Alpe d’Huez, for the best skiing fun

VARIETY is the spice of life, is it not? We should be open to new things and seek to experience as many different activities and places as possible.

Alpe d’Huez, for the best skiing fun

That’s what keeps life interesting, right?

But therein lies the source of my current dilemma. Ski season is fast-approaching and it’s high time I booked the annual ski trip. I should be on the lookout for somewhere to hone my far-from-expert ski skills. I should be trawling websites for fresh ideas on where to go this year, searching for somewhere new and different and exciting, a place that ticks all the boxes.

My problem is that I’ve already been to a resort that ticks all the boxes, and much, much more. And simply put, I want to go back.

One of Europe’s premier ski resorts, perched high up in the heart of the French Alps, Alpe d’Huez is the central resort in the Grandes Rousses mountains, located in the Isère départmemt in the eastern Rhônes-Alpes region.

The Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine Ski links the main resort at 1860m with those at Auris-en-Oisans, Vaujany, Oz-en-Oisans, Villard Reculas and the traditional mountain villages of La Garde and Le Freney d’Oisans. Simply put, this all translates into an impressive 135 linked pistes, 250km in length, which are connected by 80 cable cars and which extend out to represent a massive 10,000 hectare mountain playground.

A high-altitude resort, Alpe d’Huez culminates at the Pic Blanc at 3,300m, the summit boasting spectacular panoramas, snow-covered mountains stretching out to include views of Mont Blanc and the spectacular expanse of the Parc National des Ecrins. The Alpe d’Huez domaine is appropriately nicknamed “l’île au soleil” owing to its south-facing orientation. This “island in the sun” enjoys sunshine for an average of 300 days a year with a network of 900 snowmakers to help combat the resort’s southerly aspect to guarantee good snow conditions all season long.

My first day on the white stuff, I recruited the services of an Ecole du Ski Francais (ESF) instructor and guide, Benjamin, to steer me around many of the resort’s blue (37), red (39) and black (17) pistes. Getting a guide on your first day at a resort is a great way to cover a lot of ground while getting the inside track on the best the resort has to offer. Always amiable and keen to impart their knowledge on all things ski, guides are also often more than happy to give you a welcome few pointers to help improve technique. And under Benjamin’s watchful tutelage, straight away I was beginning to find my decidedly shaky feet and also understand just how much the resort has to offer.

Alpe d’Huez really is ideal for all levels of skier and snowboarder, with a varied and progressive ski area. The natural topography of the resort – it is triangular in shape, meaning the higher you climb, the more challenging and technical the terrain becomes – ensures that everyone from the beginner to the experienced skier is catered for. The majority of the easiest runs are concentrated in the lower part of the resort where the slopes are gentler so those new to skiing can practice and build their confidence in the two especially reserved zones at the base of the the pistes.

Family-orientated and highly-regarded, the ESF ski school will provide the essential basic skills to those - both young and old - just starting out, while directly adjacent to the reserved zones, the “Chalet des Enfants”, catering for two-and-a-half to five-year-olds, combines skiing and day-care services for those very youngest of snow sport enthusiasts among us. Day-care services are also available in the resort for children as young as six months old.

For the intermediate and advanced skier, there is more than enough varied and testing terrain to explore, including the world’s longest black run, the 16km-long Sarenne, along with the notorious Tunnel run. And with up to 2,200m of vertical descent on offer, downhill skiers will find it hard to better the conditions elsewhere. Expert free-skiers also have loads to chose from with the many off-piste options and itineraries.

And, should you need a break from the skiing or snowboarding, there are a range of other facilities and activites on offer from hiking and snowshoeing – there are 35km of marked trails with benches along the way - to ice skating to ice driving, as well as all that’s available at the ultra-modern sports complex at the Palais des Sports et des Congres.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a snow mobile for an evening spin. Mounted on top of some of Yamaha’s finest 500cc fuel-injected engines, a group of us shot off across the mountains in guided convoy, an adrenaline-pumping way to explore even more of the resort.

