Alpe d'Huez and La Folie Douce: You've got to get up to get down
Does the famously raucous club work in a staid ski resort? Matt Carroll finds out
Sunday 16 March 2014
Call me a party pooper but I've always felt slightly uncomfortable about the whole après-ski scene. It's the dancing on tables bit that I find particularly challenging. I'm almost two metres tall, and it's not pretty when I start swinging my oversize limbs to "Y.M.C.A.". And in most bars, in most European ski resorts, "Y.M.C.A." forms an integral part of the nightly soundtrack. Sad, but true.
So, I was hesitant, to say the least, about my friend's invitation to Alpe d'Huez, to check out swanky new après bar, La Folie Douce. This is the fourth opening in the Folie stable, with sister properties in Val d'Isère, Méribel and Val Thorens, all of which have reputations for their high-energy après scenes. So Folie's arrival in sensible old Alpe d'Huez – known for its family-friendly, affordable skiing – marks a step-change.
I arrived the night before La Folie's grand opening and there was more than the usual start-of-the-season buzz about the resort, especially given that the snow was yet to arrive. Glancing up at the surrounding peaks, I saw patchy brown crags poking through the white crowns, like blemishes on bad teeth (they've since been capped by tons of the white stuff, so new arrivals having nothing to fear).
Just as I was beginning to get that sinking feeling, a tray of champagne and canapés arrived. "Can I tempt you?" asked Andy, the moustachioed chalet host at Club Chateau, wafting a tray of delicious mini-Scotch eggs, encrusted with black pudding and breadcrumbs, under my nose. Andy and his Scotch eggs epitomised all that was good about this chalet: uncomplicated, unfussy and just what you needed at exactly the right moment.
On the menu that evening was a three-course feast, including pan-fried sea bream with warm tomato, olive-and-herb salsa, washed down with a constant supply of delicious vin blanc. This being the first night, however, I decided to save any tabletop dancing for the Folie's opening party: between now and then, there was still a whole day's skiing to think about.
Next morning arrived, bright and cloudless, which didn't bode well for the powder day I'd dreamt about. In all there are around 250km of pistes to explore at Alpe d'Huez, the bulk of them blue and red. I took the Tronçon cable car up to the 3,330m Pic Blanc and when the doors peeled back they revealed a sugar-coated world drenched in brilliant sunshine. The snow was in surprisingly good nick, and I laid out some turns on the sweeping Glacier de Sarenne. Working my way down past a frozen lake to the Marmotte 1 cable-car station, I got my first glimpse of the fabled Folie Douce.
In truth, I heard it first, the throb of funky house music pulsing across the pisted snow in a bid to lure me into its decadent trap. Although the Folie Douce's champagne-soaked reputation has only really blossomed since the opening of the first property in Val d'Isère back in 2007 – its origins go back to 2000, when Luc Reversade built an open-air bar in the resort called La Buvette du Lapin.
Having been inspired by the outdoor clubs of Ibiza, Reversade wanted to create an alternative to the typical stein-sloshing Alpine après scene. What followed was a gourmet brasserie where food was served up with a generous dollop of dance music – creating a beach-bar vibe only with the sand replaced by snow. It was an instant hit, evolving into the Folie Douce brand.
While the likes of Val d'Isère already had an established high-end party scene, here in Alpe d'Huez things are different. "Alpe d'Huez's combination of beautiful scenery, plus guaranteed snow and sunshine, has always made the resort a great place to holiday," said Reversade. "But we believe we've created the perfect spot here, where you can enjoy seriously good food, stunning views, and the best music in town." La Folie's manager in Alpe d'Huez, Jean Baptiste Gravier, continues the theme: "With Alpe d'Huez, what we've done is bring La Folie's own touch of 'sweet madness' to one of Europe's best-loved resorts."
There is, however, a more sensible side to the place too: those simply looking for a place to lunch can sit back in the sun and enjoy a three-course feast at the adjoining restaurant, La Fruitière, for around €40; or grab a speedier, canteen-style bite inside at Le Nuvoself – all wood floors and bright, chromed lights.
It was still a little early to be unveiling my dance moves. Instead, I headed over to Signal restaurant, which overlooks the village, all glass walls and chi-chi cowhide rugs. This is another upscale addition to the Alpe d'Huez scene, where a typical slope-side fare of overpriced spag bol has been superseded by exquisite dishes such as veal stew in cream sauce.
The afternoon was spent (somewhat more sedately) on the mellow slopes of the Dôme des Petites Rousses, before a softening of the sun's rays announced that it was, finally, party time. The throng made its way down the Boulevard des Marmottes, gravitating towards La Folie like ants to a picnic, as a blast of live saxophone reverberated off the mountainside. Suddenly, I wasn't in the Alpe d'Huez you read about in guidebooks. Instead of a sensible family scene, the enormous sun deck was awash with fur-clad glamour-pusses draped across low-slung chairs, while waiters in Folie-logo'd shirts delivered champagne.
Bathed in sunshine, with epic views out over Alpe d'Huez village and the surrounding peaks, the sun deck officially holds 300 people. In reality, though, it felt like much more: standing on a chair to look for my table, I found myself staring out over a sea of writhing bodies, hands in the air.
"I've been to the one in Val d'Isère, too, but this is better," said Emma, a snowboarder from London who was in Alpe d'Huez for the first time. "This feels like Ibiza in the mountains."
With the season now heading towards its conclusion, reports are that numbers have remained healthy all winter. La Folie, it seems, is set to be a permanent fixture on Alpe d'Huez's après scene; there are plans to open another branch in Megève next season.
Back in Alpe d'Huez, champagne corks were popping and glasses clinking as the saxophonist began prancing along a raised catwalk. His sidekick, Angel, was working the crowd up into a frenzy, asking us for the umpteenth time if we were "really ready to party!"
I certainly was. Having blagged my way into the VIP section, I mounted my nearest table, threw my hands in the air, and howled at the fading blue sky. This was better than any après-ski party I'd seen before. Best of all, though: I didn't hear a single rendition of "Y.M.C.A.".
VIP SKI (0844 557 3119; vip-chalets.com) offers a week's accommodation at the Club Chateau in Alpe d'Huez, on a chalet-board basis, from £869pp, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick and transfers.
La Folie Douce Alpe d'Huez (00 33 479 060 717; lafoliedouce.com). This season's closing party will be held on 26 April.
Le Signal (00 33 9 80 72 12 99; signal2108.fr)
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