The last time former ski instructor Christian Broughton hit the slopes, he was travelling on a budget. This time he's doing it in style - at a luxury chalet-hotel in chic Val d'Isère
Saturday 05 March 2005
An entire hour spent soaking in a hot bath, accompanied by a huge glass of red wine - this, I realise, is true luxury. Despite what you're thinking, you really do have to travel to experience the real pleasure that a bath can bring. For it is only after your first day on a snowboard (which involves moving from bum to board to knees and back again repeatedly) that such bliss can be properly appreciated. Tomorrow morning, bruises will appear, muscles will ache. But for now, the relief and relaxation are intoxicating - even more so than this much wine.
It's an experience that was entirely new to me. Sure, I've stayed in similar resorts before, but not for a long time - 16 years, in fact - and I was starting to see how much had changed. Of course, snowboarding is mainstream now, and skis are shorter and fatter and easier to turn on. But the thing that no one had bothered to tell me was just how much chalets had also changed. After day one at Aspen Lodge in Val d'Isère, it was the easily available luxury that made the biggest impression.
Back when I last fetched my goggles from the loft, the choice of accommodation was comparatively stark. If money were no object, then there was the James Bond world of five-star St Moritz hotels; if you were on a budget, the spectre of the shared bathroom (correction: shower room) was never far away. Then there was the option of an apartment - usually a spartan arrangement. Spend a little more and you could get the "family-friendly" chalet, complete with sagging tartan sofas, floral curtains and hearts carved into the woodwork - hardly the last word in cool. The food was often nothing more than edible; the wine sometimes plain undrinkable. And worst of all these options was the prospect of a quick trip to the British slope where I used to work as a ski instructor- a hill covered in Dendix (toothbrush bristles set in a metal framework; the chances of a soft landing weren't good) with a loo round the back that had seen better days.
For this trip, none of the above would do. The hidden agenda was to persuade a reluctant girlfriend that a trip up a freezing mountain should be as much a part of our annual journey planning as her favoured week of beach-side luxury somewhere hip (Miami's South Beach, Sydney and LA have all scored well over the past few years).
The same criteria had to apply to this ski trip - it had to feel like a treat, it had to be cool. Allowances would not be made just because this time there was lots of snow. The stakes were high - this was probably my only chance to convince her - and there are still plenty of bad chalets out there. But we weren't even inside Aspen Lodge when I started to sense that persuasion would be as easy as falling off a drag-lift.
Close your eyes and picture a typical chalet. Now make it bigger in all directions, remove any fussy, fancy details, and uproot it from the classic isolated snowy spot and place it right in the centre of the resort's main street. Now you have Aspen Lodge: a bold, contemporary take, but still suitably Alpine. Tap in a PIN-code, the glass doors slide back and the lights flicker into action to reveal the reception, complete with crackling fire and LCD-screen PCs for checking the snow reports. At this stage Aspen Lodge looks like a medium-sized hotel - it does, after all, have 43 rooms, each a double or twin, over four floors. But step out of the lift and the feeling fades. There are no individual rooms here. Instead, each floor houses its own "chalets" - suites of between three and five double rooms, each with its own host, and a shared dining/cooking/living area. And this, you see, is the clever bit. OK, so it doesn't take Sir Rocco Forte to work out that big hotels can offer guests a few extras, but at Aspen Lodge, size really does matter.
Val d'Isère is a boom town, and rightly so: it has an excellent snow record and the skiing in the Espace Killy is breathtaking and challenging. Boarders may find the many flat sections irritating, but there are endless opportunities for off-piste fun and a good snow park; and the town has both real history and Alpine charm. And it's hosting the World Championships in 2009, so don't expect its popularity to wane any time soon. Consequently, if you want a small chalet instead of a hotel, you normally have to forsake the centre of town. But Aspen Lodge, because it blurs the line between chalet and hotel, is right in the middle of town, just a two-minute shuffle from the main lifts, the Olympique cable car and the Solaise Express chair.
