Ski tour firm boss Katie Waddington was trying to book a hotel room at a well-known mountain resort for a client who happened to be a vegan.
She patiently explained to the hotelier the strict, but now commonplace, dietary requirements of the prospective guest. The hotelier was unreceptive, to the point of saying: ‘Mais nous sommes un hôtel, pas un hôpital‘ (‘we’re a hotel, not a hospital’).
Needless to say, the vegan skier in question never got to sample the delights of that particular Alpine establishment – but the exchange stiffened Ms Waddington’s resolve to henceforth ensure any customer’s reasonable requests would always be met.
And this philosophy has helped make her company, Zenith, one of the most flexible of ski holiday operators.
Vegan, pescetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian or pollotarian – your needs, no matter how eccentric, will be fulfilled and your highly specific appetites satisfied in a Zenith ski chalet.
And if you prefer to self cater in a chalet rather than be cooked for and generally pampered, that’s possible too. Or, heaven forbid, arrive on a day other than Saturday. Or travel to the Alps by electric railway, motor carriage, rickshaw or roller skate rather than airplane — all is possible with Zenith.
‘We know that our guests all have different needs and preferences,’ Ms Waddington told me as we ascended by chairlift to the lofty and extensive slopes above the splendid French resort of Serre Chevalier.
For reasons I won’t trouble you with, I had been transported by a series of six trains from Switzerland to Serre Chevalier — the last leg on an Italian commuter train from Turin for all stops to Oulx, and one which, packed with nine-to-five workers glued to their screens, felt unnervingly like the 17.34 from Euston to Milton Keynes Central.
By Oulx most of the briefcase carriers had gone and been replaced by ski and board bearers, much like myself. From Oulx the cross-border road transfer to Serre Chevalier took little more than an hour.
This is a resort that reflects Zenith’s philosophy of variety and flexibility. For first-time visitors, it will come as a delightful surprise, for Serre Chevalier is not a single place in itself. It gets its name from the local mountain range: the resort comprises a string of villages along the valley floor. The three main ones are Le Monêtier, Villeneuve and Chantemerle, with the atmospheric medieval town of Briançon (France’s highest town) at the end of the valley.
The main road along the valley is dotted with some bland, modern buildings that contrive to give a not altogether inspiring first impression. But scratch deeper and you’ll find the original villages are charming, historic and full of family-run hotels, wonderful restaurants and friendly bars in narrow, cobbled streets.
I stayed at Villeneuve in Chalet Refuge, which couldn’t be more French nor more rustic: a converted barn of winding stairways, nooks and crannies, with wooden shutters and overhanging eaves.
The skiing sectors above each village are well linked, with lots of long runs to the valley floor. But the most pleasing factor is that, being in the southern Alps, the tree line is appreciably higher than in many other European resorts. During flat light, the tree-lined runs give better visibility. There are plenty of features including a terrain park, chill-out and barbecue areas, and a video zone. The slopes are used not only for skiing: snowshoeing, fatbiking and mountain karting are all popular. We tried the mountain karts on the runs reserved for their use only. Fabulous fun.
And there was another first: supper in a hot-tub. We had reserved the much-prized corner tub at the Bain Nordique — a restaurant with Nordic baths. A waiter brings seemingly endless courses, all delicious and all, for convenience, on skewers. It’s rather like dining in a giant fondue (although we were all careful not to drop our skewers or their contents into the water). And it was the first time I’ve undressed for dinner. Actually, that’s not true but that’s another story.
Rob stayed at Chalet refuge with Zenith Holidays (0203 137 7678). In Serre Chevalier, Zenith Holidays have Residence Aquisana for £175pp based on 4 sharing for a week from 14 April 2018. Flights from Luton with Easyjet are from £35pp (hold bags extra; other departure points possible). Zenith also has self-catered apartments available (from £230 per person based on four sharing, including a Channel crossing). More information on Serre Chevalier at www.serre-chevalier.com and www.france-montagnes.com/resort/serre-chevalier.