Simon Calder: Taking the rap for the Alpine Fawlty Towers
Saturday 18 April 2009
Crikey, I thought, as the crowd on the hotel terrace began to dance on the tables and a guest at the party lit another joint: if this is Crystal's idea of a family hotel, I wonder what the company's version of Club 18-30 is like?
The location was the Hotel Le Viking, a mile high in the French Alps at Morzine. It is owned and operated by TUI, Europe's biggest holiday company, which staffs it and sells it as an exclusively British hotel under the Crystal brand. A "Fawlty Towers of the Alps" was how I described the place on this page last week; but after I had filed the story, things took a turn for the worse.
As far as I am aware, the John Cleese sitcom never involved drugs or violence, but the end-of-season party at the Hotel Le Viking featured both.
The Portes du Soleil ski area, of which Morzine is part, has an enticing slogan: "When Swiss style meets French touch". But when these virtues collide with British excess, the results are far from pretty. The hotel bash had started at lunchtime, adjacent to the nursery slopes; besides providing a training ground for junior skiers, this area was also the location for a colouring session run by Crystal 's excellent crèche staff.
The party featured three DJs and cheap (at least by French ski-resort standards) beer. Fair enough: the saisonaires (as temporary resort staff are known) deserve to celebrate the completion of their assignments. But shortly after 5pm things turned ugly.
First, a fight broke out between members of Crystal staff, which is never a good look for a hotel. Then the choice of music, blasted across half of France and Switzerland through the hotel's powerful Bose speakers, took a turn for the worse.
Until then, the winter holiday anthem had been "Big Fish, Little Fish", a novelty tune made famous by Bob the Builder. This British cartoon character is no relation with the American rapper, Busta Rhymes, with whose work you may be less familiar.
Instead of Bob's slightly surreal but cheery lyrics ("Don't get all tied up in knots/Just get a fish and a cardboard box"), families on the nursery slopes were treated to Busta's hit single "Break Ya Neck". The most prominent line in this 2001 ditty is "Break ya f***ing neck, bitches".
That was the point at which I concluded the event had swerved across the boundary from a frolic to affront. I suggested to the staff at the reception desk that, metaphorically, they pull the plug. They did, literally.
The hotel has now gone in to the summer version of hibernation, and will re-open for business on 12 December. Next winter's holidays at the Viking are already on sale, with the corresponding week next April priced at an ambitious £1,125 per person (though if anyone actually pays this much, I'm ski-jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards; this Easter I paid just under £800, including kit hire and lessons).
Before you book, though, allow me to provide more detail about the facilities promised by the brochure. All rooms do, indeed, have cable TV, but during my visit the dozen channels on offer were all in French – an unusual arrangement for a hotel sold only to the British market. Internet access is available, but at a price that reflects the monopoly position of a hotel a mile above sea level: €9 an hour, unless you happen to be a member of staff.
The water in the "outdoor heated swimming pool" is warmer than the ambient air temperature, but only marginally. The "hot and cold breakfast buffet" always featured at least some tinned food when it opened at 7.30pm, but sometimes we had to wait a further 40 minutes for the bread. And as for the "bar with plasma TV", one fellow guest said that walking into it "felt like gatecrashing the staff social club".
Mathew Prior is possibly the busiest man in travel. A former ski rep, he is now managing director of TUI Ski, encompassing the winter-sports programmes of Crystal, First Choice and Thomson. Which means he is ultimately responsible for the majority of ski-package holidays from the UK. Including mine.
Mr Prior took 10 minutes out of his Easter weekend to call me about the hotel. He says he is "extremely concerned" about the events and will investigate. "Last week was the end of the season and it is likely that both staff and guests were in high spirits as a result. However, Crystal accepts nothing less than professionalism from its staff at all times."
He also says "standards at the hotel clearly failed to meet expectations. Both the facilities and management of the hotel will be reviewed and appropriate action taken before it is opened next season." Perhaps it's a job for Bob the Builder.
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