Stylist’s video producer and director Rosanna Cole finds there’s more to the Alpine experience than fresh powder and après-ski.
I’m somewhat of a newbie to the ski scene. I first tried out my snow legs four years ago with a week in Val Thorens in Savoie. By the end, I’d graduated from the snow plough to a fairly confident parallel turn and I was a convert to the Alps. I’ll admit, though, that my experience was a blinkered one: it focused around full days of ski runs followed by après-ski drinks, with no chance to explore the surroundings. Having only had contact with snow in the form of London’s grey slush since, a return trip is overdue, but this time I’m visiting two areas that attest you don’t always have to clip on a pair of skis to make the most of the snowy peaks.
To begin, I’m staying at Terminal Neige Montenvers in the resort of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, a sedate refuge nestled in the mountains observing France’s largest glacier, the Mer de Glace. Forget downhill action – this place is all about losing yourself in mountain tranquillity, served up by an extraordinary Alpine panorama and hearty regional cuisine. It’s just over an hour’s drive from Geneva airport to Chamonix, but the refuge itself is inaccessible by road, so the only way to get there (unless you’re an expert skier) is via a 20-minute picturesque funicular railway ride that winds slowly up the mountainside to Terminal Neige.
When I arrive, it’s bustling with skiers who have just tackled the Vallée Blanche 20km off-piste ski route, but once the last train departs Montenvers in the afternoon, hotel guests have the place to themselves. It’s so quiet you can hear the movement of snow-laden branches and rocks shifting on the mountainside.
The 19th-century building is a shelter-style hotel which preserves old-fashioned charm through its red window shutters, wood-panelled interiors and dark leather upholstery. It’s the definition of cosy, intensified by roaring open fires and the scent of simmering vin chaud.
Perched 1,913m above sea level, the hotel is also perfectly positioned to enjoy the scenery. Sipping an Aperol spritz on the terrace while the snow-capped peaks glow with the sunset is magic. You can explore different angles by hiking or snow-shoeing locally, or visiting the glacier’s surface and touring the Grotte de Glace (ice cave). Make sure you’re feeling energetic, though, as the excursion includes a gondola lift followed by 430 steps down and then back up again. So even off the slopes you may wake up with aching muscles.
After a day in the cold, I thaw out with traditional Savoyarde food served on-site, with a satisfying combination of casserole and creamy polenta, a platter of desserts and local red wine. Best of all are the frequent visits from Mayla, the hotel’s resident husky, who weaves between the tables making sure everything’s OK with everyone’s meal.
After all this serenity, it’s tough to even think about summoning the energy to pick up skis and whizz down the Alpine slopes. But next on my itinerary is Flaine, just over an hour’s drive from Chamonix. The resort is part of the Grand Massif, the fifth largest interconnected ski area in France, offering 265km of slopes, 139 runs and 62 lifts, with Flaine itself boasting 64 runs for all abilities.
Aside from the ski stats, Flaine is also notable for its rich artistic and architectural heritage. The resort deviates from the quintessential alpine aesthetic: it was purpose-built for skiing in the 1960s, designed by celebrated modernist architect and Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer. The result is an urban development formed of raw concrete structures, including Refuge du Montenvers, where I’m staying next.
When my legs need a break from skiing, I take a stroll around the centre to see the sights, including an ecumenical chapel; the mesmerizing Le Flaine hotel, which leaps out from the rocks and seems to hang suspended in the air; and outdoor sculptures by Picasso, Vasarely and Dubuffet. While Flaine’s brutal, modernist design is not to everyone’s taste (I’m not entirely convinced myself), it is functional and user-friendly, with its slopes reuniting at the bottom to form a sociable ski hub.
My hotel (freshly renovated with urban style and colourful vintage furniture) prides itself on its convenience, too. It’s a ski-in, ski-out venue with a rental shop on-site just a few minutes away from the Grandes Platières gondola, which elevates you to the Grand Massif network for 360-degree views of the Mont-Blanc, Aravis, Belledonne and Jura mountain ranges. When you’re done for the day, you can just ski back to the hotel and après-ski indulgence in moments.
I soothe my aching muscles in the hotel’s spa with massage treatments and a dip in the outdoor hot tub, before refuelling in Totem’s fire-warmed restaurant. Dining comes in the form of a buffet with a variety of options, including slow-cooked regional dishes and soups as well as pizza and pasta. After food, I relax into the evening, admiring Flaine’s slopes from the comfortable terrace, and later through the grand windows when it gets too cold to stay outside, soaking up the profound Bauhaus roots of our surroundings. Time away from the slopes, it turns out, is every bit as rewarding as time spent on them.
Images: provided by PR