Morzine: Discover a heightened sense of adventure
Paragliding, snowmobile safaris, luxurious chalet life and superb slopes – Morzine is the perfect place for a family skiing holiday, says Adam Leigh
Saturday 19 February 2011
In the summer of 2009, convalescing after a brief but acute illness, I found myself taking stock of life. I'd spent too many years playing things safe and sticking to familiar ground. So I vowed to do the things I'd always made excuses for avoiding: I would seek out new experiences and acquire new skills – and I'd make it a point of principle to say yes to pretty much anything that seemed daunting or unfamiliar.
Which is how, after a near-lifetime of procrastination, I finally learnt to ski at the age of 43 – and why, one sunny morning last month, I was soaring 1,600m above snow-dusted forests and Alpine pastures in Morzine, with Mont Blanc dead ahead, and just a few kilograms of nylon keeping me airborne. Tandem paragliding, or "parapente", is the sort of activity from which, in my previous life, I would have run a mile. But in keeping with my new, open-to-anything, go-with-the-flow philosophy, it was impossible to turn down.
Parapente – which might better be described as jumping off a mountain with a large kite attached to your back – is all the rage in these parts, just one of a number of adrenalin-based activities available to visitors. And judging by the delighted reactions of my wife, Kate, and two young sons, it's pretty much off the scale for exhilaration.
My own response was more ambivalent. White-knuckled, I endured the 20-minute flight in silence as my pilot, Florence, took me swooping over and across the valley. The scene was undeniably spectacular, yet as I looked down on the skiers silently snaking down pristine pistes far below, I reflected that however adventurous one's intentions may be, some of us are simply designed to live with our feet on the ground.
Morzine has been a favourite with the northern European ski-and-snowboard set for the past decade, and is clearly having something of a moment, with chic new chalets and upscale bars and restaurants open for business up and down the town. Little wonder, perhaps, since the town and its mountain-top twin sister, Avoriaz, sit at the centre of the vast Portes du Soleil ski region, with around 650km of prime piste straddling the Franco-Swiss border – and all covered by a single lift pass. Plus, it's barely 75 minutes by road from Geneva airport, meaning you get more precious hours to do the things you want (parapente, anyone?), rather than travelling.
The town has a youthful, funky feel, while retaining a good deal of old-world Savoyard charm. In addition to the burgeoning chalet scene, there's a smattering of small to medium trad-style hotels – and a pleasing lack of big chains to taint the atmosphere. The après-ski scene is lively, but stops short of full-throated raucousness.
Our quest for adventure wasn't limited to action sports. In an unprecedented act of social derring-do, we'd opted to stay at Au Coin du Feu, an immaculate chalet-style hotel run by Francesca and Paul Eyre, who arrived in town separately 17 years ago, met, fell in love and never left. The couple first began renting rooms to holidaymakers in 1995 and their company, Chilly Powder, now operates three chic chalets in the hamlet of Les Prodains. Word of mouth has clearly played a big part in building the winter clientele, many of whom return year after year.
Au Coin du Feu is on the big side for a chalet, sleeping about 50. Meals are taken communally – the very thought of which would have been enough to bring my pre-epiphany self out in a rash. But finding myself in fine company, I enjoyed the conversation as much as the food. Francesca's background is in catering, and it shows in the quality and consistency of the kitchen, which turns out truly impressive three-course dinners each evening, as well as tasty cooked breakfasts, exceptional cakes and pastries at teatime, and a separate early-evening meal for the children.
Our room was cosy and comfortable, with a good view of the mountains. Isaac, nine, and Noah, seven, slept upstairs in their own spacious mezzanine – when they weren't playing pool in the games room. There is satellite television and a sound system in every room, although with so much else to do, you're unlikely to switch them on. For those with younger children, the chalet has a lovely daytime crèche.
Amie, the chalet manager, had thoughtfully arranged for a local hire company, Doorstep Skis, to come and fit our equipment in situ, so we could get cracking as soon as possible. Au Coin du Feu is just two minutes' walk from the bottom of the main téléphérique up to Avoriaz. The 65-man cable car, it must be said, is not one of the technological marvels of the world. But it does the job well enough, and work is due to start later this year on a shiny new €30m lift, linking Avoriaz with Prodains, and onwards into central Morzine.
