Méribel: A very British ski resort
Plenty of UK skiers visit Méribel each year, but there's still something special about this part of France
Saturday 13 March 2010
To the majority of British visitors, Méribel feels like a winter extension to the Home Counties. First earmarked as a skiing destination in 1938 by a British colonel called Peter Lindsay – who was looking for an alternative to the Austrian resorts the British usually frequented – today the Ski Club of Great Britain claims Méribel as one of the top five destinations for UK skiers. Brits make up 37 per cent of total visitors to the resort (French guests comprise a further 48 per cent). During the vast annual influx, the resort becomes Little England upon Alps and, for many of the boisterous Brit visitors, a holiday here isn't complete until they have polished off a bottle of toffee vodka while dancing around in their ski boots at the Le Rond Point bar.
The resort lies in the middle of the Three Valleys: the ideal place for a few cruisey late-morning runs in the sun before a leisurely lunch and a siesta in readiness for a session at the Doron Pub, a local watering hole famous for hosting raucous booze-fuelled sessions each evening.
So says the stereotype. But Méribel's reputation doesn't square with my own experience of the resort, which I was lucky enough to call home for four seasons at the beginning of the millennium. True, we used jokingly to call the place "Francefordshire", but the Méribel we knew was a place where a vibrant and permanent Anglo-French community existed happily. Crucially, we were drawn back year upon year by the endless amounts of terrain on offer. The bare statistics – 600km of pistes and 183 lifts – don't begin to do it justice.
On its own, Méribel is a great, challenging mountain for most beginners and intermediate skiers. Once the enormous scope of the Three Valleys region is included, it becomes one of the Alps' outstanding ski areas. Some will argue Méribel lacks steep terrain, but there are enough quality slopes to keep most twice-a-year visitors occupied for their skiing lifetimes. This, and the constant upgrading and overhauling of the lift system (such as a new high speed chair linking Méribel Village to the Altiport area) make the skiing some of the smoothest imaginable.
After an absence of five years, I finally returned to Méribel last month. As I rode the lift over to the Val Thorens, I asked my guide, Olivier, if the valley had changed much. He laughed: "Well, there were only a couple of lifts when I was a boy. One was open-sided, and you had to stand! So yes, the place has changed a lot."
And what do the locals think of the British invasion? "Well, the tourists are important to Méribel, but they are not the heart of the valley. There are many British people who live here permanently now, and there's a great relationship between them and the French. It is all evolution."
We were soon gliding through the gentle glades of the Val Thorens valley, then hit untouched powder as we headed for the unsung freeriders' haven of La Masse, the peak that overlooks the neighbouring resort of Les Menuires. After a short hike from the top of the lift, we hit white gold: pitch after pitch of steep, fresh snow, untouched for four days since the last snowfall.
The following day, I met a local legend: Julie Pomagalski. Julie is a former member of the French Olympic team, part of the local Poma family (the ones with their name on most of the ski lifts around the world) and today works for the local tourist board. She's got Méribel in her blood and is an incredible snowboarder. She showed me some of the resort's newer innovations, such as the fleet of Segways available for hire in Mottaret, and the beginner-friendly "Zen Zones" that dot the mountain. Designed for novices, families and less confident skiers, they are set apart from the main runs so the tentative can gain confidence in comfort and safety.
That evening, after a massage in the spa at the new, four-star Hotel l'Helios, we headed in to town for a drink at Le Saint Amour. On my previous visits, a bar called L'Capricorne was the focal point of the local community. Run by a French couple called Manu and Denyse, each night would end with a boisterous, wheelchair-bound Manu imploring us all to stay safe on the mountain.
Today, the Cap is long gone, replaced by a smart wine bar called La Poste and endless sports bars. However, the bijou Le Saint Amour still had the essence of the old Méribel. Run by a French woman called Magali, there was a seemingly limitless wine list to choose from, local beer on tap and scarcely an English voice to be heard.
I was soon chatting away with a group of French locals, who told me about Méribel's take on the terrain park craze: the Moon Park. Méribel has been working hard on its park facilities, and they were keen to show me how things had changed since I was last in town. We arranged to meet the next morning for one of the weekly taster sessions.
Upon arrival, it was immediately clear that Moon Park is the focal point for local riders; there was a welcoming camaraderie in the air. The last time I tackled any kind of jump was in Méribel (I've still got the back problems that resulted from a hefty fall), but park bosses Yann and Jonathan soon put me and the rest of the assembled newbies at ease.
After a quick safety lecture, they took us on a tour of the park's smallest jumps and encouraged us to push ourselves on the relatively safe obstacles. Everything was colour-coded and easy to understand, so there was little chance of beginners stumbling across one of the more dangerous black jumps. We tackled the "green" run of jumps and the run of successive jumps (known as "whoops") at the top of the park, and it was fantastic fun. By the end of the session, the high fives and fixed grins told their own story.
Later that evening, I headed to Aux Petit Oignons, a restaurant and bar run by French chef Eric Gelin, to watch local band Hobo Chic.
Ever since The Feeling earned their spurs playing covers in Méribel, bands have been making the pilgrimage to the resort to try and follow in their footsteps, and Hobo Chic were the latest. "There's no other place really like it for live music in the Alps," said Dave Jordan, who has been coming to Méribel since 1994, discovered The Feeling here in 2000 and is now curator of the Little World Festival – a music festival at which the soft-rocking local heroes are the headline act.
There were few tourists there, just a mellow community of French and English seasonaires swapping tall mountain tales and lamenting the slow start to the season. It could have been the strong local lager, but as I watched the band I experienced a burst of nostalgia and felt like I'd suddenly stepped back in time to my own Méribel experience. "Francefordshire" suddenly seemed like a wonderful place to be.
Travel essentials: Méribel
* Geneva Airport is 135km away and is served by airlines including easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ), Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com ), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com ), Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com ) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ).
* Moutiers rail station is 18km from Méribel, served by the Eurostar ski train from London St Pancras (08432 186 186; eurostar.com ).
* The writer stayed at the three-star Marie Blanche (00 33 4 79 08 65 55; marie-blanche.com ). Doubles start at €226 including breakfast.
* Hotel l'Helios (00 33 4 79 24 22 42; lhelios.com ). Doubles start at €560 per night, half board.
Skiing and visiting there
* Ski passes for the Three Valleys cost €46.50 for an adult per day or €232 for six days. Access to the Moon Park is free.
Little World Festival runs from today until 19 March, with over 40 indoor and outdoor gigs, with The Feeling headlining ( littleworldfestival.com )
* Méribel Tourist Office: 00 33 4 79 08 60 01; meribel.net
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