Extraordinary times require extraordinary deeds and, of course, sacrifices – or at least that was what my wife said when I nervously mooted the idea of an early January ski trip with a group of mates.
Although I’m a late convert to the delights of skidding downhill with two planks strapped to my feet, the annual pilgrimage to the Alps, with its shot of post-Christmas adrenalin, fresh air, high-altitude sunshine, manly companionship, and prodigious alcohol consumption, has rapidly become one of the highlights of my year. That was before the economy crumbled and the pound plummeted.
Then, suddenly, salvation. I was told it was possible to get a week’s top-quality piste action in the French Alps for £500. This included flights, accommodation, ski hire, lift passes and transfers as well as some of the best snow western Europe has witnessed for years. It was too good to refuse.
Getting there proved easy enough, Ryanair was selling off taxes-only flights from Stansted to Grenoble, while Liverpool-based ski operator Mountain Heaven has self-catered three-bedroom apartments sleeping eight at the resort of Les Sept Laux – just over an hour from the airport – for £599 a week (£75 per person).
Ski lift passes at the resort are considerably cheaper than elsewhere in the French Alps, and with equipment hire (including a crash helmet) set me back a little more than £200. With transfers and airport parking included this even gave me enough to indulge in a few euro-inflated beers.
At this stage it should be pointed out that Les Sept Laux, like many French ski stations, has none of the
Disneyesque charm of Austria or Switzerland. Though it takes its name from seven small lakes high up in the mountainside, at its core is the “village” of Prapoutel, where the most obvious feature is a utilitarian apartment block redeemed, to a degree, by its Le Corbusier-styled lines. Beneath it is a dated and slightly depressing underground shopping mall, home to an amusement arcade, a couple of bars, a reasonably priced supermarket, and the resort’s only disco.
That said, our accommodation was slightly away from the centre in a new development of high-quality apartments, Les Granges, decked out handsomely in Alpine style complete with spacious balconies, stunning views over the mountains and direct access to the piste and the main chairlift. The development also has its own spa but, at ¤80 a treatment, this was one luxury I was prepared to forgo.
So what of the skiing? Les Sept Laux offers a huge variety. A comprehensive chairlift network – with only a couple of drag lifts – provides access to challenging black and red slopes, a snow park, as well as some enjoyable beginners’ blues and greens that wind their way picturesquely through the tree line. Anyone looking for off-piste drama is also well catered for.
The lifts link the ski area’s three settlements, Prapoutel, Pipay and Le Pleynet, which range in altitude from 1,350m to 1,550m. Out of the school holidays and during the week, the well-tended slopes feel empty.
At the weekend, however, it is a different story. On Saturday mornings the roads leading up to the villages fill up with buses and cars from across the Isère region. Many make the two-hour drive from Lyon, while Grenoble supplies hundreds of students who inject a welcome youthful energy into the resort. By Saturday afternoon the ski lifts are busy and the slopes relatively crowded, though there is nothing like the level of congestion of the most popular resorts.
By night, while the place doesn’t exactly rock, you will need a reservation to sit down to a fondue in Prapoutel. In the early hours, the shopping-centre disco does lively business with a predominately teenage set. By Sunday afternoon, however, the crowds largely melt away.
Whatever happens with the economy, at these prices skiers might well be able to look forward to another trip to the slopes next year.
How to get there
Jonathan Brown travelled to Les Sept Laux with Mountain Heaven (0151-625 1921; mountainheaven.co .uk). A week costs from £370 per person, based on eight people sharing a self-catering three-bedroom apartment at Les Granges. The price includes transfers, taxes-only flights with Ryanair from Luton to Grenoble, discounted ski pass, and equipment hire.