As for the lift at Aspen Lodge, well, that took us to the Birch chalet. But would it pass the girlfriend challenge? A problem emerged. Outdoor shoes had to be left in the hallway - a rule that raised a furrowed brow: would a pair of highly coveted pink Ugg boots be safe in an unlocked cupboard? Well, it was a stumbling block that was soon forgotten. Our shoes had to come off to protect the solid oak floors. The rest of the interior was equally plush. It felt exactly like a chalet should: fireplace, rugged communal dining table, masses of cedar beams heat-treated to look aged (and which, incidentally, smelled as good as they looked). But you won't miss hotel luxuries either: there was a flat-screen TV and DVD player in the lounge, our room had not only an en suite bathroom, but one with under-floor heating and his-and-hers Villeroy & Boch twin sinks. It was contemporary and muted, but still Alpine - like Kelly Hoppen meets Heidi. And there, on the bed, resting on the fluffiest of duvets, lay what, for my girlfriend at least, was the clincher: a complimentary Molton Brown lip balm. Her absolute favourite. We were in chalet heaven.
Still, one question was bothering me. We were not alone in our chalet for 10. What were the other eight like? With no locks on the bedroom doors, you have to feel at ease with your neighbours. And there was another uncomfortable thought: what sort of person is attracted to a brochure named "VIP"? Would there be corporate P Diddy wannabes arguing at dinner about whether Mr X's BMW is better than Mr Y's Lexus? Thankfully, they were normal - in the nicest sense of the word.
While the majority of chalets get block-booked well in advance, all of our chalet buddies had been eagerly checking discounts and snow reports, and booked late and cheaply so that they knew where the snow was. It cost them... well, less than the £799 rack rate (including BA flights and transfers) for the third week in January. And in a town such as Val D'Isère, that's not bad at all; the deals are just as tempting in Meribel, the other resort offered by "VIP".
Though they didn't know me well enough to divulge exact prices, we all got along. We talked about where we had been, which blue runs were more like reds, which were more like blacks, and which black runs we were working our way up to. Of course, it helped to think that, if the group didn't gel, we could escape for a walk up to the church, or to the nearby bars of what the locals call the rue de la soif ("thirst street") - Victor's for cocktails, Café Face for DJs and a fashionable beer or two, and Dick's only if you really must stay out past two. If you're booking a whole chalet, you could, of course, forsake all this convenience for the latest additions to the "VIP portfolio" - the Chalets Suisse, on the edge of town, have been finished to what the company describes as "no-expense-spared" standard (the flat-screen newer, the materials a little better, the fireplace bigger, and even a heated boot-drier) with a driver available to take you and your skis back from the slopes. But in the evenings, isolation and strangers may not mix.
But we didn't need to escape, and for that, a lot of the credit had to go to the chalet host. Think a twentysomething, snowboarding Nigella, with an effortless ability to make everyone relax. Waking to a cooked breakfast, fruit and cereal, coming home to fresh bread and home-baked cakes, and looking forward to, say, lamb shank later on, well, it was easy to feel relaxed and sociable, and the get-along spirit was helped further by the supply of good merlot and côtes du rhône. While most chalet breaks provoke a fair number of complaints about the food, here bribes were offered for peeks inside the top-secret folder of official recipes provided by the ski company, Snowline.
The food, drink and staff were, in fact, the same as those in the regular Snowline brochure. The extra £150 or so you pay to be a VIP, as opposed to a regular Snowliner, really only buys you an accommodation upgrade. But I loved my long baths and heated floor. My girlfriend's now on her third free lip balm. I've a feeling we'll be coming back.
GETTING AND STAYING THERE
A week at the Aspen Lodge in Val d'Isère, including British Airways flights from London, transfers to the resort, half-board accommodation and ski guides, costs £729 per person for a week, starting on 10 April, through Snowline (08703 123 118; www.snowline.co.uk).
A six-day adult lift pass for Val d'Isère costs €187 (£135).
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