Full disclosure: I should confess upfront that I was profoundly influenced by Wham’s Last Christmas video. Mountain cabins, fireside snuggling, cute bobble hats, frolics in the snow…I must have been at an impressionable age. So ski holidays were always going to appeal…
However, it turns out that there is more to a ski holiday than just turning up and looking winsome in winter accessories. It’s actually a pretty complicated undertaking: which resort, how to get there, where to stay, where to rent equipment and – note to self – you are actually expected to ski, so which ski school is going to show you how? Well, after many a family ski holiday, I have the answers to all these questions and more. It’s all in the detail.
Let’s take it in order. First up – where are you going to ski? For me, it is always Meribel. Known as ‘La Coeur des Trois Valleys’ Meribel is situated right at the heart of the French Three Valleys ski area, claimed to be the largest ski domain in the world. From the Chaudanne, where the main departure lifts are situated, you can set off in all directions to access Courchevel, Mottaret and Les Menuires very easily and Val Thorens and Orelle a little bit beyond. I can’t imagine ever getting bored on this vast array of pistes which offer the whole gamut of difficulty levels, from the friendly undulations of the Altiport area to the daunting Vertical Experience (I’ll let you know how that goes when I try it on the 12th of Never). And Meribel has plenty to offer as a resort: it has classic Alpine charm aplenty and a range of shops, restaurants and bars that seem to satisfy most tastes, as well as the Olympic Centre with a swimming pool, spa, gym, ice rink and bowling. Meribel Centre is where it’s at; confusingly, Meribel Village is a little ski away, or a trip on one of the excellent and very punctual free buses. You can stay further down the valley in Les Allues or Brides Les Bains and travel up to Meribel in the Olympic bubble lift, which admittedly gets crowded during busy weeks and might be a bit too similar to squeezing onto the Tube in the mornings, albeit with a far better view. And don’t expect to ski home if you’re staying anywhere below Meribel Village; the pistes exist in theory but in practice only when it is very, very snowy, as it is this season. However, you get more for your money down the valley, so it’s worth considering.
Next question: how are you going to travel to this Alpine paradise? As a family, we have tried the train, driving and of course flying. Our experience was that a direct train from St Pancras was convenient – we would be through security and onto the platform 20 minutes after closing our front door – but long, and the last bit of the journey always felt particularly tedious. However, you will leave London at a very civilised hour of the morning and arrive in Moutiers as darkness falls, leaving only a very manageable half hour trip up the mountain just in time for dinner. We did the overnight train once, which involved a platform change at the Gare du Nord in Paris and an uncomfortable and tiny sleeper cabin. The Orient Express it was not. We only did that once. However, on the plus side, overnight travel gives you an an extra day’s skiing at either end of your holiday, which is a very welcome benefit.
Driving was interesting. Although the very hardy will attempt it in one go, you really need to stop off on the way. Book your accommodation ahead as others will be attempting this madness too and you really don’t want to be left without a bed for the night. The problem with driving is that although it is fine in decent conditions, you can’t predict the weather far enough ahead to be able to do anything about it if it takes a turn for the worse – such as decide to fly instead. If it snows, a four by four with winter tyres is your best bet, with snow chains in the boot just in case. Then you have to hope that, even if you and your vehicle are capable of making it up to the resort, the roads themselves aren’t blocked by some naïve or foolhardy soul who wasn’t up to the task and has found themselves stuck, wheels spinning and blocking the road. Also, don’t forget you need somewhere to park when you get there – this year’s massive snowfall eliminated a large proportion of the spaces simply by blocking them up with immovable banks of snow and ice.
So the best way to get there? Fly to Geneva. If you can, book ahead to secure the cheapest fares, and don’t be tempted by Chambery, as we were for a few years. Although Chambery is closer to the Three Valleys than Geneva, we found it to be far less reliable, and the time you might save on the roads is lost in the sky while you wait to land or depart. Worst of all, you run the risk that the weather will prevent you from landing at all and that you end up in Grenoble instead, as once happened rather memorably to us. And then what? Meanwhile, Geneva is a proper international airport, geared up to do its job, and the extra transfer time – half an hour-ish – is spent bowling along the banks of Lake Annecy so it has its scenic pleasures.
