|photo by freeimages.com/Mireya Pinazo|
by Ben Ross, The Daily Telegraph, January 25, 2015
La Plagne’s easy, uncrowded slopes provide an Easter treat for everyone – and there’s plenty to get hearts racing too, says Ben Ross.
Timing, they say, is everything. There are only three points in the ski season when school holidays allow British families to congregate in the French Alps in any great numbers: Christmas, February half-term and Easter. And from a timing perspective, there are pros and cons to each. Christmas? Well, there are domestic distractions to contend with: stockings to fill, turkeys to roast, tiresome relatives to visit. The snow can also be unreliable, as has been made painfully clear during the current season. On the other hand, there are few things more festive than a snow-clad ski resort hung with fairy lights – and all that vin chaud cheers parents up nicely, thank you.
Half-term? That’s the big one, of course. Mid-season, so you have the best chance of decent, settled weather, and the snow should be at its best. But crikey, it’s expensive; you have to book early to bag a place during that week-long window; and the queues for the ski lifts are likely to be extraordinary.
So that leaves Easter, which has the annoying habit of being mucked around by the vernal equinox. In 2016, the situation works in favour of family skiers; you could find yourselves on the slopes as early as March 19, with all the likely benefits in terms of snow coverage that brings.
Whatever date it falls on, Easter tends to mark the ski season’s last stand. The higher resorts will be snow-sure enough, even if the ski runs into the village are a trifle sticky, but look past those white streaks of carefully groomed runs and all around you is a greening world, trickles of melting snow rushing to join a meltwater pandemonium along the valley floor.
I can’t claim to be a veteran of Easter skiing, but I can announce myself a convert. It’s the long days that do it for me, along with the possibility of warm spring sunshine. Each outweighs the slushy snow, or those grey-green runs. My family and I tried it first in high-altitude Tignes, then visited Les Arcs at the end of the 2013-14 season to enjoy a week of bluebird days, of skiing sans base layers and of lunch on mountain terraces en plein soleil.
Yes, last time around, our timing was immaculate. So we thought we would have another go. Our choice? Well, in our case familiarity breeds contentment, so we opted for more of the same... but different. Les Arcs is linked to the adjacent slopes of La Plagne by the double-decker Vanoise Express cable car. Combined, the two form the Paradiski area, one of the largest (425km of runs) and most varied in the Alps. Having given our Paradiski Discovery passes an airing by popping over to La Plagne from Les Arcs on our first visit, last season we based ourselves in La Plagne and did the same in reverse.
Our new home was Hotel Turquoise in Belle Plagne, operated by Neilson. Part of a curve of rather bulky buildings clad in dark pine and named after semi-precious stones (Onyx, Opal and Améthyste are its neighbours), Turquoise is set beside a gentle run through the village, offering true ski-in/ski-out accommodation.
Timing had been an issue here, too. The building was previously operated by TUI and Skibound, and was taken over by Neilson at the start of last season. There followed a mad dash to get it up and running by February 2015, with attention focused on the communal areas on the ground floor.
It’s a friendly sort of place, in essence a puffed-up chalet containing 25 rooms, with the spacious bar at its heart still bearing the fresh-paint-and-new-furniture hallmarks of the recent makeover. There is plenty of pale wood in evidence and a comfy banquette runs along one wall, giving it a relaxed, café-like feel. During a week of set-menu meals, we ran the gamut of comforting favourites (beef bourguignon, fondue, confit duck, an excellent cassoulet), while various sets of children scuttled between tables, forming brief Easter holiday alliances.
Drinks were served by gingham-shirted staff, who divided their time between drawing long glasses of Leffe Blonde (€9/£6.75 each) for the grown-ups and playing Jenga with awestruck preteens. Indeed our hotel hosts were fantastic throughout, genuinely excited to have families descend on their property after a couple of months of catering for boring old holiday-whenever-they-like adults. With seasonaire vim they instigated snowball fights, toboggan races, snowman-making competitions and smoothie-tasting sessions. Before long our 12-year-old and his 10-year-old brother were spending their evenings in huge communal games of Uno, while their grateful parents did exciting things such as drinking wine and falling asleep in their chairs.
Above ground level, there was evidence that Hotel Turquoise was still a work in progress: popcorn wallpaper and rather battered-looking hallways gave way to rooms that, although clean and neat, were in need of some TLC. Ours came with a sweet little mezzanine level tucked into the roof that was just big enough for the boys’ beds, but the main area felt cramped, with tired carpets and a bathroom that had seen better days. None of these things mattered to us particularly – a ski holiday rarely stands or falls by the quality of its bathtub – and it turns out that they are unlikely to perturb future guests either. A spokesperson for Neilson tells me that the company has refurbished all the rooms for this season, “removing space-restricting stud walls, laying new wood-effect flooring and updating bedroom storage”. So that’s all good, then.