Considerably less blistering, the dog sledding also proved a well-earned break after a physical day tackling the slopes. As the seven-dog sled team raced off, I sat back, taking in the surrounding Alpine wonderland, the breeze, fresh and crisp in my face as we pressed on. The dogs pulling diligently, the musher (or driver) calling out sharp commands, calm descended as we sliced across the immaculate snowscape, no roaring engine to pollute the senses.

Now, dog power has been utilised for travel for centuries, it makes total sense to me. Man and animal in unison, co-operating. I get it. But what makes less sense is donning two short skis and hanging on for dear life to a rope attached to a riderless horse, galloping around an enclosed track, and all for recreational purposes. Stretch your imagination somewhat to combine skiing and sulky racing and you have a rough idea about skijoring. Even now, as I recall being dragged, bumping, fallen and face-down in the snow, it makes little sense, but I’m glad I gave it a go.

Which brings me back to my original dilemma. I’m still trying to decide on a resort for this year’s ski trip. Do I go for somewhere new or go for somewhere I know, and somewhere I know to be top-class? Alp d’Huez has got it all, an then some. So, why then consider going elsewhere?

Yes, variety is the spice of life. But then, Alpe d’Huez in no garden-variety ski resort.

GETTING THERE

Crystal Ski Holidays flies every Saturday to Chambery during ski season with the transfer to Alpe d’Huez from the airport taking about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Accommodation

Crystal Ski Holidays has a wide variety of accommodation on offer, from 4-star deluxe, half-board hotels to 3-star self-catering apartments. We stayed at the impressive 3.5-star Hotel-Spa Royal Ours Blanc right in the centre of the resort. Prices here start from €1,535pp on an all-inclusive basis based on two people sharing. The three-star self-catering Apartments Horizons D’Huez start from €475pp based on four people sharing. To book your holiday call Crystal Ski Holidays on 01 4331010 or visit www.crystalski.ie.

Eating and drinking

Pick up the pocket-sized Guide des Restaurants for listings. Particularly impressive was Le Bato Ivre, on Avenue des Jeux, with its mountain specialities and traditional dishes.

TRAVEL DIGEST

by Barry Coughlan

Southern stars

Southern stars Anyone drawn to the southern states of the US might be attracted by an offer from Insight Vacations, reduced (for ground arrangements) to €2,025. The 11-day deal has a May 17 departure next year and features visits to Atlanta, Asheville, St Simon’s and Jekyll Island.

Visit www.insightvacations.com , or call 01-7753803.

Quiet, unspoilt resort of Khao Lak

Topflight has a seven-day special, in the quiet Phuket resort of Khao Lak, that allows a break away from the hustle and bustle of the busier areas. Khao Lak is a resort 100km north of Puket Town, and the unspoilt environment is geared towards nature lovers. Details of the €860 (approx) package on www.topflight

‘Pack Up & Go Sale’ until September 15

The Aer Lingus ‘Pack Up & Go Sale’ continues until September 15, with winter sun flights available from €99 (Lanzarote, Tenerife and Las Palmas). Other European fares range in price from €l45.99, and between US and Canada from €219 one way.

Visit www.aerlingus.com

Three nights in New York for Christmas

With the summer just over, tour operators are looking to the Christmas market for business. Abbey Travel offers three-night deals in New York from €699, with the lure of upmarket shopping on Fifth or Madison Avenues, and something for the bargain-hunters at Century 21. Details on www.abbeytravel.ie

December flights to Lapland for €699

Some fortunate children (and adults) have an opportunity to visit Santa on December 13/14 this year, courtesy of Cork travel agents, J Barter Travel Group and Lee Travel, who have seat allocation on a trip to Lapland (ex-Cork).

Prices are from €799 per adult and €699 for children.

For further information, log onto www.travelnet.ie/lapland-from-ireland  or else www.Leetravel.ie

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