Simon Calder: A Swiss ski challenge: my fast track to the slopes
Saturday 21 March 2009
By tradition, today – the vernal equinox - is the first day of spring. According to the airlines, though, the season will not last long: their summer schedules begin next weekend. But skiers will be revelling in a winter wonderland for weeks, thanks to the best Alpine snowfalls so far this millennium.
Many resorts plan to celebrate their meteorological good fortune by remaining open for another month – which means plenty of ad-hoc opportunities for skiers and snowboarders to get a quick fix over the next few weeks. How to do it, though, in a manner that work colleagues – or family – hardly notice your absence? That was what I set out to test last weekend, with a trip to Switzerland designed to minimise the time from paper-to-piste.
You may have your own views on the best destination for the shortest of skiing breaks. Innsbruck airport is well located for easy access to the mountains that surround the Tyrolean capital, while Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, has easy access to its own private mountain, Vitosha. But no skier's destination has as many options available as Geneva, with flights from 25 UK airports – including a virtual shuttle service from the London area. Which is why I accepted a challenge from Liz and Michael Callis to get my skiing kicks without drawing too much attention to yet another absence from The Independent office.
This enterprising British couple, who operate a boutique B&B in London's Mayfair and a Thirties villa in Cannes, have recently taken over a seen-better-days hotel in Switzerland's Val d'Illiez, the valley that narrows dramatically as it climbs from the Rhône to the roof of Europe. They reckon the Hotel du Repos (00 41 24 477 1414; hoteldurepos.com) is the closest ski hotel to Geneva airport. It links into the Portes du Soleil ski area, the biggest in the world. Could this constitute the optimum location for Brits to get a quick fix of winter sports?
Seventy-five minutes is all it takes to fly from London City airport to Geneva; the same time again will see you drive safely and legally around Lake Geneva to the village of Val d'Illiez, 1,000m above sea level. The Hotel du Repos is set on the village square. Five hours after making some lame excuses to my colleagues as I left the office, I was tucking into a supper of rare beef with, sceptics would say, an even rarer experience – superb Swiss wine.
After an Alpine-air assisted slumber, I awoke refreshed – then looked out of the window and accelerated my morning. The "Teeth of the South", as I shall loosely translate the crumpled jawbone comprising Les Dents du Midi, were toothpaste-white. Soon, I would be ascending another 1,000m to one end of the Portes du Soleil, and revelling in the joy of slithering down a mountain inelegantly yet without the need to invoke the more exotic clauses of my travel insurance policy.
But how soon? A train ascends from Val d'Illiez to the village of Champéry, the last resort as you ascend the valley. Only once an hour, though. Therefore Liz and Michael have recruited a man with a van who will come to the hotel and whisk you away to fit boots and skis.
Christophe made sure I was on an early ascent to the ski area, where I negotiated a guide for an hour for 70 Swiss francs (£40); it is remarkable how being British is taken as a plea of poverty these days. With her help, I was soon relishing the complex relationship between legs, snow and the physical laws of the cosmos, while also trying to enjoy the scenery's dramatic corrugations.
By the end of my trip, I was most grateful to Liz and Michael for their invitation – and their company, because they are the warmest of hosts. Their hotel is, as they promise, seductively accessible from Geneva airport. But were I a more serious skier, viewing sleep as merely a necessary interruption between high-intensity descents, the gap between hotel and . Invest another five minutes on the journey from the airport and you can stay in Champéry, where you can shuffle easily from hotel to cable car. This was brought home when, at the end of my first day, I just missed the train back to the village, and ended up hitching.
I was happy to thumb my way down to the hotel, but you might not be. It felt like a Ryanair flight when you expect to arrive in Frankfurt but actually touched down 75 miles away from Germany's financial centre. It is without doubt the most appealing Swiss hotel I have stayed in, but also the least convenient ski accommodation. With respect to Liz and Michael: close, but no chairlift.
What next for London's airports?
When London City airport opened in 1987, you could go anywhere you wanted so long as it was Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Paris, by prop plane.
Twenty-one years on, the airport has proved almost too successful for its own good. But its owners may be rattled by this week's demand from the Competition Commission that the cosy near-monopoly of BAA should end. The Spanish-owned airport group has been told to sell off Stansted as well as Gatwick, while retaining its key property, Heathrow.
With the capital's three main airports under separate ownership, they will each do their utmost to wrest airlines, and hence travellers, away from their rivals – as well as from London City and Luton.
One more effect of the break-up of BAA's stranglehold will delight environmental campaigners in Essex. The new owners of Stansted will have no interest in investing billions of pounds in a new runway and terminal, and instead will want to squeeze every last drop of capacity out of the existing facilities.
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