Squatting on a rocky shelf overlooking Morzine, and constructed in a unique Le Corbusier-inspired architectural subfusc that makes it practically invisible from below, Avoriaz is a bustling, car-free resort. It acts as a hub for a huge network of lifts and pistes stretching across to the Swiss border at Chatel and beyond. Our guide from the local ski school, Thierry, took us to an impressively large area of interlinked blue pistes where Isaac and I could work on our parallel turns.
By lunchtime we'd worked up quite an appetite, which was just as well, since the food in these parts is on the hearty side. Stopping at Les Cretes, a ridge-top restaurant with an awesome view down the valley, Kate and I enjoyed platters of local charcuterie, served with crispy potato beignets, and washed down with mugs of beer, while the boys tucked in to crispy crêpes.
A couple of hours later, we were back in the centre of Avoriaz. Kate, Isaac and Thierry had the bit between their teeth and elected to ski a steep and rather challenging red piste down to the chalet. Noah and I, shattered after our first day on skis for nearly a year, took the cable car.
At Au Coin du Feu, the fire was lit and it was time for a reviving cocktail while dinner was prepared. Later, as the wine flowed, the debate around the table was of spectacular routes discovered – and where the best views could be found. Seasoned skiers Bill and Anita described a magical place called Les Lindarets, and it was clear that this was the spot to head for. One or two other guests even had glamorous injuries to boast about.
We awoke to find the mountains all around us hidden by mist. But at Francesca's suggestion the previous evening, I'd downloaded a nifty Portes du Soleil smartphone app, which has real-time webcam links to the area's main resorts, so I could see that the sun was shining in Avoriaz. Up we went through the cloud, and emerged to meet our instructor for the next two days, the dashing Frédéric.
Under Fred's no-nonsense tutelage, I sensed myself progressing from hapless rookie to something approaching an intermediate-grade skier. He drilled me endlessly. Posture, stance, weight distribution, use of poles, positioning of woolly hat and goggles – all these and more were scrutinised and assessed. "So, Fred, am I basically the most useless pupil you've ever had?" I asked, after he had deconstructed my technique for about the 50th time. "Yes," he replied, without even the merest soupçon of irony. Yet there was no doubt that my confidence was growing, and as we cruised down the home stretch of Combe à Florets, a steep descent through a stunning section of forest to Les Lindarets – just as beautiful as I'd been led to expect – I almost wept with pride and fatigue.
Before supper, we piled into the back of Francesca's car and headed up to Super-Morzine for our final action adventure: a night-time snowmobile safari. As Isaac gripped on to me tightly, I opened up the throttle and we took off, bouncing across the mountain trails. It was by turns magical and terrifying.
Up early next morning, nervous but excited, I caught the cable car on my own, determined to squeeze in a couple of hours of mountain-time before the dash to the airport. It was crystal clear but properly cold as I headed for Le Proclou, a gentle 2km run with a couple of steepish bits at the top and bottom. Just two days earlier, I had struggled to ski it without falling over. Now, as the wind picked up and flurries of snow whipped round my head, I found myself seeking out the fastest lines, making the sharpest turns I could.
Flying down the final section towards the chairlift, I stretched out my arms and turned my face toward the sun. For a few seconds at least, I was king of the hill.
Travel essentials: Morzine
* The writer travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which flies to Geneva from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City. Seven-day fly-drive packages start at £249 per person. Geneva is also served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com), Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com), FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com).
* Chalet Hotel Au Coin du Feu (020-7289 6958; chillypowder.com). A week's fully catered stay costs from £580 per person.
* Doorstep Skis (00 33 6 74 93 78 96; doorstepskis.com) delivers equipment to Morzine. Prices from €20 for helmets and €82 per week for skis and boots.
* Portes du Soleil Parapente School (00 33 4 50 75 76 39; morzineparapente.com) offers tandem flights from €120.
* Avoscoot (00 33 6 08 22 18 15; avoscoot.com) offers snowmobiling from €80.
* Morzine Tourism: 00 33 4 50 74 72 72; morzine-avoriaz.com
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