James Chapple hits the slopes, refuels on hearty local cuisine and tries out some new snow-based activities.
It’s 7.30pm. My boots are strapped tightly to my calves, skis to my feet, poles in hand. Night skiing is new for me, but it’s been a feature for Manigod – La Clusaz’s cutesy neighbour – for the past five seasons. The snow is dense and well compacted, with a loose dusting on top. It’s perfect.
“It’s going to be a good night,” grins our guide, Pierrick, from under his helmet as we take Le Chevreuil chairlift up to Manigod’s highest point, La Tete de Cabeau (1,650 metres), meandering between trees lit up by the floodlights and the moon overhead.
After a couple of gentle blue runs under lights, we strike out by moonlight alone, cautiously seeking out the fleeting shafts of light that illuminate our way. It’s about as uniquely primal an experience as you can have on skis and an exciting introduction to Manigod and nearby La Clusaz, where we are staying.
Set in the Aravis mountains backing onto the Chamonix valley, it’s just an hour’s transfer from Geneva – great for clients not keen on a long transfer, or who want to self-drive.
We are staying at St-Alban Hotel and Spa, a modern yet cosy property that’s new to Inghams for 2018/19. My room is vast, with any sound deadened by the well-stocked bookshelves lining the walls, a feature of the hotel. Across 48 rooms, accommodation options range from singles and doubles to deluxe family rooms, available B&B or half-board. Downstairs, there is a cocktail bar offering Alpine tapas, and on-site ski rental as well as a spa, indoor pool, “ice cave” and sauna.
The hotel is a 10-minute walk to the central Bossonnet lift, or there’s a free minibus laid on by the hotel departing from 8.30-9.30am.
“Normally, a new hotel can take a while to get off the ground, but we had good bookings from the off,” says Joanna Willis-Thomson, Inghams’ senior contracts manager. “People were attracted to its chic rooms, softly-lit bar, wellness area and free sweets and coffee in its public areas. La Clusaz bookings for winter 2019/20 are healthy too, and we’re investing for next winter with the addition of a new five-star hotel at the foot of the lifts.”
It’s certainly an attractive option for first-timers and families. We troop down to the lift to get our first feel for La Clusaz’s broad, well-maintained pistes. At just shy of 2,500 metres at its highest point, it’s far from the most vertiginous of resorts, but beginners and advanced skiers will certainly appreciate the tree cover, which always makes for a more wondrous ski experience while offering better visibility in poor conditions.
Spread across 125km, the La Clusaz/Manigod ski area is compact and well connected, although advanced skiers may quickly exhaust its pistes. Nearby Le Grand-Bornand and St-Jean-de-Sixt (accessible via a free 15-minute bus) offers another 85km of runs, served by 26 lifts, and are included in the wider Aravis ski pass at around a €10-£15 premium on a six-day pass.
We traverse to Le Plateau de Beauregard, offering spectacular views of the massifs with Mont Blanc in the distance, before taking lunch at Restaurant La Ferme, famed for its braserade and reblochonade. It’s pure theatre – two fiercely hot metal furnaces, fired by hot coals, are placed on our table. On the top grill we sear gnarled strips of steak while on the middle shelf, we place an entire round of reblochon cheese, which is soon a gooey pool into which we greedily dunk chunks of fresh French bread. It’s far from sophisticated, but few fine dining experiences will put the same smile on clients’ faces.
Later, we forego the customary apres-ski in favour of the hotel’s wellness offering. A stern massage quickly reinvigorates my weary limbs before the thunderous waterfall shower in my room washes away any remaining aches and pains, leaving me ready for a second day on the pistes.
Our guides, Fabien and Jerome, meet us in the morning at the foot of Le Grand-Bornand’s Rosay gondola. The vibe here is different to La Clusaz; it’s a natural bowl, surrounded by gentler peaks that trap the sun, offering a good mix of intermediate and advanced skiing, while the blue and green runs to resort mean beginners can join their friends and family for the final descent of the day.
Lunch at La Taverne gives me a chance to sample another local speciality – diot, an intensely meaty, spiced Savoyarde sausage, which is traditionally cooked in white wine with onions. For families and groups looking for activities and experiences beyond skiing and boarding, the area offers snowshoeing, ice-skating and even paragliding. But perhaps the most arresting is “ski-joering” – horse-drawn skiing (£27 for an introductory session).
It is with trepidation – as I really do not like horses – that I clasp the reins, before performing a lengthy snowplough to avoid clipping its hooves with my skis, or simply piling into the back of it. My pony quickly works up a head of steam as we canter around a bumpy field near the village, every jolt of acceleration wrenching my arms further from their sockets, but my initial terror quickly turns to exhilaration.
I leave La Clusaz impressed by how many new experiences I’ve had in little more than two full days, and the variety of them – a week would offer ample time for clients to hit the slopes, try something new and indulge in some R&R.
Unlike France’s many purpose-built resorts, La Clusaz is a real village, and that makes a difference when it comes to that last run of the day. Go for the slopes; stay for the bonhomie.
Book it: Inghams offers a seven-night B&B ski holiday at St-Alban Hotel and Spa in La Clusaz from £879pp, based on two sharing in early December 2019. Price includes flights and airport transfers. Equipment hire and six-day lift passes can be pre-booked with Inghams.
Smarter: The La Clusaz app is a must, offering offline piste maps, GPS location tracking, live webcam feeds and weather updates, and an activity and events calendar, as well as resort information and rental options.
Better: The Aravis mountain ski pass, including Le Grand-Bornand and St-Jean-de-Sixt, works out at only about €10 to €15 more than the La Clusaz-Manigod pass. It’s a no-brainer for anyone barring the most inexperienced skier or boarder.
Fairer: Savoie produce is abundant in La Clusaz – proudly served in the village’s restaurants and sold in its shops – so clients can support local producers by eating what’s seasonal and even taking some home.