Alpe d’Huez

 

Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2010

Every so often I come across something I would prefer to keep secret. So it was with Alpe d’Huez. Or rather, with a new development of chalets, right at the edge of the piste.

Alpe d’Huez is the fifth-largest ski area in France, with 240km of linked pistes over an altitude range of 2,230-3,330m. Its excellent lift system boasts one of the longest cable cars in the world. And transfer time is reasonable, too, at just under two hours from Grenoble, via the 21 hairpin bends of Tour de France fame.

Yet while it’s popular with budget skiers, it has nothing like the cachet of the more northerly French resorts. You won’t see Le Beau Monde hurtling down La Sarenne, even if it is the longest black run in Europe.

The trouble is that while Alpe d’Huez is not an ugly purpose-built resort in the manner of Flaine or La Plagne, neither is it especially charming, with some unattractive Sixties apartment blocks at its core. The fantastic skiing, both on and off-piste, and a sunny climate that earns it the sobriquet of L’Ile du Soleil, would go some way to compensate for its visual shortcomings, were it not for its lack of top-flight accommodation.

And that’s what makes these new chalets, collectively known as Le Village, such a find. Leased by the British ski company Snowline, they were designed and built by a local architect, Philippe Siegel, in contemporary-Alpine style, with private hot tub and sauna, heated boot room, log fire in the sitting room and top-quality furnishings. They are more attractive and much better located than many of the luxury chalets in smarter resorts, and from £819 per person for chalet board, they are several hundred pounds a week cheaper.

As for the food, it’s all lovingly cooked and served by Snowline staff. Thank goodness calories don’t count at altitude.

These chalets apart, there are several other reasons for giving Alpe d’Huez a try. Because it’s not a “smart resort”, living costs are slightly less ruinous – a plat du jour in a mountain restaurant, for example, costs around €10/£9; a cup of coffee about €2.

It’s true that while there are plenty of places in which to eat, Alpe d’Huez doesn’t really do haute cuisine, but this hardly matters if you’re staying at one of the Snowline chalets.

For party animals, there are plenty of bars and late-night venues, though with fireside champagne and canapés to get back for, we only went out once, to a wine merchants called The Wine Floor, which also sells wine by the glass, accompanied by foie gras tapas.

Alpe d’Huez can get crowded at weekends and the slopes slushy later in the season, though when I visited in December, the pristine, powdery pistes were virtually empty. The sun shone every day as promised, too, though a cloud of fog invariably clung to the valley below the pistes. Late one afternoon, we found ourselves dashing through the same fog on a dog sled. The musher apologised for the conditions but we thought it made the experience – which essentially entails staring at seven barking dogs’ bottoms for half an hour – feel like a scene from Dr Zhivago.

When we alighted from the sleds, we looked as if we’d been iced. No matter. There was plenty of time for a sauna and a soak

in hot tub at the chalet before supper.