Ten years ago I fell in love in Val D’Isére. It was a love affair that was to take me away from a career, away from home and away from family. It would give me the world to travel, the best experiences of my life and incredible friends. It would cause me pain, elation and joy. But it wasn’t a girl I fell in love with. I fell in love with a lifestyle, an environment and a sport. I fell in love with skiing.
Ten years and six ski seasons later, I returned to where it all began for the “Ultimate Alpine Chalet Experience. “
But what could be new to someone who’s worked in every aspect of the European industry? Because Val D’Isére held a special place in my memory, I wondered if returning there would be like meeting your hero with reality not living up to expectations.
Ski holidays in recent years had lowered those expectations: cattle-like airport transfers; cramped chalets with miserable staff; contemptuous instructors. I took the strapline with a pinch of salt and anguished at undoing the backstory to my life on snow. I’m delighted to say that my cynicism was premature: I was utterly blown away.
We were guests at Le Chardon Mountain Lodges and from the moment we got to Geneva absolutely everything was taken care of. We were greeted at the airport by our charming host, Penny, and chauffeur, Luke. A Perrier-Jouët champagne picnic and luxury transfer ensured the journey to resort was an enjoyable experience, rather than the dead time of transfer hassle. The excitement built with the terrain as we headed deeper into the Alps – valleys became steeper, roads narrower and the landscape was dusted with snow. The chalet manager, Adrianne, greeted us at the door before we swapped our shoes for slippers, and headed to the lounge for canapés. Rather than traipsing to a smelly basement in the town centre, we had our ski boots fitted in the chalet, and by afternoon tea I was more relaxed than I ever can remember being in a ski resort.
The lodges are at the very top of Val D’Isére, with enormous picture windows offering uninterrupted views South, over the National Park.
Le Chardon are part of the Mantis Group, who “preserve a vanishing way of life,” and here they preserve an authentic Alpine chalet experience. Privately owned, designed and managed, the chalets have a wonderful homely feel, romantic background story and attention to detail that you just don’t find with tour operators. Each room in the flagship chalet is made of a different wood – I was in the walnut-appointed Ardgay – and everything one could expect from a luxury stay was in place, all the way down to bath tonic for soothing weary muscles after a hard day on the mountain before dinner and, of course, more champagne!
The house champagne is Perrier-Jouët, and we were lucky enough to have PJ’s Senior Brand Manager Nick Morton talk us through a taste-matched menu: I was over-excited by a black-pudding and quail’s egg canapé, so by the time we arrived at a Wasabi-scented cheesecake with berry coulis, via Chicken Wellington, I was in gastronomic ecstasy.
Morton’s knowledge of Perrier-Jouët was excellent, as you’d expect, but it was the heritage that captured my imagination – Japanese-influenced white flower design to echo the taste; only 7 cellar masters in a 200 year history; the drink of Oscar Wilde – I felt part of some exclusive club. I’d never tried champagne tasting before and was surprised how much each varied from the next, and that champagne could be matched to the food in the way normal wine is. It was a unique, indulgent and rewarding experience.
The next day was the main event – skiing. The lodges are all ski in/ski out, so within minutes I was looking down on the nursery slope where I had taken my first tentative slide (and tumble) on skis. At the top, I had to take a moment to collect myself. The snow conditions were incredible and the sky was that particular shade of blue that you only get in the high, dry Alpine air. But this place was particularly special to me. For it was right here, at this spot, that I fell in love.
Looking down the valley, with the reservoir in the foreground, I could see Mont Blanc looming on the horizon. Around me, in a silence broken only by the rumble of a chairlift, was a vast, white desert, with no sign of humanity other than the odd pair of ski-tracks, leading off into the wilderness. Up here was an empty world, far from the emails and phone calls of London, the savage mountains uttering forth rivers of ice, making me feel both insignificant and reckless. The moment I saw this view ten years ago, I knew that I wanted to spend my life doing this.
I could now enjoy the full gamut of ski opportunities in Val D’Isére, guided by Ken from Progression Ski School. I’ve come across a lot of instructors and coaches in skiing, and Ken is one of the best: relaxed and professional whilst individually adapting his teaching style to each client. He kept us moving and gave us each something different to work on (no mean feat in a mixed ability group, I can assure you!). Effective drills, with chair-lift-chat being a mix of conversation, resort information and ski-technique made for a great day on snow.
We finished at Le Folie Douce, and if I’d discovered this Aprés-Ski bar on my first visit, I would have done every season in Val. A huge outdoor terrace is dominated by DJs playing house music, and a performance team of saxophonists, singers and dancers with a camp vibe that only the French could get away with.
We returned to the chalet for tea and cakes, before a hot-tub session as the moon rose, followed by a massage from Mountain
Massage and Beauty – it was the best my muscles have ever felt after a day on the mountain. After another sumptuous dinner we headed to Dicks’ Tea Bar. Intending to bring Kings’ Road nightlife to the Alps, I think Dicks’ does something better, as it has a distinctly European vibe coming from European DJs and bar managers. Again, the music was of a much better standard than I would expect from an Alpine bar and before we knew it, we had danced till 4 o’clock.
The hangover was headed off by blueberry pancakes and a dream I’d had since that first trip.
Ten years ago, barely able to snowplough, I had looked up in awe at the Olympic Face and promised myself that, one day, I would ski it. The heavy snow meant that it hadn’t been groomed, but enough skiers had braved it to form an intimidating mogul field.
I stood at the top, looked down and felt a tingling in my stomach. I plunged over the lip and started to smash my way down the Face, knees coming up to my chest on each bump. By half way, my legs and lungs were burning, as I hung on for dear life on the steepest pitches. I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath, but when I reached the bottom, I looked up and felt a wild elation – my dream had come true, and my skiing has come full circle from that innocent trip ten years ago.
Val D’Isére exceeded my expectations. I achieved the goal that ignited my ski passion ten years ago, and with the impeccable Le Chardon, had a fully relaxing holiday to boot.
Ash Bhardwaj is a freelance adventure and travel journalist with a background in ski instructing, rugby and philosophy! He is currently writing a BBC documentary about taking his father’s ashes to India and exploring his heritage. http://ashbhardwaj.wordpress.com/