Disaster? Megéve was a triumph

The early signs weren't good for Tristan Davies and his family on a skiing holiday in France
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The Independent Travel

Let me count the ways in which this should have been a disaster. We'd chosen the last-but-one week of the season, a warm and sunny Easter holiday, in a region untouched by snow in the whole of the previous April. We'd booked horrendously early flights with easyJet. (Can saving a couple of hundred quid ever compensate for a 3.45am alarm call?) By the time we'd reached Megève via a minibus transfer from Geneva, midday felt like midnight, and there was a whole afternoon's skiing ahead.

Ah, but at least there'd be a twinkly Alpine hotel to check into. Maybe time for a quick power shower in a marble bathroom, or a reviver at a mirror bar in front of a welcoming fire ....

True, the Hotel Sylvana made no wild promises. I was struck, in fact, by its modesty. I saw nothing odd in its claim that it was "formerly a one-star hotel". How quaint. How charming. Perhaps it was aspiring, in its quiet, unassuming way, to a second, maybe even a third star. It didn't cross my mind that the former one-star might have been removed altogether, and not replaced.

There was, indeed, a fire flickering its welcome in the grate. And a bar, from behind which, up popped a large man with Viking hair and a plaited goatee who introduced himself as Tom, the hotel manager. Tom, like the Sylvana, would later reveal himself to be a man of many surprises, but at that moment all I could think of was that this was the first time I had ever been welcomed by a hotel manager in a pair of shorts revealing calves that, from knee to ankle, were criss-crossed by thick, black zebra stripes. "Awright?" he said. The answer, as it turned out, would be no.

If you will excuse my French, the Sylvana, which has a luxurious view of the surrounding mountains, is somewhat challenged in the chambre department. And the lit department. And, once you've worked out how to unfold its door, the bain department. I don't know what the French for duvet is, but it certainly wasn't fluffy or white.

The Sylvana has remained charmingly untouched by the tyranny of good taste. Within in its standard Alpine wood-and-shutters frame, no passing fashion has remained unignored. White linen? No! Wooden floors? Away with you! A showerhead the size of a satellite dish? Are you mad!

After eight hours in planes and people-carriers, or, indeed, eight hours on the slopes, you need a little more comfort than the Sylvana can offer. Ignoring the fit-inducing multicoloured bed linen, the brown carpet that in a previous life might have been beige and the G-plan pine furniture, the first sight of a bath the size of a snowboard was enough to convince me (and more significantly, my wife) that I had made a terrible mistake.

What really tipped me over the edge, however, was what lay behind the curtain in the main living room. Such was my dismay at the horrors that it concealed that I did not mention it once to my wife until we returned to the hotel after the first afternoon's skiing. I don't want to lay this on too thick, but I have to tell you that, despite the wonders of the Rochebrune slopes, upon which we skied on freshly fallen snow in full view of Mont Blanc and from which everyone had returned rosy-cheeked and sound of limb, the first thing I did when I got back to our room was to ring round trying to get us out of there.

For I knew what my wife did not. That behind the curtains lay a single, large dining-room table, set for 16 people. For heaven's sake. This isn't a hotel, it's a chalet. And in a chalet, unless you've taken the precaution of filling it with your friends, you have to sit round a large table and eat with complete strangers. Worse, you have to talk to them. That's not a holiday! It's a marathon of small talk and a minefield of potential family disgrace. (You haven't met my boys.) And it was All My Fault.

The Sylvana is one of several in the area owned by Stanford Skiing, a family company run by the avuncular and mild-mannered John and his charming daughter Elizabeth, and you might be forgiven for thinking it is staffed entirely by her wayward teenage children. The ambience is determinedly student chalet. This is not without its quirky charm. The Sylvana is the only hotel in my experience where one of the two hard-working chalet girls greeted me in the morning with a "Hello dude".

The clientele, on the other hand, is avowedly silver surfer. We were to share our week, and our meals, with four single men and women of a certain age and the prospect of making new friends with a motley crew that consisted of an economics teacher, a builder, a lobbyist for women in science and a retired lady of leisure was not one that filled me with any hope of a relaxing après-ski.

And how glad I became that I couldn't book us into a better appointed or private hotel in the chic but expensive town of Megève. If you're going to sit down with strangers every night, then the food (and wine) had better be good. And in Tom, the Sylvana has a cook that looks as though he has trained at the local greasy spoon, but who turned out food that even Gordon Ramsay could tolerate if he slalomed into town with his Kitchen Nightmares. Perhaps it was this, and the entirely quaffable house wine (free until coffee was served, but who needs coffee?) that turned a potential disaster into a triumph. Or perhaps it was simply that if you put any group of random Brits (and they were all Brits) in a warm room with good food and plenty to drink that they are bound to make the best of it.

And make the best of it we did. Fortified by scallops and smoked salmon and French onion soup starters, duck and beef and swordfish main courses and salopette-threatening chocolate puddings, even the most anti-social of the group (that would be me, having formed a wagon circle of children around me at one end of the table) came to look forward to the enforced socialising after the day's skiing. Exhausting, certainly, bad for the liver, unquestionably, but I came to love bellicose Gordon, an unreconstructed son of Caledonia; Chris the builder, pining for his dog; Jane the sparkling, can-do Cambridge graduate; and Janet, who took the time and trouble to see the sweet boys within my snarling man-children and teach them how to play bridge.

And what days on the slopes. Megève is a resort of the old school, unpulverised by the piste makers who have turned so many resorts into the motorway runs heaving with queues of packaged tourists fighting for their inch of snow before making the descent into giant concrete monstrosities which, for all their mini-bars and saunas, can't touch the tumbledown appeal of a small, family-run hotel. Its skiing is unchallenging, perfect for beginners but pretty and varied enough for intermediate skiers. As Gordon remarked, all he wants from a ski holiday is mountains and trees and snow, which Megève has in abundance.

We were lucky with our two late snowfalls, which gave us enough powder to cover our boots, the sun shining all the while. The only place I have skied as freely as this, with open pistes, no queues for the chair lifts and, on many runs, no other people to spoil the magnificent views, is Cortina in Italy, which shares with Megève an old-fashioned charm. It is like skiing in black and white, as if at any moment Sophia Loren or Roger Moore in his prime might schuss past you on the way downhill to cocktails at one of the small-scale grand hotels owned by the Rothschilds.

I loved Megève, and, despite myself, I loved the Sylvana. The children loved being able to slope about the hotel in their socks and generally treat the place only marginally better than they do their own home. A nicer bunch of people, staff and guests included, I couldn't hope to meet. I'd even go again. And if lovely old John spent a little money on bringing his bathrooms and bedding into the 21st century, I'd have absolutely no reservations in recommending it to you. Oh, sod it, what's there not to like? Go!

Compact facts

How to get there: Stanford Skiing (01603 477471; stanfordskiing.co.uk) offers a week at the Hotel Sylvana from £379 per person, based on two sharing, including return coach transfers to Geneva, breakfast and tea, dinner with wine on six nights, and an accompanied skiing programme. It is open from 14 December to 18 April 2009. Return flights with easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) cost about £55 in December.