Hotel Turquoise forms part of Neilson’s Mountain Collection, a selection of 19 hotels and catered chalets across France, Andorra and Italy. This season, Mountain Collection guests receive two free coaching and guiding sessions from qualified ski and board instructors during their stay, a sort of halfway house to ski school that will benefit intermediate skiers most.
David Villien from the ESF took us for a spin. La Plagne consists of a disparate assortment of 11 villages spread like a web across the slopes, with Champagny-en-Vanoise, over on the south side of the mountain, reached via La Grande Rochette funicular. Above the tree line, Plagne Centre is the key hub: purpose-built and rather utilitarian. Belle Plagne, Plagne Villages and Plagne 1800 are newer and built in a chalet style, which makes them rather prettier – and everything looks chocolate-box enough when doused in snow.
David, a part-time pipe-welder and full-time Arsenal fan, was keen to show us the very edges of what was on offer, leading us on a reds-and-blues tour from Montalbert to Montchavin (for the Vanoise Express) via some easy skiing at the top of Les Blanchettes lift and some more challenging stuff – anything called Kamikaze ought to have sounded alarm bells – pouring off the top into Champagny.
"As a parent, these are the moments you dread: a 12-year-old shrieking 'Yolo!' before demanding that you consign yourself to a driverless bob-raft"
Immediately the benefits of our late-season stay were apparent. The slopes were generally uncrowded in the mornings and lift queues were virtually non-existent throughout the day, although things picked up a little after lunch, with the areas below La Grande Rochette and Roche De Mio increasingly stippled with skiers. Most of the slopes around the main bowl face north and are at such a height (between around 2,000m and 2,700m) that the snow – crackly in the morning, superb by noon, stodgy by the end of the day – was always plentiful. On the other hand, hit the tree line, particularly on the stretches to Montalbert and Montchavin, and plenty of runs were clogged with slush. (“Robeesh,” according to David.)
Out of nostalgia we slipped over to Les Arcs, visiting our favourite mountain restaurant, Blanche Murée, and then reacquainting ourselves with the tree-lined slopes off the Grizzly and Derby lifts. But there was plenty to keep us occupied in La Plagne, which revealed itself as an intermediate playground perfect for families such as ours (with the children offering the first hints that they were, in fact, now better than their parents at skiing). We punctuated a growing fascination with the Inversens and Sources runs with coffees at the Cheyenne Café in Belle Plagne, crêpes at La Bergerie above Plagne Villages and pizzas at La Roche in the bright sunshine of Montalbert.
We skipped pudding, though. Not far from Montalbert, La Plagne reveals a USP that I had not previously thought relevant to a family holiday – and it required a settled stomach.
The boys had taken great pleasure sledging down the 2.9km Eldorado toboggan run (€7/£5.25 per descent), but their ears pricked up when they heard about the bobsleigh course nearby. As a parent, these are the moments you dread: a 12-year-old shrieking “Yolo!” (“You Only Live Once”, apparently) before demanding that you consign yourself to a driverless bob-raft that reaches 50mph on an Olympic course containing no fewer than 19 terrifying turns.
Before launching ourselves into the abyss, I chatted to Romain Heinrich, pilot for the French Olympic bobsleigh team, about what was in store. He told me he went down the run faster – at 80mph – than we’d manage, but that he couldn’t do more than three runs a day because it required too much concentration to get down perfectly.
Imperfectly would do me fine, I told him. I felt oddly reassured when I discovered that the bob-raft had plastic cushions to keep us comfy on our 1.5km journey. But then, after some alarming announcements from the Tannoy (“Turn 13 is now clear! Turn 13 now clear!”) and a countdown from the traffic light, we were off. No steering required, just screaming.
At the end, I felt quite proud, if a little queasy. The previous family had completed the course in 1:31:26m. We’d done it in a nifty 1:28:45m. Timing, as they say, is everything.
Need to know
Neilson ( neilson.co.uk/ski ) offers a week at Neilson Hotel Turquoise, pictured, for a family of four from £1,720. The price includes return flights from Gatwick for two adults and two children (2 to 14 years), transfers, seven nights in a piste-view family room on a club-board basis (daily breakfast and afternoon tea plus four-course evening meals with wine on six nights) and the Neilson Mountain Experts service. Price is for travel on April 9.
The bob raft costs €44 per person and is booked through winter.la-plagne.com (under-14s must be accompanied by an adult).
A six-day Paradiski Discovery lift pass, offering access to La Plagne and a day’s skiing in Les Arcs, costs from €768 for a family of four (children aged 6-13) when booked in advance. The Unlimited Pass costs €908 when booked in advance ( skipass-laplagne.com ).
More information: winter.la-plagne.com
This article was written by Ben Ross from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.