How to get up to Meribel from the airport, however? I’ll let you research buses at one end of the scale and helicopters at the other, but for me there is only one solution: Three Valley Transfers. On an ordinary day, when the weather is fine and your flight was on time, you’ll be pleased with the nice comfortable minibus and your charming, outdoorsy driver – always an excellent source of insider knowledge about the ski conditions and the latest place to eat. On a day when the weather and flights are going awry, which is always a risk in the winter, you will be grateful to them forever. John, the boss/mastermind, will know that your flight has been delayed before you do; the time we were diverted from Chambery to Grenoble, he was on the phone to me as soon as we landed with reassurance and far more accurate information than the pilot was going to give us. I’ll spare you the details but while everyone around us was losing their minds about getting back to Chambery and missing their transfers, we knew that our driver was waiting for us in the carpark and was not going to leave without us. And remember that day a few years ago when everyone had to sleep in school halls because the weather and therefore the roads were so bad? Not for us – Three Valley Transfers heroically delivered us safely up to Meribel, using their local knowledge to bypass the jammed-up, stationary main roads and their driving skills to avoid joining the many forlorn vehicles in ditches that we passed on the way. I will be forever grateful to Three Valley Transfers for getting us to our comfy beds that night.
So having flown to Geneva and been driven up to Meribel by Three Valley Transfers, where should you stay? Personally, I have always felt right at home with Meribel Ski Chalets. Hands-on owner Will Sussman offers a number of comfortable chalets of various sizes and totally understands that you shouldn’t have to share with strangers to get the catered chalet experience. On hand is a chalet host to cook all your meals except lunch – which you’ll be wanting to have on the slopes anyway – and they’ll have baked a cake and prepared a teapot for when you get back from skiing, which will later be followed by canapes and a three-course dinner with plenty of wine. And as it’s just your group, they can really tailor menus to your preferences. All of Will’s chalets have their own distinct charm and are competitively priced. Will and his wife Lara are also the driving force behind the very welcoming Meribel Chapel, which offers friendly Christian services in English, led by visiting skiing vicars.
Next, you’ll need your skis and boots. And for this, you’ll need Slide Candy. Book with them online ahead of your trip to get the best price and they will bring all of your equipment to the chalet in advance so it’s there waiting for you. When you arrive, the chalet host will give them a call and they will send a very nice person to make sure everything fits properly and that you’re completely happy. Then at the end of your stay they come and collect everything: gone are the days of dragging kit from and then back to the ski shop. Slide Candy have a great system and also excellent equipment and very helpful staff.
So now you’re off to the slopes! But who is going to teach you to ski? Experience has taught me that the best in the business is Parallel Lines Ski School who offer guiding, clinics and snowboarding alongside excellent ski lessons for children and adults. We discovered them when they were just starting out as a company and sent our small children to them for lessons. Those small kids are now strapping teens who can ski anything with confidence and enjoyment, having worked their way with great enthusiasm through the age groups at Parallel Lines. Every instructor we have encountered has been kind, fun and, of course, brilliant at teaching skiing. When the kids are little and the mountains are large, it can be daunting to send them off into the snow, but I have always had complete confidence that mine were in safe hands. And it’s well worth noting that Parallel Lines now have their very own private nursery slope for beginners so newbies can feel super-safe as they take their first lessons.
While our two were off being turned into excellent skiers, Mr iLPH and I swanned around on the slopes a bit and had lots of coffee stops. This was incredibly pleasant but I realised that my own skiing was being neglected, so I have recently started having lessons myself with John Hendry, one of the founders of the ski school, who makes my lessons feel like I’m just out for a fun ski with a friend whilst magically imparting highly technical expertise and imbuing me with a new-found confidence.
So there you have it: the tried and tested perfect ski holiday, learnt by me over many years of trying. And there’s so much snow out there this season that, if you’re tempted, you should definitely go and make the most of it. Have fun and happy skiing!
© 2018 Joanna Reeves, all rights reserved.