I don’t believe any other network of linked ski resorts excites the same degree of partisan passion as that which divides the respective supporters of the Three Valley resorts Courchevel, Méribel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens. And that’s not to mention the likes of La Tania, St Martin de Belleville and even Brides les Bains, which all have their vocal devotees.
For many Brit skiers this unshakeable loyalty probably starts in the womb, if not before – if a first ski trip was to Méribel, then no enticement or inducement will bring about a defection to, say, Les Menuires.
Courchevel is chic, stylish and the only place to be seen, it’s ‘Paris in the Snow’, claim many – no, Val Thorens (or VT, if you want to sound like a local) has the highest, gnarliest slopes, chime in the hardcore fraternity. All those not staying there like to have a pop at Méribel – the snow is really not great there and it suffers from icy pistes, they claim (and honestly, say others somewhat uncharitably, who wants to stay somewhere absolutely stuffed with Brits?).
And Les Menuires? Poor old Les Menuires, for so long the ugly duckling of Les Trois Vallées – years ago I heard it described as the French Alps’ answer to Hemel Hempstead. But hold on, this tail-end of the season has seen me gracing Les Menuires with my presence…and I’ve found it now nothing like Hemel Hempstead (with all due respect to that Hertfordshire town’s excellent Snow Centre, which has been known to serve a first-rate tartiflette in its charming après-ski themed restaurant).
If you want to enjoy the many and diverse attractions of the Three Valleys, and who wouldn’t, then there’s a good argument for saying that staying in Les Menuires is your best bet. It’s right in the centre of things for a start – none of its rival neighbours are as well placed to make full use of your Three Valleys ski-pass. And, although some of its slopes do suffer from an excess of sun (as do some of its visitors, as I’ve witnessed over recent sun-soaked days), there are plenty of fabulous high-level runs that keep good cover through a long season.
And if you distance yourself from the monolithic monstrosities that architectural numbskulls chose to impose on this innocent and lovely mountainside in the Sixties and Seventies – which you can do by choosing to stay in one of the much more attractive adjunct ‘villages’ such as Reberty and Les Bruyères – it’s easy to dismiss from your mind the dreariness of the main resort.
That’s exactly what I did, and what a delightfully well-judged decision that proved to be. My temporary home has been Chalet Le Chamois, run by the British firm Powder N Shine (which definitely comes with no punctuation marks, I checked). Its position is sublime, overlooking the run down to the main Sunny Express and Bruyères lifts and right beside one of the best slopeside restaurants, La Ferme.
It has a sauna and, more importantly during these glorious spring days, a wide sunbathed balcony with a hot-tub and commanding views of Cime Caron and Pointe de la Masse. It also comes with an excellent chef, Sean, and supremely efficient and cheerful hosting in the guise of Heather and Layla.
The strange thing about vast linked ski areas is that they bring out a compulsion in visitors to head, the moment they have their skis or boards on, for the most far-flung corner of the piste map, just because they can. Never mind that there’s a whole resort full of runs nearby to enjoy. So they’ll often spend their whole holiday undertaking expeditions to slopes two valleys away, spending most of the day poring over the map and checking their watches afraid they’ll miss the last lift back. And they never properly explore the lovely runs on their doorstep.
Francesca Pangli, who with her husband Steve founded Powder N Shine eight years ago, gave us her five-star tour (I don’t think she has any lesser category) of all that Les Menuires has to offer, which is considerable. I’ve skied the Three Valleys countless times (well obviously I could count them if we had time and were looking for absolute accuracy) and this trip is my most intimate and comprehensive encounter yet with the joys of Les Menuires.
The high runs, from Pointe de la Masse or Mont de la Chambre, were in superlative shape, and the lower runs, right down to St Martin de Belleville, had plenty of cover. And catching some slopes at just about the right time – oh about 10.48am – meant there was the ultimate pleasure available of firnschnee. The term ‘spring snow’ doesn’t really cover that specific state of an inch or so of soft snow over a firm, unyielding, still frozen base, nor does the American ‘corn snow’, so I prefer the German.
Also available was the startling sight of several thousand amiably lubricated Poles in fancy dress enjoying themselves in spectacularly unrestrained fashion at a slopeside party at Le Chalet du Sunny mountain restaurant in one of the main events of Polish National Ski Week.
We were unfortunately just too late for Gay Ski Week, which, in the words of the resort’s website, is ‘the first choice for gay winter sports enthusiasts, with the chance to hang out with some fine folk as you ski, snowboard, swim, gym, dine, dance and party’.
Great mountain lunches, all on sunny terraces, were enjoyed at La Ferme de Reberty, Chalet du Sunny and Le Corbeleys, down at St Martin de Belleville. This whole spring skiing jaunt has been a fabulous bonus for me, as I’m merely an inferior substitute for your leader and mine, Kate Whittaker, sadly hors de combat following a close encounter with an icy piste earlier this season in which her shoulder came off worst, with a nasty fracture.
It was also nice for a change to avoid airports and make the trip by rail – by Eurostar to Paris, and then TGV to Chambéry. Then joy of joys, back from Moutiers to St Pancras direct, with no changes. We left Moutiers shortly after 11am and were back at St Pancras well before the final whistles of that afternoon’s Premier League matches.
I love travelling by train – but, if anything, rail travel in some ways is becoming too efficient. Well, too fast anyway. One of its great pleasures is seeing more of the country you’re travelling through. At least it would be if the train was not going so fast that all except distant hills go past in a blur. You can’t even make out the name of a country station as you flash past. ‘Where are we?’ says a companion. ‘Not a clue,’ you answer, ‘in some sort of time warp I think – all I know is, we’re about 100 miles further on than where we were when you just asked where we were.
‘In fact, whoa, we’re just coming into St Pancras – I hope the driver’s gonna slow down!’
Rob stayed with Powder N Shine – who have several chalets in Reberty, including Le Chamois.
Rail travel from London St Pancras International was organised by SNCF (National Society of French Railways, the state-owned rail company).
Transfers from the rail stations, in this case from Chambery and to Moutiers, was with Skiidy Gonzales.
For more information on the resort visit Les Menuires.
And if you’re wondering, TGV trains in conventional service have regularly reached top speeds of 200mph, but I’m told that a more laggardly 186mph is a more typical top speed on the run down to the Alps.