Ski season isn’t over yet. It’s not too late to join those who’ve been galvanized into taking a winter sports break thanks to the wonderful spectacle that was the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. But if you are a complete beginner or, like me, someone who hasn’t been on the slopes since a one-off school trip twenty years ago, can skiing prowess truly be realised on a short break?
I didn’t get off to the best of starts: sweating in my many thermal layers and borrowed salopettes, lifting one heavy booted foot after the other, while clutching my skis and poles, wandering around looking for Jean, a ski instructor from ESF (L'Ecole du Ski Français). In my head I thought he might be a gap year student ten years younger than me, but I was very pleased to discover (once I’d found him) that he was a seasoned professional. He informed me that I’d had all the warm up I needed and we were ready to hit the protected learner’s zone: CoolSki.
First off I learned how to knock the snow off each boot and clamp it toe-first into the binding of the ski. Good balance required (or, in my case, a ski instructor to grab onto).
Feeling ridiculously ungainly I shuffled to the moving walkway that takes you to the top of the gentle incline in the CoolSki area. Facing downhill in a classic beginners “snowplough” stance (keeping skis in a “V” shape, open wide at the back), I leaned forwards and set off... very slowly. After a few goes, the long buried memory of skiing came back and I found it easy to speed up and slow down, as well as change direction by shifting my weight from one leg to the other. Jean pronounced me ready for the real slopes.
Located in the French Alps between 1250 and 3250 metres, La Plagne has 225km of runs for all levels of skier. There are different resorts at different altitudes, from traditional villages to purpose built chalets and the piste hubs are Plagne Bellecote and Plagne Centre. The locals seem a little ashamed of some of the functional 70s and 80s architecture, but for me it adds to the feeling of purpose that pervades all of La Plagne. The constantly buzzing chairlifts, cable cars and gondolas that bear brightly coloured skiers ever upwards give the place an air of activity and excitement.
With my ski pass in my left pocket (it scans as you pass through the turnstile) we made our way onto the first chairlift from Plagne Centre. The lift swept us off our feet and it was nerve wracking being 40ft off the ground, but Jean chatted and pointed out the Glacier de la Chiaupe and the various runs. For the next couple of hours we skied a few of the blue runs (in France, this means easy to moderate) and took a chairlift from time to time. I took one or two tumbles and realized I’d need more lessons to learn how to get back up with any dignity. Mont Blanc and the Pierra Menta peaks form a stunning backdrop and I had to keep reminding myself to look up. It is truly exhilarating and as the morning came to an end I was hooked.
The next day we tackled a route through the trees around Plagne Aime 2000, stopping occasionally to take in the breathtaking alpine views or give my tired legs a break (I was using muscles I didn’t even know existed). Experienced groups sped past us: although the skier downhill always has priority, more skilled boarders and skiers often whoosh past a little too close for comfort - even the four-year-olds following their instructors like speedy little ducklings.
Day two also meant less snowplough and more parallel skiing. Snowploughing gets exhausting after a while and you have very little control, so I learned to take corners keeping skis parallel and hip width apart. It felt so much more graceful zigzagging down the mountainside and I was inclined to believe Jean when he said I looked like a champion. I felt like one.
WHAT TO WEAR
This is one of the most important things to know before you go – your choice of alpine attire is crucial for top skiing performance. The slopes are no place to worry about fashion over function – and while the 80s are back in, you don't want to end up looking like this guy:
Make sure you've got the following for warmth and waterproofing and it'll be plain sailing (or skiing) from here on out:
A base layer: fitted breathable long underwear, preferably made of wicking material that draws the sweat away from your skin. Ski socks are really important as they will keep your feet warm and dry.
Mid layer: a fleece jacket
Outer layer: A waterproof, insulated, breathable ski jacket and salopettes (ski pants).
Accessories: waterproof gloves, good quality goggles, ideally with polarized lenses, a warm hat, helmet and of course, sun cream (get ready for some fantastic facial tanlines).
By plane La Plagne is 200km from Lyon and Geneva airports and there are private taxis and scheduled buses available for the transfer. By train Eurostar Ski Train from London, via Paris, to Aime La Plagne (return journey from Moutiers) from £149 return.
If you don’t want to take the ski lifts, a free shuttle bus runs between all of the La Plagne resorts every 15min.
Accommodation and Eating:
Le Cocoon is a welcoming chalet style hotel with an endearing blend of modern and rustic decor. Owner Corinne goes out of her way to make guests feel at home and the personal touches include dressing gowns and slippers in the cosy rooms, use of a beautiful open plan lounge and a huge breakfast (think fruit salad, thickly sliced ham, croissant, freshly baked bread, eggs however you want them…). The Jacuzzi on the terrace is open to a view of the snowy mountains.
Hotel Carlina is a high end hotel and restaurant that you can ski right up to. The bright and airy rooms all have a balcony or terrace and stylish bathrooms, and guests get free use of the swimming pool and spa. The latest annexe houses chic apartments and the restaurant boasts sumptuous food that isn’t as expensive as you might expect.
Le Petit Chaperon Rouge: The open log fire, wooden beams and alpine scenes on the placemats create a laidback and snug atmosphere in this traditional Savoyard restaurant. The menu has the ubiquitous raclette, as well as risotto and lamb shank and is usually busy with French and English speakers alike.
Explore more of the French Alps with the Rough Guides Snapshot for the Alps and Franche-Comté. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.