Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2009
The mother of one of my goddaughters called just before Christmas last year. Would I like to go skiing with them at February half term? They had rented a luxury chalet in Megève. There was just one tiny problem. I would be welcome to join them for dinner, but there wasn’t enough room for me to stay there. Perhaps I could find a hotel?
I’ve always liked the sound of Megève. It was developed as a ski resort in the Twenties by Baroness Noémie de Rothschild, who wanted France to have its own version of St Moritz. She scoured the Haute-Savoie for a suitable location and finally came across the pretty little farming village of Megève. The Baroness bought a guesthouse and transformed it into a chic hotel; then an architect named Henri-Jacques Le Même designed and built more than 200 chalets in the style of mountain farmhouses. Et voilà, the Baroness had her new St Moritz. So enthusiastically did the beau monde take to Megève that by the Fifties Jean Cocteau was calling it the “21st arrondissement de Paris”.
It may not be the 21st arrondissement anymore but Megève is still a great favourite with well-heeled French skiers who stroll through its cobbled streets in furs and Dior snow boots, stopping to drink a vin chaud at a street stall or buy a new ski jacket in Aallard (run by the grandson of the man who invented the ski pant).
Although the resort has expanded a great deal since the Baroness’s time, the heart of Megève has changed very little and the concrete crimes against architecture that predominate in so many other French resorts have not been permitted here. Not surprisingly, the French guard Megève jealously from outsiders, leaving British operators very little to play with. So as British half term always coincides with one of the French weeks, the question was, would I find anywhere at such a late stage?
Fortunately, I knew who to call. Stanford Skiing is a small British company specialising in Megève. It was started in the Eighties by Jean Stanford, the last British woman to win the Val d’Isère downhill. When she sold up, it was bought by the affable John Kinnear and he now runs it with his daughter Elizabeth and a small dedicated team. Stanford doesn’t have a huge programme, but by some miracle, it had one single room left at its two-star chalet hotel, Le Rond Point.
The Rond Point is a typical chalet-hotel, with a cosy bar and lounge area and a refectory-style dining room. Its 13 rooms, spread over three floors, are basic, but comfortable and all have en suite bathrooms. Occasionally, an evil pong seeps up the stairwell from the basement (which houses the boot room and a games room), but that’s French resort plumbing for you. Crucially, the Rond Point is in an excellent location at the edge of the village, and though it is on the busy access road – which clogs up at weekends and at the end of the day – it’s very quiet. The Chamois lift and ski-hire shops are only a few minutes’ walk away and the bus stop for the free mountain shuttle bus is just across the road.
At 1,113m rising to 2,350m, Megève is not a high resort although its proximity to Mont Blanc means it often has better snow than other resorts of a similar altitude (Stanford will provide transport to a nearby resort if Megève is unskiiable). So you could find yourself skiing in the rain; or you could – as we did – enjoy perfect conditions: thick, crunchy snow, blue skies and bright sunshine.
Our party’s abilities ranged from beginner, through fast and slow intermediates to expert and Megève suited us all. On the first couple of mornings, most of the guests at the Rond Point opted to explore the mountain with chalet staff. It’s a good way of getting to know the 221 pistes (43 green, 64 blue, 80 red and 34 black). It’s also a great way of finding skiers of a similar standard to pal up with.
My own pals, meanwhile, had discovered that their luxury chalet wasn’t nearly as conveniently located as my humble two-star. For them, getting home from the nearest lift involved ringing for a private shuttle or a long walk from the ski bus, whereas the ski bus took me to my door; alternatively, I could take the Chamois lift into the village and dump my skis and boots at the ski-hire shop; once, I even skied down, on a deserted piste that led past a cluster of chapels and oratories.
These are the 14 Chapels of Calvaire, built by a 19th-century priest after a visit to Jerusalem. So why was the piste deserted? I found out lower down, when it became an icy, steep and narrow footpath that led into the village. I took off my skis… and fell over.
Après-ski, for us at any rate, was a fairly sedate affair. A glass of vin chaud for the adults and perhaps a trip around the twinkling village in a horse-drawn carriage for the children, followed by dinner back at the luxury chalet. The selection of irresistible mountain restaurants for lunch and the strong euro blew quite a hole in our budget so on staff’s night off, we went to a traditional, and relatively inexpensive, crêperie called Chez Maria, tucked away in a side street.
At the end of each evening, I returned to my little garret at the Rond Point. In the bar, guests seemed to be having fun, playing cards and swapping stories by the log fire. I did have dinner there one evening and the food was plentiful and delicious (as were the cakes at tea time) – not as fancy as the luxury chalet, of course, but does cordon bleu really matter on a skiing holiday?
We all agreed that Megève had been a great success. So much so, that a few weeks ago my god-daughter’s mother called. Would I like to go skiing with them in Megève again at February half term? They had rented Stanford’s only luxury chalet, right in the heart of the village. This time, there’s room for me, too.