Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Where to ski: Châtel, Haute Savoie, France

Wondering where to go skiing? You could do worse than my favourite French Alp destination, Châtel. I almost hate sharing this tip, because it's not overrun and I'd hate to see it get crowded. On the other hand, it's so great it deserves a bit of a plug.
For a start, it's an actual town, as opposed to a resort, so it has all the things a real place should, like boulangeries, a marie, a primary school, a weekly market (Wednesday mornings), a little supermarket, laundromat, post office, pharmacy and two cinemas, as well as, of course, bars, restaurants and plenty of gift shops. It's the sort of place where you keep bumping into the same school group or recognise the chap who fit your skis when he's coming back with his baguette. And? He'll recognise you too. 

It's part of the massive Portes du Soleil ski region, which encompasses 12 resorts, some in France, some in Switzerland. The idea is that you could, in theory, ski from one to the next, taking in hundreds of kilometres of pistes (and off-pistes) of skiing. In truth though, having skied from Avoriaz to Châtel last winter, it's actually more exciting to ski from one country to another (which can also be done from here). Most of the domains offers plenty enough skiing to see you through a week, so it's not necessary to buy that all areas pass – unless you're hell bent on racking up the klicks...

One of the things I like about this place is the old chalets, none of which seem completely abandoned and some of which seem to have been half done up – literally half. Like someone's cut it in two and fixed up one side only.

But to the skiing... It's spread out along a valley, with plenty of buses (free to lift-pass holders, though no one ever checks so you could in theory get on without a lift pass too) to take you from one feeder lift or gondola to another, starting with Abondance at one end, through Petite Châtel, Châtel, Linga and then Pre-La-Joux at the end. You could also ski from one to the next, if ability is no object (don't try it if you get nervous on anything trickier than a blue though) and they get busier as you go along, so Petite Châtel, for instance, is where you'll find yourself alone on a run and Pre-La-Joux can look a bit like an anthill when it's at full throttle. No. That's an exaggeration, but it's is definitely the busiest end. Which we couldn't quite get, because Châtel, to our minds, was the nicest area.

We stayed at Hotel L'Edelweiss, a one-star chalet-style hotel about a five-minute walk from the bus stop, 10 to the Super Chatel gondola, depending on how fast you can walk in ski boots carrying skis (or a board, of course). It is an uphill walk, but the plus side is it's downhill at the end of the day. Also, if you hire your equipment from the very nice people at Vincent Sport (where, helpfully, they speak English), you can leave it all there and pick up and drop off en route every day. And Vincent Sport is literally across the street from the bus stop and five minutes' walk from that gondola.

Dinner at L'Edelweiss is good: €16 gets you the set, three-course menu, which features local specialities, like tartiflett, raclette and the local lake fish. They will also accommodate a vegetarian, and were happy to make me an omelette or pasta. Our room was basic, but perfectly comfortable and clean, wifi was fast and there was even a TV, though we never got round to turning it on.

There aren't many black runs, but plenty of reds and blues. For the wide, gentle runs, head to the back of the mountain looking toward Switzerland. Having said this, the better skier of the two of us found plenty to keep him occupied during a week and often had the steeper pistes to himself.

I have to admit though, I've reached the point where it's not long before I'm already ready to throw myself into one of those sloping rockers and catch a few rays, and lunch always tastes better eaten at a piste-side restaurant surrounded by those beautiful mountains.