Simon Calder: Falling down on the job in the French Alps
Saturday 11 April 2009
Travel has few certainties, but a couple of them pertain to winter-sports holidays. One is that your ski instructor, whether male or female, is guaranteed to be good looking. The other is that, at some time during the trip, you will fall over.
Given my uneasy relationship with gravity, heights and physical coordination, the first surprise of my Alpine trip this week has been that I made it to Wednesday before taking a tumble. What was equally odd was where the fall took place.
First, if you have not yet had the good fortune to ski in the French Alps, let me explain where I am: Morzine – which may sound like a pharmaceutical product of dubious benefit, but is in fact a village buried in one of the deeper valleys in the Savoie. By the standards of some Alpine ski villages, Morzine is an unpretentious place; instead of the Cartier and Louis Vuitton stores in more celebrated resorts, you get a Champion supermarket and InterSport.
Crowded around the village are some of Europe's finest mountains: a spectacular crumple of rock draped in fir and, right now, the best Easter snow so far this Millennium. And perched near the top of this ensemble is the magnificently located Hotel Le Viking.
Twenty years ago, a French investor built a 71-room hotel on a mile-high plateau. The Viking towers above all the usual ski-industry clutter and provides superb views (more pleasing, it must be said, than the view of the hotel from the surroundings). It was later bought by a French division of TUI – Europe's biggest holiday company, which includes Thomson, First Choice and Crystal. And today it serves as a flagship "Club Hotel" for Crystal, the UK's largest winter-sports operator. "You can be the first on the slopes," promises the company. But only if you make it through breakfast in one piece.
On Wednesday morning I was first to arrive in the restaurant. I happened to be carrying a mug in my left hand and a glass in my right hand, which was about to become relevant. The floor had just been cleaned, and its surface had about the same coefficient of friction as wet ice. As soon as I stepped on it, my feet shot southwards from under me, while my old adversary, gravity, dragged me heavily to the very shiny floor. My left hand broke the fall, which happily meant I was left clutching a chipped mug rather than a shattered glass.
This unusual manoeuvre was watched by an audience of half-a-dozen members of staff who, I then noticed, were tip-toeing gingerly around, evidently in on the floor-polishing secret.
As I picked myself up, one of them called, "Are you alright?" As politely as I could, I suggested that a judiciously placed sign warning of the slippery floor might help to reduce the attrition rate as the breakfast rush got under way.
This was the moment that crystalised the extraordinarily sloppy operation that Crystal runs at a hotel which it sells at sky-high prices. It was impossible to tell if the mug I was still clutching had been damaged in the fall because most of the hotel's stock of mugs are chipped. And perhaps my lack of care when walking into the restaurant arose because all week until that moment the floor had resembled that of a Students' Union bar after a busy Saturday night – you know, the sort of place where you lift your feet with a sticky rasp from the adhesive cocktail of drinks smeared on the surface.
On one sense it is our fault; guests are messy. The trouble with family hotels is that drinks get spilled, food gets scattered, and tantrums get thrown. And that's just the adults. But I have never previously stayed in a hotel where you could tell, at dinner, what the family who breakfasted at your table had enjoyed (or, in the case of the remains of a stale croissant under my chair one evening, evidently not enjoyed). Nor have I encountered a three-star hotel in France that is unable to provide cheese at the end of an evening meal (though one guest claims to have secured some, served grated in a bowl).
The staff are, to a man and woman, friendly and obliging. But the vast majority of those I have talked to are gap-year students making the most of a year off to earn as they learn to ski and snowboard. They are not hotel professionals, as recent posts on TripAdvisor testify. One disgruntled customer claims that the cleaning of rooms comprises only "beds straightened by iPod-wearing youth", while another asserts the hotel is "staffed by people more interested in their two hours of skiing per day than customer service".
Good luck to them; no one can blame the staff for taking full advantage of Crystal running an Alpine Fawlty Towers, dragging the company's reputation through the end-of-season slush.
How skiing incompetence resulted in a mini-market binge
The point of a skiing holiday is to go skiing, and conditions have been splendid. And Crystal's shortcomings dwindle in comparison with the incompetence of some customers. Especially me.
Luckily, I was still in Geneva airport's baggage reclaim last Saturday when Luke, the very helpful steward on the Thomson flight from Gatwick, appeared with the bag and coat I had inadvertently left on board the Boeing.
On Sunday afternoon, I persuaded the family to explore some new terrain. The rain began just after the point of no return as we began the long chairlift ride to the highest peak. By the time we reached the top it had turned to hail. Progress down from the summit was painfully slow. At the point when I realised that I had misread the piste map, and that the hotel was actually several hundred metres above us, rather than below, two things appeared out of the haze. A pisten bully (pictured) flattening the snow for the benefit of skiers next day; and a ski patrol, the very professional people whose job is to clear the stragglers from the mountain. With a crackle of talky-walkies (as the French endearingly call them), we were ordered onto the only functioning chairlift as a Snow-Cat was summoned to ensure the children's safety, while I was instructed to ski down a slope steeper than I would have liked.
We ended up in an entirely different village, with no obvious way home. A cable-car attendant gave us a lift in his car, and refused all offers of payment. But he did mention "My sister runs the spa in Morzine" – which I took as an invitation to spend some cash there. I imagined myself enjoying a soak and a sauna. But when I turned up with my euros to the location he described, I discovered the establishment was, in fact, a mini-market named Spar. I still spent freely.
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