meribel in the Three valleys, the world’s largest ski area is where the vibe veers towards party and cool, especially at La Folie Douce with fabulous cuisine and cool sounds on the slopes. In mid December much of what was on the ground was manmade snow but we hardly noticed. We stayed at Meribel Mountain Retreat a large new luxury chalet with a second older restored building clinging to the mountain side below. Tucked away in Le Villard, a hamlet that bit off the beaten track, it was minutes by complimentary transfer to the Olympic Express Telecabine linking the region.
With stunning views across 13 villages, authentic furnishings, crackling open fires and all the creature comforts, including terrific breakfasts, this was the prototype high end chalet. If you can muster up extended family or a big band of skiing friends to fill it go to www.meribelmountainretreat.com orwww.madamevacances.com also www.direct.ski.com
A month later we were in the midst of the famed Portes du Soleil ski area with visibility stretching just a little beyond our noses above high rise Avoriaz, a complete contrast to more low lying Morzine, an authentic Savoyard village the base for extensive skiing terrain for all abilities.
Spring time with spectacular sunsets and lower prices is a great time to travel here with children as the family is not battling the elements, points out Alex Judge. He and his super cook wife Kat, helped by a small army of seasonal chalet staff including Emma O’Connor from Kiltealy Co Wexford run award winning Alikats (www.alikats.eu). We stayed in their signature chalet La Ferme a Jules having been transported speedily there on a Saturday night by the well named Skiidy Gonzales (www.skiidygonzales.com) off the Cork-Geneve flight.
Passionate about skiing and the mountains, Alikats has won awards for the exceptional quality of their menus and most of their business is repeat or word of mouth.
Getting there : daily flights Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) ex Dublin with flights from Cork on Saturdays into late March to Geneve. Alikats half board from €569 pp sharing in April (including unlimited wine)and transport to and from the slopes. Free delivery and collection of ski and snowboard hire to your chalet door www.ski-mobile.com A 6 day Portes du Soleil pass costs €247 (cheaper in low season) For other prices see websites. Also www.morzine-avoriaz.com