Handholding by a team of professionals and a state of the art chalet with its own chef to look after the family is the secret of a good ski experience, says Catherine Shanahan.
I’D DONE the self catering. I’d done the half board. I’d done the straight-from-the-slopes-have-you-no-homes-to-go-to après ski.
I’d given each and every ski trip I ever went on both barrels on and off the piste because that’s what you do when you come from a country where it never snows.
And at the end of every trip I hauled my sorry ass home, in dire need of another holiday.
I have often thought “There must be an easier way”.
The good news, reaching me belatedly is — there is.
It’s called the Highlife Experience and it’s really for anyone with a healthy appreciation of the finer things in life and a wallet to support the indulgence.
It will particularly appeal to anyone keen to ensure a hitch-free trip but personally unable to spare the time it requires to plan it.
The Highlife team will look you after you from the get-go. Once you make contact via www.highlife.ie , all you really need to do is outline your holiday requirements and the team will set about tailoring the perfect package.
There are three resorts to choose from, all in the French Alps — Morzine, Méribel and Val d’Isère and each boasts a number of Highlife chalets.
I went to Val d’Isère which is an extra 45 minutes on the transfer bus from the airport, but as Alan Moynihan, Highlife CEO points out, it has really good snow, and a really good set up for beginners.
“We are always encouraging beginners to come here... if you can learn on good snow I think that makes it all the more enjoyable. And the views are amazing,” Alan says.
Highlife devotes a lot of time to clients pre- and post-departure “discussing what the holiday is going to be about, dietary requirements, ski packs, what the kids will be doing in the afternoon, what should you pack, it’s a huge part of why the experience works,” Alan says.
“When people get here, they know exactly what to expect: the times the [free] shuttles run at; who to talk to if their skis aren’t right, personalised care is a massive element of what we do.”
Highlife even follows up with clients when they return home using feedback to further improve their service “down to the tiniest detail”.
On my trip, this attention to detail is obvious.
Indeed everything is awesome — from the sandwiches and bottled water doled out as we clamber into the eight-seater mini-van at the airport to the spectacular scenery of Val d’Isère where Chalet Jasmine, in all its picture-postcard glory, awaits.
This is the real deal, the kind of dreamy set-up I always imagined from my days of reading The Chalet School books — the log fire, the pitched roof, the cosy bedrooms all en-suite, the sauna and hot tub ... What? A sauna and hot tub? Yes. In case you need a ski detox...
Because Highlife knows that cooking is the last thing anyone wants to do before or after a long day skiing, your chalet comes with a chef. Professionally trained. Trust me when I say “This is the icing on the cake”.
Ours was Aoife Longe, from Inagh in Co Clare and although it’s a long, long way from Clare to Val d’Isere, I’m delighted she made the trip.
Breakfast was special — homemade smoothies, juicies, freshly baked pastries, baguettes, hot daily specials. I’m still suffering withdrawal symptoms.
For fear we didn’t eat enough for breakfast, she sent us on our way each day with a few homebaked treats for the slopes, of which there were more upon our return, served with tea, coffee or hot chocolate to tide you over until the three-course dinner in the evening.
Dinner was a fine dining experience. I don’t have enough space on this page to go through it all, but as an example take tomato, mozzarella and pancetta salad with French dressing as a starter, followed by braised beef with celeriac puree, creamed spinach and bitter chocolate sauce, followed by white chocolate panna cotta with shortbread biscuit and berry compote.
Choose from one of six red or six white regional wines (free pouring, which sounds like a recipe for disaster, but trust me, the slopes will have drained the stamina required for an all-night session) and round the whole thing off with a digestif and some fantastic local cheeses.
The chef has one day off (a light breakfast and treats are still provided) so take the opportunity to break the bank and visit nearby L’Atelier d’Edmonde, the restaurant run by two-Michelin-stars chef Benoit Vidal.
For those with kiddies in tow, you can arrange in advance of your trip for them to eat at an earlier sitting which gives the adults a chance to actually taste and enjoy dinner.
In fact Highlife will also pre-arrange childcare. Everyone who books with them is assigned their own holiday co-ordinator to process all requests, including sorting in advance that all important ski pack.
On your first day of skiing, a minibus will whisk you to the ski shop where there’s plenty of help to kit you out.
The shops are close to the bottom of the slopes and once you’ve picked up your equipment, you don’t have far to go to meet with your ski instructor.
Ours had our lift passes at hand so we headed straight for the cable car. We skiied with ski school Evolution 2 and instructor Olivia Bories, who had the requisite good humour, tolerance and patience.
If you do have kids, and you want a bit of piste-time to yourself, you’re probably better off opting for Morzine.
