First-time skier: Hassle-free fun in the French Alps
‘I took to the piste like a natural, but getting myself back up after a fall was a challenge’
The chalet’s spectacular open-plan living area.
Chalet Delphine, where excellent breakfasts and dinners are laid on for guests.
Avoriaz and the ski slopes of the Portes du Soleil in the Haute Savoie
It was only as I skied down the mountain towards the town on my last ski run that one of my worst fears was realised and I went face first into the snow. Julian, my instructor from Easy2Ride, helped me up and took off again, leaving me behind as I tried to figure out how exactly I had basically flipped over and survived unscathed.
A more pressing concern was the large quantity of snow that had just gone down my top and into my glasses, and the fact I could do little about any of it because ski gloves are hard enough to get on and off when you’re on flat, solid ground.
‘Come on, Crazy Horse!’ Julian shouted from slightly further down the mountain which still looked dauntingly steep. It was my second-ever day of skiing, and Julian had taken me under his wing. His daughter’s name is Eva, but Aoife proved a step too far for his French-accented English, so he settled on “Crazy Horse”. All I did to deserve it was follow his instructions not to slow down.
We were in Morzine, somewhere between Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc, in the French Alps, for three days of skiing. It’s one of the world’s largest ski areas, and our Portes de Soleil ski passes covered 650km of piste, including Avoriaz’s higher slopes, which go up to 2,350m. Some of the more experienced skiers in the group took advantage and skied to Switzerland, but we stuck with Morzine’s Les Gets area, which covers roughly 150km of piste, and is where most ski lessons for beginners and intermediates take place.
I had spent the previous morning continually almost taking out Francesca, another instructor from Easy2Ride, as I tried to learn how to stop. Not long before, I had spent far too long struggling to get my skis on in the first place. I assumed I’d spend the entire trip going up the magic carpet – a sort of conveyor belt to take you to the top of the gentlest of gentle slopes – with gangs of small children who had far more grace and ability than me. But, paradoxically, once I learned to stop, I was off.
All I was short of doing was shouting “Again! again!” like a small child every time I reached the bottom of the baby slope. I had to be all but dragged from the baby slopes to lunch. We met the others at Le Vaffieu, a quaint little spot with a view of Mont Blanc in the distance, where the waiter suggested we have wine to cut through our cheese fondue so we could ski without stomach pains in the afternoon. Who were we to argue?
Afterwards, I was put in the intermediate group with Julian, who continually asked if I was lying about having skied before. I wasn’t lying. It just turned out that once I knew how to stop, I didn’t want to. Having Julian for just the group of three of us was one of the luxuries of the tailored Highlife package we were on, as he worked with each of us on improving the intricacies of our technique as he toured the area with us.
By the end of the day, Julian had declared me “one in 10,000”, saying he sees very few people who take to skiing as naturally as I had in the first few hours. This had the effect of making me feel a little cheated that I was never brought skiing as a child. I’m not sure what the stats are on children with Olympic-level ski talent, but obviously I would have been right up there. A modern tragedy.
The Haka Bar, near the ski shop, was our après ski destination and aperol spritzes our poison of choice. By the time we returned to Chalet Delphine, one of Highlife’s six catered chalets in the centre of town, I had the kind of roaring appetite that only comes from doing that much physical exercise all at once, out in the alpine air.
The chalet was run by our host, Ciara, while the chalet chef, Mena, cooked up first-class breakfasts and dinners each day, all served up with whatever you were having yourself from the complimentary bar. It’s all part of the package Highlife offer. They’re very hands-on, organising everything from your airport transfers to your ski equipment and passes, and assisting with whatever you need while you’re there.
I gather that even for experienced skiers, a ski-trip is hard work on the logistical front, but on this trip, most of the hassle was removed. All we had to do was turn up and focus on remaining upright. A kids’ club is available most weeks, making it a good option for families too.
On the second morning, Julian seemed to still be on a mission to see how far he could push me in my first few days skiing. Taking us through a shortcut with questionable snow cover – as close to-off piste as we got – he chatted away about Michael Schumacher’s almost-fatal ski accident like it was no big deal. Meanwhile, I peered into the trees on either side of us, and couldn’t see how low down they started. It was an unnerving start to day two.
We tackled some blue (easy) slopes before Julian decided we were ready for some red – meaning intermediate – pistes. Once on these I fell on my arse immediately and realised I had no idea how to get up again. This wiped the smug “one in 10,000” look off my face.
My skiing prodigy dream was further dashed when Julian had to come and pick me back up,after it became obvious I didn’t possess the core strength required to get myself up while attached to plastic sticks. But although the red slopes were a push for me, they did give me an opportunity to experience how beautiful it was at the top, with the crisp air, pine trees and views of snow-covered mountains all around.
Over lunch at L’Étale, a lovely restaurant with hearty fare in the centre of town, I decided that skiing down the mountain into the town with the experienced group was going to be my Everest. Perhaps it was the wine over lunch, overconfidence after enduring multiple falls without dying, or just that Julian was insistent I could do it, but I decided I’d conquer it that afternoon.
The aforementioned fall flat onto my face happened within my first few minutes of setting off, though only my ego was bruised. Slightly further down, I fell off the snowy part of the mountain and into a ditch of sorts, and had to be literally lifted out of the trees and back onto the snow, such was my inability to pick myself up. Julian said, however, I could blame the slightly sparse April snow cover at the lower altitude. Perhaps I was a prodigy after all.
I certainly felt like one as I skied from the mountain into Le Tremplin, a bar at the ski lift, to cheers from the rest of the group. The reward for my efforts was a waiting sauna and hot-tub back at the chalet. Then it was time to sip a perfectly chilled glass of white wine in front of a log fire, with the smell of Mena’s duck feast wafting through the chalet.
All of this luxury doesn’t come particularly cheap, but it’s worth every cent. It’s an ideal introduction to skiing, and three- and four-day packages make the cost more palatable. You get two to three full days skiing, and food, drink and transport are taken care of, so there’s little to worry about.
Before our flight home, I took a walk around Morzine instead of hitting the slopes one last time. It’s quite a big town, but it’s still got a slightly magical alpine town feel. The fact that it is only an hour and a half transfer from Geneva airport makes it perfect for a short break, and with a massive choice of runs, you won’t be left feeling short-changed.
Aoife Valentine travelled as a guest of Highlife, which offers ski holidays from €910 for an adult and €742 for a child under 12. The price includes minibus transfers to and from your chalet; breakfast; dinner and a complimentary bar. Short breaks in Morzine are available for three or four nights from €549 per adult or €499 for a child. A course of morning lessons with Easy2Ride (for 2.5 hours each morning Monday- Friday) costs between €200-€250. This year the Highlife season runs from November 27th, 2016-April 23rd, 2017. See highlife.ie.
Aer Lingus operate daily flights from Dublin to Geneva. One-way fares start from €44.99 including taxes and charges. For more information on fares and schedules, see aerlingus.com.