Having just flown back from France two days prior to my first proper ski trip of the season to attend the wedding of fellow correspondents, Drs. Paul and Lucy Farrow, I was all too aware of just how soul destroying budget air travel is. If you have ever flown in Asia or the US you will have noticed that some of the planes operating are far from in their heyday. Flight used to be about prestige, people dressed for the occasion, cigarettes came with mandatory jade holders, champagne flutes would clink and the captain might even come and join you for a toast.
Now the ashtrays on planes are welded shut, a remnant of a better time. Do you know when the first commercial flight went smokeless? 1973. Did you know that in 1969 when smoking was allowed on all flights, we put a man on the moon. Now you cant do a damn thing without someone reporting you to the CAA. You have to whittle your old spice down to three millilitres just to get on the flight. Arguably budget air travel is ‘popular’ however, the halfwitted cousin of prestige. It is in no way enjoyable though. No one relishes the idea of boarding a budget air flight. You simply count down the hours and minutes until you can rejoin the populace on the ground.
Luckily, I wouldn’t be spending my week in Chamonix, bookended by flights with the proletariat. The smart ladies and gents at Eurostar are now offering rail travel via Lille to Geneva for just £116 return. Bring your skis, bring someone else’s skis, it’s all included. Not to mention that this trip takes around six hours, there is no weight restriction, (so pack that Anvil), there’s leg room for all and logistically it is a breeze. When you compare the airport travel time, security, passport control and luggage collection, the train is a clear winner. Not to mention a vastly more relaxing method of transport on the whole. Sit back, let Patrice and the team bring you a glass of Syrah and forget all about screaming children and malcontent flight attendants.
Of course, not living in central London, I would recommend that anyone heading for the city, make adequate travel plans. I thought that three hours would be enough to drive from Fleet into London on a Sunday. However, the sat-nav in the Maserati was all too keen for me to see the last few vestiges of countryside that online our nations capitol. Trust it I did however. I also took the time to pre-apologise to my good lady before recreating scenes from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. My journey to St Pancras could be described as erratic. Luckily once I had arrived, said my goodbyes, ran a small marathon to the departure area, Anne Marie from Collineige was there to welcome me, arms waving aloft. There was less than ten minutes to go until our departure and we still had to go through passport control. Luckily however, everything is streamlined to the point of German automotive engineering. We boarded, stowed our luggage and were actually welcomed to our first class carriage by our dining car hostess. One clear difference in boarding, the platform didn’t resemble a re-enactment of Apocalypse now. Quite the opposite, no rushing commuters, no screaming children, no malcontent Brompton riders trying to condense a bicycle down to iron filings. As I boarded, the mist of rushing to get to the station on-time began to fall and all that was left was the beguiling scenery of the french countryside, good food and great conversation. The overall journey time to Geneva comes in at around six and a half hours, when you tot up the queuing, checking in and bag drop at the airport, you’re looking at similar journey times for any flight from the UK.
I was travelling to Chamonix, the toast of the European alpine pursuits clique and would be staying with Collineige, who are arguably seasoned operators. Those of our readers who ski regularly will know that every season, there seems to be more and more tour operators offering luxury ski packages. The reality of course is that a website and a phone line, does not a veteran chalet operator make. You expect your chalet company to know the scene, the people, the places and of course be able to react to changes in the holiday plan. So it was good to know that Collineige was founded some 30+ years ago by Colleen and Jean-Marie Olianti. Jean-Marie has been a high mountain guide for the Compagnie des guides for over 40 years and comes from a time when the map and compass where the tools of the trade and GPS was more likely to stand for (Génépi Packed Safely).
Having arrived in Chamonix we pulled up to the Maison de Pays that is Chalet Les Tissourds. The property was built originally in 1924 and refurbished in 2009. Even though I am sure the Pernod signs and old bikes were thrown out, the property retains a chic mountain charm with modern holiday ephemera. If you have never been skiing before, a hot tub in my opinion is almost an essential. That is not to say I wont rough it with the best of them but when you come off the slopes on that first day, a soothing tub is sacrosanct for the thrice a year skier. Obviously the impressive views of the Mont Blanc from the tub and most rooms make this particular property something of a gem. The chalet sleeps eight across four generously appointed rooms and has that quintessential of alpine commodities, an open fire.
As we trooped through the door we were greeted by the wide eyed smile of Kirsteen our chalet manager. With a quick wit and a Kiwi passport, she was my kind of guide. Supper that evening included a soup that had been poured from the hands of the gods. I am hastily reminded to email Kirsteen and ask for the recipe. With a full day of skiing planned the following day, I retired to my slumber.
The following morning there was still a lack of the white stuff in the town, apparently it had snowed a few weeks back but the proper seasonal downpour was still due. The Chamonix valley is renowned for its off-piste and powder but you still need that base layer, that first serious snowfall of the season. Luckily Chamonix is no more than a 20 minute drive from all manner of snow laden pistes should you come before the season really comes into full swing. That morning I was met by Pierre, my ski guide, who had already mapped out a days skiing for us. Even though Eurostar had generously given me more than enough room to bring an entire ski wardrobe, I had opted to hire from the Intersport on the Route du Bouchet. Pierre and I talked of life, love, the pursuit of happiness and his passion for ice climbing in Africa. Pierre, like most ski guides, was seasoned, engaging and passionate about travel. The other benefit of having time with a ski guide one on one is that they double as an instructor helping you to improve your technique. Even if you are an expert skier, you can pick up bad habits over time so having the occasional critique can be very useful. Chamonix offers a range of pistes for all tastes, long groomed runs, freeride, off-piste, beginners slopes and alpine skiing at the tree line.
After your first day on-piste, the appetite is usually more than willing so imagine my delight at the prospect of a menu cooked by chef Carter. The red wine was airing on the table, the fire was crackling gently in the background, all was well in the world.
Dinner consisted of Rascasse or Scorpion fish, it tends to be one of the three traditional fish used in Bouillabaisse and so finds its way into many a French ski resort. Followed by a Crème brûlée that was lighter than air. Collineige is a gourmet lovers paradise and certainly exceeded my expectations. I decide that another early night might be in order as the following morning we would meet Gilles Claret Tournier.
Gilles’ family are the French equivalent of the Kennedy’s. His father was a guide and his father before him etc. Is it the mountain air, perhaps the french diet, or maybe the fact that their day job is ‘climbing mountains’ but every time I meet a French mountain guide I am dumbstruck. Today we are snow shoeing North from Argentiere to Vallorcine. At four and a half miles, it is hardly an Arctic expedition but nonetheless, very beautiful. Gilles takes us along the Mont Blanc trail, past a family of carved Totem Poles. I can’t tell you who made them or how long they have been there, neither can Google, so this one you really will need to get your boots on the ground for. As we walked through snow covered valleys and over small streams, I realised I was hiking. I had left the comfortable surroundings of ‘the hot tub’ and the familiar setting of being ‘on-piste’ and was now in ‘the real world’. One of the group even had to stop for a break due to chest pains when we ascended a closed piste. I didn’t know whether to throw scorn or be genuinely concerned. Did we have enough supplies? Would she be medevaced? Perhaps she would just crawl out of the tent that night and we would never see her again in some kind of Oates based heroics? Luckily we were about 100 metres from a train station so the chances of needing any of these things was slim.
Having completed our scenic trek through Chamonix’s chocolate box perfect scenery, we trudged into Vallorcine to the Cafe Comptoir. I could imagine the place being snow covered with skiers stopping off at the bottom of the run for a Chartreuse. We however, were indulging in some local sausages and dauphinoise potatoes, in what I can only describe as a fragrant cream sauce. Heaven.
Having decided to gauge myself on a stereotypical French meal, I had not really put myself in good stead for our meeting with the health team at Le Spa Du Mont-Blanc. When they asked what treatment I might like my heart told me a full body massage but my head told me something a little less invasive post-meal. I decided to opt for a face massage, how modern I thought. The masseuse Issabella began to run a series of skin tests before turning to me and saying, ‘you have a perfect complexion Mr Robinson’. That however didn’t make the experience any less worthwhile. After all, holidays are supposed to be about rest and recuperation, even Ski holidays.
Later that night, having rested and rejuvenated, we felt that we all deserved a night cap. Look no further than Le Cap-Horn. The main restaurant offers contemporary cuisine with the lower wine bar, ‘Les Caves’, offering the best night life in town not to mention a staggering range of great champagne.
All that remained was to return to our chalet for an expertly cooked supper with our formidable chalet team, Carter, Kirsteen and Kristy.
Chamonix is a resort close to my heart, it offers everything you could want or need for a ski retreat with friends. The team at Collineige are seasoned operators and so should you be inclined to book a week in the white stuff, look no further.