Highlife operations director Seamus Shaughnessy, who has a background in hospitality and does all the logistical legwork in the three resorts, says the Highlife Marmotte Club in Morzine gives parents the freedom to ski without having to rush back to pick the kids up.
“We meet the kids [ages 4-11] at noon after ski-school, take off their gear, bring them for lunch and then onto activities [snowman building, ice-skating, tobogganing].
"They love it, the parents love it, because they can drop the kids at 8.50am and they don’t see them again until 4pm that day.
"They know they are 100% looked after and it’s only €75 for the week. It’s not a money-making service, it’s the cheapest childcare in Europe,” Seamus says.
Highlife’s “Family Weeks” coincide with school holidays — Christmas, the New Year, midterm, the Easter holidays.
Seamus visits each resort every week to ensure everything is running smoothly, checking hot tub temperatures, making sure there aren’t any issues around food or lessons and checking in with staff which in Val d’Isere, in addition to Aoife, includes the affable resort manager Alan Cooke and the capable and friendly chalet host, Emily Foy, who looks after all the niceties including ensuring our bathrobes and slippers are at the ready upon returning from the slopes.
“Hospitality is number one for me,” Seamus says.
“That’s why I think over the years our customers come back. It’s not just for the skiing, it’s the hospitality as well, the service, the handholding from the first morning.
We literally hand deliver you to your instructor on Monday morning, We give you your lift passes. We get you kitted out.”
I’m all for this level of handholding. I loved the Highlife shuttle that brings me each morning to the snow square in the centre of Val d’Isère anytime between 8.30-10am.
I appreciated the evening call out shuttle service they offer between 5.30pm and 7pm, should you wish to partake of some pre-dinner après ski.
Experienced skiers will rejoice that the chalet is just a three minute walk from Le Fornet cable car, which leads to Val d’Isère’s highest altitude skiing and one of the resort’s best mountain restaurants (Le Signal).
And that they can almost ski home to the door.
I delighted in the beauty of Val d’Isère itself, all snow and twinkling lights at night time and the awesome majesty of its mountains by day.
I loved that it developed organically over the years and is not purpose built.
I embraced its wonderful atmosphere. I was like a child in its magical confectionary shop.
I relished the crazy après-ski and the off-the-wall mountainside lunchtime cabaret at the famous La Folie Douce.
But most of all, I loved living the Highlife.
Accommodation: Range of chalets, each equipped with a professionally trained chef and chalet host. Chalets can be booked room-by-room or the entire chalet can be booked by one group.
They come with hot tubs and log fires. Cost for seven nights for the 2015/16 season, including meals, drinks, airport transfers and shuttle service is €840 per adult and from €686 per child under 12.
Short breaks start from €529 per adult and €479 per child under 12.
Full details of what price includes can be found at www.highlife.ie/booking/what-is-included.aspx
Adult from €270 and child (up to age 13) €216 for 6 days. Family lift pass: 2 adults and 2 children (up to age 17); €864 for 6 days (€216 per child after that).
Evolution2 ski school. Group lessons from €220 Monday to Friday 9am-noon.
Boraso ski shop: skis and poles from €111, helmet €25, boots from €51 2015/16 Season: Starts November 29. Last week to leave Dublin is April 10.
Morzine: Aer Lingus Dublin to Geneva, operates seven days a week. Flight times are 06:50-10:00 (outbound) and 10:40-11:50 (return). Transfer time to resort is 1 hour and 15 minutes Meribel Aer Lingus Dublin to Lyon.
Current lead-in fares for Dublin Geneva is €49.99 one-way and Dublin Lyon is €54.99 one-way. They are valid for travel from November 1 to April 30.
Operates five days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday) Flight times are 11:30-14:35 (outbound) and 15:15-16:35 (return). Transfer time to resort is 2 hours Val d’Isere Aer Lingus Dublin to Lyon.
Operates five days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday) Flight times are 11:30-14:35 (outbound) and 15:15-16:35 (return) The transfer time is 2 hours and 45 minutes.
La Grande Ourse: Fine French cuisine at high altitude. menu www.grande-ourse.com/restaurant-gb.htm
La Fruitière at La Folie Douce:
For the snow equivalent of Ibiza-style revelry, check out the lunchtime entertainment mountainside at La Folie Douce or dine in the exquisite La Fruitière menu http://www.lafoliedouce.com/en/folie-douce-spots/val-d-isere-tignes-en.html and click into ‘see menu’
Chez Jules: Small friendly bar in the heart of the resort.
Cocorico: Fantastic bar for hardcore ski party animals.
Grand Marnier Bar: For a quiet one or two in the town centre.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved