Size isn't everything. While much of the ski world is obsessed with spreading tentacles into neighbouring resorts to create one giant domain, others are content to stay small and intimate. So it is with Les Orres, tucked away in a corner of the Hautes-Alpes in northern Provence. Admittedly it too caught expansion fever in 2008, when Les Orres 1650 spawned a slightly swishier little brother and gave it the topographically useful name of Les Orres 1800. But it remains small, happily so, knowing that within its 100km of pistes there is enough to keep people entertained – especially families.
They don't make it easy to get to, though. It's at least three hours by coach from Turin airport, part of it along the hairpin bends to Briançon. And first impressions could be better. Les Orres 1650 is as brown as the landscape of thickly forested mountains that hadn't had fresh snow since early January. Its architecture betrays its 1970 date of birth, while Les Orres 1800 is in a gentler shade of pine.
Both resorts cluster around the bottom of their respective ski areas, which makes the ski-in, ski-out brigade happy. They're like little toy towns, with a decent number of affordable restaurants, bars, ski outlets and food shops. The Alpine cuisine and steaks at the Winter Lounge quickly became a favourite. And it's immediately obvious that everyone is inordinately friendly. I mean, really, really nice. The whole atmosphere is solidly, pleasingly French, echoing with the distinctive twang of the Provençal accent.
There was just enough light when I arrived last Sunday afternoon to wake up my ski legs on the green runs through the forest above 1800, otherwise known as Bois Méan. I was having a proper introduction the following morning, when cheerful Thierry from ESF took me along the lower runs of both Bois Méan and 1650 where there was plenty of forest cover – handy for when the weather turns bad. Icy patches here and there, however, made me impatient for some fresh snow. "Snow is coming tonight," promised Thierry. "Don't you worry."
I didn't have time to worry as I had a snowshoeing session that afternoon with Serge, also from ESF, who had the grizzled look of every snowshoe guide I've ever seen. Snowshoeing takes you to places that are otherwise hard to reach, and Serge led me into the woods that surround the pistes of Bois Méan. Occasionally we had to cross the slope, which felt a bit naughty as skiers were still cramming in a few runs. A very light snow started to fall as the sky turned dusky, while the only sound in the forest was that made by the crunch of the snowshoes.
A cheese fondue fest was in store that evening at Grand Cabane in 1650, which was worth the 20-minute walk along the winding path that connects the two resorts. The snow flurries that arrived that afternoon turned into a proper dump, transforming the brown footpath into a magical white world.
As in the rest of the Alps last Tuesday morning, I woke up to more than a foot of snow. I could just about see it through the thick fog that gave everything a ghostly look. But before I could get too worked up about the lack of visibility, the clouds started to dissipate as I ploughed through the powder. My grin was as wide as the lovely broad pistes.
The heavy snowfall did cause some havoc, however. The upper slopes around the 2,700m peaks were closed, with signs warning of avalanches. I was happy to heed, considering the number of avalanche deaths already this winter.
The thick snow led to my most embarrassing moment, thanks to a heavy-set horse and excitable dogs. I was trying ski joëring, another snow activity that's been popping up around the Alps. Strapped into your skis, you hold on for dear life to feeble-looking reins while a horse leads you along a trail. Well, that's the theory. You're not meant to have three dogs running about and getting in the way. And it helps if the path has been groomed. Otherwise, the knee-high powder impedes you to the point where you fall over inelegantly on an incline and can't get up. Or even get your skis off.
The horse's rider, Eveline, was yelling for her husband to come and help, but I'd given up and trudged down the hill. My mood was lightened soon afterwards by a party of local schoolchildren in the middle of a lively snowball fight. They were spending their PE lesson snowshoeing on one of the cross-country ski trails that wind through farmland a few kilometres from 1650. Not for the first time, I wished I'd been brought up in the Alps.
My inner child did have its chance to come out for a bit of fun, thanks to the Orrian Express. This monorail luge run beside the piste at the bottom of 1650 starts soporifically enough as you're pulled up 710m while you sit back and enjoy the view. At the top you're let loose to spin and spiral down at insane speeds for 1.5km. Shrieks of delight rang through the air, most of them from grown-ups.
All that was needed at the end was some mulled wine on a bar terrace and the last few rays of the afternoon sun. That's après-ski Les Orres style: relaxed, intimate and as warm as the Provençal sun.
The writer travelled with Crystal Ski (crystalski.co.uk; 0871-231 2256), which offers seven days self-catering at La Combe d’Or apartments from £335pp including Thomson flights from Gatwick to Turin and transfers. Six-day adult ski passes cost £152; six days’ ski hire from £55.
ESF (esf-lesorres.com) offers snowshoeing starting at €18pp for two hours. Le Kiowah(ctekiowah.fr) has ski joëring from €10pp for 20 minutes, as well as horse and pony rides. Rides on the Orrian Express cost €4.50 adults/€2 children. Winter Lounge (00 33 49254 3510). Grand Cabane (restaurant-agrand-cabane.com).
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