The choice of resort for February 1997 was always going to be complicated by the fact that the 55-year-old (my mother) is something of a luxury model. In her extensive experience, hotels are those nice places where they serve caviare from ice sculptures in the shape of the Sydney Opera House. Switzerland, spiritual home of the luxury hotel, seemed the obvious place to look for a resort that would offer village-based skiing but still put chocolate truffles on your pillow. If the brochures were any guide, the obvious winner was a five-star establishment in Saas Fee. How wrong we were.
Our chosen hotel was decorated in a rather queasy mixture of knotty pine and chandeliers. The thing to remember about hotel star systems is that stars are awarded not for taste or charm, but for piffling little things like room safes and shrink-wrapped lavatory seats. Never mind. It looked swish enough - at ground level anyway.
Upstairs was a different story. We had asked for a quiet room on a high floor. What did we get? An overheated second-floor shoebox overlooking a noisy night-club. The bobble-hatted rep with the name of his employers splashed helpfully across his fleece, reminded us that the small print in the brochure stressed special requests could not be guaranteed. My mother, veteran of a hundred Presidential Suites, wasted no time and few words. "It's a horrible room. You know yourself it's horrible. I'm sure you have something else.'' Within minutes we had risen two floors and the ceiling had risen by 6ft.
Time for a stiff drink. This very hotel (which shall remain nameless: a lot can happen in 12 months) had once been celebrated in a Sunday newspaper for the staff's legendary ability to remember how you like your Martinis from one year to the next. A likely story. In my experience the sweet but strangely ineffectual staff would have trouble remembering that you ordered a Martini at all. The service in the three restaurants was slower than molasses. Wherever you ate, you were guaranteed 30 minutes staring at a greasy plate between courses, while your five-year-old curled up as the clock struck 10. Nor was the food always worth the wait. Anything in buffet form was delicious, but opt for a dish that needed to be bodily transferred from kitchen to table, and you'd better bring a sleeping-bag. These foodie disappointments climaxed in the weekly Lobster Banquet, an extravaganza staged, unaccountably, beside the indoor swimming-pool in an atmosphere optimistically described in the literature as ``Karibische'', but which was about as Bajan as a stale banana sandwich. The three groups who opted for this fishy fiasco were seated so far from culinary HQ that we remained forgotten for 40 minutes at a time while we waited for the next instalment of rubbery crustacean to be delivered to our pool-side sauna by dozy youths in Bermuda shorts.
North-facing slopes and a good fall of snow meant that the skiing was fabulous. But you can't ski all the time. Eating out was almost as disappointing as eating in. We tried lunching in a crowded Konditorei and were reduced to ordering toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and a small pizza. One doesn't expect much from a ham and cheese sandwich - a global commodity that can be found on every snack menu from Rio to Ramsgate - but there are two things one expects from a pizza: it should be hot, and the bottom should be harder than the top. This pizza failed on both counts. No time to mince words: ``Fraulein? Please take this away. It isn't very nice.'. The waitress looked at me in frank disbelief and removed the plate, only to return with it 10 minutes later, steam rising from the curdled pool of cheese. "But we don't want it at all. It isn't very nice,'' I explained.
"Excyoosse me madame,'' hissed the by now exassssperated woman, ``but ziss is not a restaurant."
I pointed out that whatever they called themselves, they had no business putting pizza on the menu if they couldn't defrost it adequately.
We had better meals, but none was exceptional and all were overpriced. It was as if standards fell and prices rose to the levels that would be tolerated by the tourist population, as if the Swiss reputation for good catering had no basis in native pride in the food itself. They do things rather differently in France.
And so, 12 months later, having lost faith in Swiss hotel-keeping, the picky parent agrees to risk a chalet holiday in Meribel. Once again, comfort was the major concern. After wading through page after glossy page of brochures offering rooms that contrive to sleep 12 in a species of bunk shelving that wouldn't disgrace a Tokyo flophouse, we established that Simply Ski was one of the few operators who understood that queuing for a communal lavatory was not an option. The chalet not only had exemplary en suite plumbing, it also had a cook who could really cook.
So far so good. What about Meribel itself? Pretty, Identikit pine chalets, sexy clothes shops, Olympic swimming-pool, divine Savoyard food and a free resort bus ensured that a good time was had by all. The skiing wasn't bad either, thanks to good snow and an outfit called Ski Cocktail which had the adult beginner on blue runs within days and rendered the six-year- old a positive hazard.
The other big improvement on last year was the introduction of the Eurostar Ski Train from Waterloo, which takes you to Moutiers in seven-and-a-half hours, ready for a smooth, half-hour transfer by minibus. That may sound like a long time to spend on a train, but by the time you've trekked out to Heathrow and spent two hours in Tie Rack, three hours mopping up spilled Ribena in tourist class and three hours helping a toddler throw up into a paper bag on the coach from Lyons, you really might be better off admiring the mistletoe-garlanded trees of Northern France while tucking into home- made sandwiches and playing cards. The picnic was essential. The Eurostar buffet last week was reduced to a peculiar waffle thickly encrusted with sugar and cinnamon that proved to be a close relative of the polystyrene ceiling tile. It can only be a matter of time before they turn up on the menus of Swiss cafes.
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