No business like snow business

Tommy Barker slipped and sloped back into skiing after 30 years away, with some chalet highlife in spectacular Meribel.

EVEN the staff working for Irish chalet ski company Highlife, in their Three Valleys French resort, seem to have a bit of an edge.

On a very mixed-ability group ski-trip last March their hard-working crew, at a cluster of timber chalets in Alpine village Meribel, included a hard-working, tall and tanned young Dublin woman with a winter-weather eye out. It was none other than Olympic sailor Annelise Murphy, managing to work and stay fit at the same time in the off-season run-up to her heroic London Games performances.

Having impressive people of this calibre working as Highlife’s ski guides (and general chalet dogsbodies as well, let it be said) could be a bit off-putting for less than Olympian-class guest skiers. But, the crew working for top ski outfit Highlife are far too professional, friendly, and enthusiastic, to make you feel any way uncomfortable — even if you’re uncomfortably crippled with pain and aches after a trying, first ice-breaking day back on the slopes after a long, long spell away.

Bar the last two inconvenient Irish winters of snow and ice, it had been over 25 years since this reporter had last slithered purposefully on snow or ice. In fact, it was back in the last gloomy recession, when a college gang of us headed of by InterRail to Switzerland, where we cadged, borrowed and appropriated skis, boots, poles and a smattering of Salvation Army jackets for a first taste of the good life, shamelessly done on a shoe-string.

But, after a four-day jaunt with Dublin-based holiday facilitators Highlife, there’s just no going back to those days — and the ski-bug has bitten once more. The good news for stay-aways wondering about donning those stiff boots once more, is that skiing, like riding a bike, is something you don’t really forget.

Everything I’d learned back in the monochrome 1980s came flooding, or at least sliding, back: I was mediocre then, and I still am, but that’s OK. It’s all about the pleasure, and about getting down a slope more or less in one piece. Skiing properly is poetry in motion, flick-turning skis in parallel feels like so many rhyming couplets in a tumbling cascade of delight. Apparently.

Or, it can be so much doggerel; gauche and ungainly hotch-potches, ungainly face-plants in snow mounds and random assemblies that — quite incredibly — lead essentially to the same place. The bottom of the hill. It ain’t always pretty, but you’ll want climb back up to do it all again, only better.

A place like Meribel, part of the chic Three Valleys (Le Trois Vallees) region in the Alpine region of France near its border with Switzerland, and at an altitude of 1,450m has no fewer than 180 skilifts to get you right back to the top of your game again, and with 600km of trails, there’s plenty to see, and sights to behold.

Every now and then, you have to stop in your tracks, pinch yourself and remind yourself just how beautiful a world which is all decked out in 50 shades of white can be, with the bluest of skies and the crispest of air, and look up! Paragliders, hangliders, and plain old gliders, and there’s even another layer above skiing: the sky is, quite literally the limit.

Helicopters drop the bravest of downhill skiers off on dauntingly steep peaks and you realise, with sensible humility, the only thing you have in common with these adventure heads is that you’ll all end up in the same place: that leveller, the bottom of some hill. In a bar, quaffing après ski, and quite probably singing.

The song about the bear going over the mountain, and seeing another mountain, came to mind too, not only because of the sheer array of passes and vistas at Meribel, but also thanks to a tale of one of our group whose last ski venture had been in North America.

She’d literally skied into the path of a bear after she’d left a marked trail. It was a mark of our mixed abilities and varied ski experiences, and added to the chalet-chats each evening as tales of derring-do were intermixed with tales of derring-don’ts.

Our group in Chalet Carine, Meribel, was, to say the least, mixed. Men, women, different ages from 20s to 50s, seasoned skiers and novices and what you might, politely, call false beginners — the sort who fall at the first hurdle, the ski-lift (no names).

We’d met on a flight to Geneva, bonded on the mini-bus pick-up, and high-tailed it over the Alps to our swish chalet for the next four days. Where we feasted like lords, and drank fine wines and ales.

My own 1980s ski experience had been sub-package holiday; this in complete contrast, was supra-package. We had four-star hotel standard accommodation, in a six-bedroomed, pine-clad and stone-chimneyed typically Savoy chalet for our stay, complete with sauna, hot tub, resident qualified chef Sophie, from Tipperary, and host Oonagh, from Dublin. (Sailor supreme Annelise Murphy was Highlife’s host in the chalet space alongside.)

The Highlife chalet deal has breakfasts cooked to order from your chef, water and tissues (no kidding) for the pockets heading to the slopes, fresh-baked delicacies on return in later afternoon, and then stupendous three-course meals with free-flowing wine (and/or beer), with a rich cheese board as a sort of coup de grace challenge.

It was either a mark of respect to chef Sophie, or else a sign of exhaustion, but no-one was keen any night of our stay to leave the chalet for grub elsewhere.

Black slopes? Hmm, maybe tomorrow. Bluest of cheese, and a soupcon of digestifs?? Well, why ever not? Live dangerously. You very quickly begin to think you deserve to live like this.

Depending on your experience level, you can ski as you choose, or choose to ski with a guided group courtesy of your Highlife host, who’ll have you doing dozens of kilometres in a few hours and show you some of the on and off-piste options.

Alternatively, they’ll set you up with some lessons with the ESF, the trés-professional French ski school system, or with the Parallel Lines school of native English speakers.

A week of this version of the Highlife will cost you upwards of €805 per adult, and €658 for a child, while shorter three/four-day breaks come in at €499. If you haven’t skied for years, a four-day break can be plenty to whet the appetite.

But, you do have to factor in the extra costs of flights to and from the resort (options are Geneva, 185km away and Lyon, 135km) as well as the cost of ski equipment hire, plus the cost of lift passes for the region. Highlife can organise your flights from any point of departure in Ireland.

The company was set up just over ten years ago by keen skiers Simon Egan, David Hogan and Alan Moynihan, and now has about 10 chalets in the top ski resorts in the French Alps - in Meribel, Morzine in Portes du Soliel, and Val d’Isere.

HOW TO GET THERE

Getting Going

Highlife holidays run seasonally from December 1 to April 21. Check out Highlife’s French ski chalet holidays at www.highlife.ie. You can talk to them on 01-6771100, or email at info@highlife.ie

Getting There

Aer Lingus has return flights direct from Dublin to Geneva once a day for the ski-season, excluding Christmas Day. Flights average €70 one-way. Cork-Geneva is also served each Saturday by Aer Lingus from Dec 15 to Mar 30, but flights are dearer. see www.aerlingus.com

Getting the Picture

Price from €805 adult and €658 for under-12s. Short 3 to 4 day breaks are from €499.

Prices include ski guiding on different trails with your chalet host, minibus to and from your chalet from airport on arrival /departure and daily to ski lifts, top quality chalet accommodation with sauna and hot-tub, great food, wines to match and a free bar. Other costs are ski pass, €40 per day, skis, poles boots etc €30 a day. Indulgent one-hour massage €82.

Getting More

Chosen resorts have a range of activities to dip into, from swimming pools to spas and other leisure activities, such as walking, paragliding, snow mobiles, ballooning, mountain biking, trekking and even horse-drawn carriage tours.

Getting Fed

Highlife tops and tails your day with culinary excellence, lunch fare is your own choice and responsibility, depending on how big an appetite you work up. Having most of your food and drinks needs included means any other resort spending is discretionary.

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