Alpe d’Huez, France credit: Elizabeth Hotson
“What if I lose control and smash into a pylon?”
I was panicking about my first ever ski trip. I’d got to my 30s but had avoided the lure of the slopes until now.
“It’s all about the apres ski and there aren’t any pylons,” I was assured by a friend who’d been skiing since she was in nappies.
Spurred on by the thought of warm red wine and saucepans of cheese fondue I talked myself into getting on a flight to Grenoble, gateway to the resort of Alpe d’Huez in France.
A week later I was on the plane with a group of seasoned skiers. Fortunately it was one of the last British Airways flights to offer free booze so I decided to follow their lead and get into the apres-ski mood with a couple of Bloody Marys and a gin and tonic. The flight went by like a flash and after a delicious steak lunch at Grenoble airport’s Séquoia restaurant we drove the 90 minutes to our overnight stop, the lovely little village of Oz-en-Oisans.
Buoyed up by the crisp mountain air and still merry from lunch I strode confidently into the ski shop and bombarded with unfamiliar phrases like ‘ski pass’, ‘boot room’ and ‘skis’, somehow managed to leave with the correct equipment. Success. Fortunately dinner time was nigh and feeling more than deserving of that long-fantasized about saucepan of cheese fondue, I decided to indulge, lest this be my last day on earth. After a sumptuous feast of protein and saturated fat in a local restaurant our party toddled over to the newly opened and surprisingly swish Moontain Hostel. It’s often the cost of skiing that puts people off so having a reasonably priced, comfortable place to stay was a real bonus.
The next day it was down to business. The proper adults went off to snowboard, ski and indulge in a mysterious activity termed ‘off piste’ whilst I was taken to a slope so flat it wasn’t a slope. And thank God it wasn’t. Lolloping around on the alien appendages attached to my boots I eventually mastered staying upright. My ever patient, scarlet-clad instructor Clementine from the École du Ski Français (ESF) coaxed me on to the gentlest of mounds, ordinarily reserved for kids. With impatient four year olds glaring at the utter incompetence in their midst, I plunged into a messy version of what is commonly known as the ‘snow plough’. After somehow managing to complete some rudimentary turns I was thankfully released to re-join the rest of the group for lunch up the mountain at La Grange restaurant. It specialises in traditional alpine food like rabbit in a sumptuously heavy sauce or huge plates of pasta but if you don’t want a full meal, it’s well worth popping in for a beer or a hot chocolate with a cheeky cognac if just for the view. The vista really is spectacular and when it’s sunny you can sit out on deck chairs; surrounded by icy peaks and ski gear this is a weird concept for a newbie, but a concept well worth getting used to.
That afternoon, tipsy from green Chartreuse and warm wine, I wasn’t fit to get back on the slopes but just about managed to get in the car for the short journey to Alpe d’Huez. It’s one of the region’s main resorts and home to the recently spruced up Pic Blanc hotel right in the middle of town. After a celebratory beer in the hotel bar we were ushered into the luggage room for some adult dressing up. The place crinkled with ski gear from another era, an Aladdin’s cave of kitsch. Mitch Ski Vintage, a company which rents out garish alpine wear had brought some of their most garish specimens along for us to try and I ended up with a green belted concoction with matching headband.
I hadn’t wanted to draw attention to my obvious shortcomings on the slopes but the next day my emerald one piece made blending into the crowd an impossible dream. Trying to ignore the bemused looks I was coaxed on to a button lift by my new ESF instructor, Jean-Pierre. As a major in the French Air Force for 27 years he’d probably been in more fraught situations than teaching a garishly attired Brit how to ski and when we got off the lift a quarter of the way up the greenest of green runs he smiled gamely. Averting several collisions I was eventually able to skid and scrape my way down to the bottom of the mountain and lunch again saved me. And what a lunch it was at La Fruitière, part of the legendary La Folie Douce bar and restaurant group. There’s also a more casual dining option but we went all out with a whole roast chicken, some beautiful cured salmon, chilled rose wine and the inevitable green Chartreuse. La Folie Douce is known for its hedonistic all-weather al fresco shenanigans and although a blizzard was brewing outside, this proved no impediment to ski-booted table dancing.
Incapable of hitting the slopes other than face first, I took a few hours time out then volunteered for a plane ride over the resort. We drove back into the town and on to the town’s little airport. Three of us followed the pilot into a tiny yellow plane, unnervingly reminiscent of a Robin Reliant with wings. Juddering down the runway I wasn’t convinced we’d ever take off but we did. And what a spectacular journey it was. Although there’s little chance I’ll ever attempt the Sarenne black run, which at 16km is the longest in Europe, the flight over it was exhilarating. I’ve flown on commercial flights dozens of times but dipping in and out of the fog and clouds for fun was a one-off experience I felt privileged to try.
The next day was our last and I spent it falling over on the open air ice-rink and cursing myself for not bringing along a swimsuit and towel for the magnificent outdoor pool. My misery evaporated however by lunch time when we visited the swimming pool restaurant. It offered some unbelievably good and modestly priced food; nothing fancy but who cares when you’re eating a burger the size of a bungalow for about £8. It was the perfect end to a brilliant four days. As a first time skier I really didn’t know what to expect and the only regret I have is not trying it sooner.
Moontain hostel, Oz-en-Oisans +33 (0)7 87 07 05 95
30€ per room per night in a 12-bed dormitory with linen
£52 per room per night in a private bedroom sleeping two people
£85 per room per night in a premium private bedroom with en suite bathroom sleeping two people
Pic Blanc hotel, Alpe d’Huez +33 (0)4 76 11 42 42
Priced from €161/£140 per room per night with breakfast included
Return flights from London Gatwick to Grenoble Airport are available from £50 with Monarch
Return flights from Glasgow to Grenoble Airport are available from £67 with Jet2
Return flights from Manchester to Grenoble Airport are available from £50 with Monarch
Return flights from Dublin to Grenoble Airport are available via London or Manchester from £75 with Ryanair
Grenoble airport is just 1 hour 30 minutes’ drive from Oz-en-Oisans and 1 hour 45 minutes away from Alpe d’Huez www.grenoble-airport.com/en
A 6-day adult lift pass for the Alpe d’Huez grand domaine Ski area (Alpe d’Huez, Oz-en-Oisans, Auris-en-Oisans, Vaujany and Villard Reculas) is priced from £221/€259.50 www.sata.com
Ski hire – 2G Sport +33 4 76 80 78 05 – 6 days’ ski and boot hire from €80/£69
Vintage ski clothing hire – €15/£13 per day www.mitchskivintage.com +33 6 65 30 36 56
Ski Tuition with ESF – www.esf-uk.co.uk/ski-school/alpe-d-huez