It’s not every year that you get to experience both the last and the first day of a winter season, and certainly not every year that you arrive in fresh snowfall for both. Having had virgin snow and gloriously uncrowded pistes in Austria in April 2017, I’m not expecting to be similarly spoiled when I arrange to be in Les Arcs for its opening weekend – but snow has been falling continuously for a week and the only frustration is that the lifts won’t be running until tomorrow morning.
Still, it’s been a reasonably long travel day, with a three hour coach journey bringing us from Geneva airport to Arc 2000, where we’ll be staying in Ski Total’s Chalet Panda, itself part of the larger Chalet de l’Ours – and with the top of the mountain rapidly disappearing into the gathering dark, plus the enticing smell of tea, coffee and freshly baked cake, prepared for us by our Ski Total chalet hosts, we’re easily persuaded that tomorrow is ‘only a day away’.
Sleep comes easily, in cosy chalet-style rooms, where I deliberately pull my curtains back before bedding down, because I want to wake up to the sight of falling white dust and fairytale pines. I’ll admit, I was iffy about the presence of chalet hosts before coming here. Some odd kind of awkwardness about people waiting on you in your own home … I mean, it’s not my own home, but it has that vibe. It’s not a hotel. When I’m in my room, layering up for an early start on the slopes, I’m conscious that the living area is just beyond my door, and that it contains young people who are preparing my breakfast.
The fact that they are so brilliantly unassuming and relaxed about this slight strangeness is just one of the things that make our particular hosts – Sophie, Lucia and Sam – such a highlight of our stay. There’s also the napkin folding (note to self – must Google before next dinner party), the seamless attention to dietary requirements, the delicious three course meals each night and the genuinely charming company they provide – unobtrusive when you want them to be, fabulously engaging and entertaining otherwise.
Suitably fuelled by the breakfast they’ve made us, we head out into -8° conditions and walk a mere 250 metres to the button lift, which hauls us up to the main area, from which the rest of the resort is accessed. One or two of our party are beginners and unsure about starting the day with this form of transport, but that ebullient ‘first day’ mood seems to be permeating everything – not just their confidence, but the lift operator’s joie de vivre, which has him singing loudly and encouragingly. No one falls off.
By 11.30 am, we’ve covered some wonderfully fresh terrain and make our somewhat staggered arrival into Arc 1500, a postcard perfect resort village straight from the pages of a fairy story. Its charm isn’t quite enough to mask its blatant commercialism; even so, we’re tempted to join the small clusters of people clutching steaming bowls of chocolat chaud in their mittened hands. There’s a moment or two of indecision before an attitude of “bah, we can have hot chocolate any old time – let’s keep going” takes us into its thrilling hold. You don’t always get ski or board powder-perfect snow on the first day of the season – indeed, on any day of the season! – and we’re determined to make the most of it.
Every muscle is aching the good ache when we return to Chalet Panda after that first day, which makes the presence of its sauna even more of a welcome addition. We have access to the adjacent Chalet Altitude’s pool too; even so, I wish I’d booked in for some ski Pre-Hab at Harrogate’s Rudding Park Spa before coming on this wintery jaunt – a new offering this year recognising that prevention is better than cure.
Still, some tender muscles aren’t enough of a deterrent to keep us off the mountain the next day, especially not with so much of it to explore. Les Arcs has 200km of piste in a range of grades, offering loads of variety for everyone from beginners to those of a “I was born skiing” ilk – and our group has both types. The vastness of the area has us in something of a Groundhog Day mindset by the end of the day – especially when the snow starts to fall again and the utter whiteness of our world creates a strange, vertigo-esque, dreamlike state (“Have we been on this lift already?”) – so when we’re put in the hands of ESF (École du Ski France) guides the following day, it’s a relief. An embarrassing relief, sure, as they’re far less impressed by our on-piste skills than we are – but a relief nonetheless.
And off-piste? Which version do you mean? The ‘ungroomed powder’ variety is advised on by our Ski Total representative, Dan (stick to the ‘natural runs’ if you want virgin snow – they still fall within insurance-covered limits if you happen to have an accident) who also drops by occasionally to keep us apprised of the après events. I’m sure we only scratched the surface of what was to be enjoyed, but the pub quiz (we came second) and the night listening to cover band ‘Queens of the Snow Stage’ were enough to convince us that Sophie, Lucia and Sam – and Dan! – were all in for an extremely fun season. The snow they got to start it off with just made them even luckier.
Ski Total (01483 791 935) is offering seven nights at the four-diamond plus Chalet Panda in Les Arcs, France from £499 per person this season. Price includes flights from London Gatwick to Geneva, resort transfers and chalet catering (daily skiers breakfast, afternoon tea with homemade cake and three-course evening meals with complimentary wine). For more information please visit www.skitotal.com.
Rudding Park Spa (01423 871350) is offering a combined Pre-Hab and Re-Hab package from January to March 2018. Together, the two sessions are 5 hours and cost £200pp. Re-Hab only lasts for 3 hours and is priced at £115 pp. Subject to booking and availability.