Bathed in the micro climate of mighty Mont Blanc and studded with charming wooden chalets clustered along the Dranse river, the Savoyarde market town of Morzine, at the heart of the fabled Portes du Soleil ski region in eastern France, is a paradise for snow-lovers and thrill-seekers.
Booking a two-centre holiday, split between AliKats plush new Riverwood Lodge and Chilly Powder’s award-winning chalets, I’ve decided to spend five days trying as many different snow-related activities as possible – and I’m hoping to survive to tell the tale!
I arrive at Riverwood Lodge at nightfall and catch a glimpse of carved wooden chalets like giant dolls’ houses and a ghost of a moon gilding snowy peaks, before entering the spacious, pine-panelled lounge, where I’m greeted with an appetizing plate of canapés and a blazing log fire. With its wooden beams, pine floors and huge bed, my room is like a luxurious log cabin. I fall asleep listening to the swish of wind through pine trees and the soft hoot of owls hunting outside.
On the terrace the next morning, I gaze at snow-capped peaks etched in a sky as blue as the roof of a Greek church as I snuff up lungfulls of fresh mountain air, mingled with the smell of fresh brewed coffee. It’s easy to see what attracts celebrities, ranging from actor Jason Statham to tennis ace Tim Henman, to Morzine.
After a breakfast of croissants, smoked salmon and a thick fruit smoothie, I pick up my gear, pull my bonnet way down over my ears and head out over crisp, cold snow for my first activity: cross-country skiing with the ESF ski school.
At an altitude of around 1.200m and with some 25km of well-maintained tracks, the Manche Valley is ideal for novices, like me, to learn in safety. I master the herringbone stride for climbing hills, and practise kicking and gliding without poles, and then I slot my skis into the well-groomed tracks and glide away through the vast valley packed with bluish spruce trees.
A snack of creamy French onion soup with croutons at Le Clin d’Oeil, a cosy little restaurant tucked away in one of Morzine’s side streets, sets me up for my next adventure.
Grabbing goggles and snowsuit, I head out for a night snowmobiling ride with Avoscoot.
The last scarlet streak of sunlight fades behind a serrated fringe of pine trees as we climb aboard our motorised sleds. “Flutter the throttle, then move forward slowly – you need to learn how to operate the gears,” the instructor tells us. “And maintain your braking distance – it takes a lot longer to brake than a car,” he yells, as we move off in single file. It is magical. Our headlights glisten on the sparkling track ahead and we glide along watching the stars above us and avoiding the occasional rabbit that scampers out in front of us.
Appetite honed by my exciting ride, I dine that evening at Alt 1490 Exclusif, a restaurant that earns its name from its altitude. Choosing a table with views over the valley below, I tuck into Savoie’s speciality, raclette, a deliciously rustic dish where cheese is melted on a hot griddle then poured bubbling hot over new potatoes, served with slivers of steak and vegetables.
The next morning I struggle out from under the cosy quilt for another adventure. Herve from Alpi Rando is waiting for me with a pair of raquettes. Tying on the frying-pan-sized snowshoes, I joke that I’ll probably spend most of the time flat on my face. “Don’t worry – it feels really awkward at first but once you get used to them you’ll be fine and you can even move quite fast,” Herve reassures me.
I want to take his word for it, but when I pick up my poles and lunge out on to the track, it feels like I’m walking in quicksand. At first I can hardly put one foot in front of the other. Gradually, however, I learn to use my poles properly and lengthen my stride so as not to tangle the snowshoes, and soon I’m swinging along through the fresh powdery snow at high speed.
When I get back to the chalet that evening, however, my legs ache as if I’ve run a marathon and I’m happy to laze in Riverside’s outdoor hot tub, before tucking into pomegranate-glazed duck breast followed by fruit and hazelnut pavlova prepared by the hotel’s resident chef.
Still aching the next day, I set out to explore Morzine. This is still a traditional town with lots of historic buildings and I feel like I’m in a Christmas card as I stroll along snowy roads ringing with the bells of horse-drawn sleighs. Morzine has plenty of small stores selling quality snow wear, local arts and crafts. After buying a few presents, I head for the shop of cheese-maker Nicolas Baud where I learn how local specialities Tomme, Adondance and Reblechon are made, then sample some of these fruity cheeses in Nicolas’s snug, stone-clad restaurant, La Ferme de la Fruitiere.
A taxi takes me to Au Coin du Feu later that evening. With world-class ski slopes ending literally in the back garden, panoramic views from every room and an immense log fireplace with cushy leather sofas for relaxing after a hard day on the slopes, Chilly Powder’s charming boutique chalet hotel just oozes charm. It’s run by British couple Paul and Francesca, along with their three children, so it has a family atmosphere, cosy and chic. Francesca is a chef and believes in giving guests quality food after a day on the mountain. I enjoy a hearty five-course meal, starting with a smoked duck salad and culminating with a delicious slab of homemade carrot cake, then get an early night. Tomorrow will be a long day.
I’m staying in the English Room, a quaint double overlooking the slopes. I’ve borrowed a book from the upstairs library, but I only manage a few pages before nodding off.
After a full English breakfast the next morning, I eschew the hot tub and pool table and head off for today’s adventure.
Increasingly popular, since featuring in the 1990s movie Silver Wolf, ski joering, a form of skiing where you’re pulled by a dog or a horse, is to be my next challenge. I’m a bit nervous at the idea of trying this fast-moving adrenalin sport, but the guide from Takamaka reassures me that even people with basic skiing knowledge are fine.
The sturdy Fjord pony stamps and snorts in the snow as I pull on my skis and grab the bar a few paces behind the pony’s beige rump. “Just keep your skis parallel and knees supple,” says my guide, leading the pony forward.” Sliding across the silk-smooth snow gripping the bar tightly, I feel like I’m waterskiing – and just like waterskiing, I take a few spills, but once I relax it’s surprisingly easy and I have a lot of fun. After my strenuous snow activities I head for Au Coin du Feu’s private treatment room for a welcome and gentle bamboo massage.
At gourmet restaurant L’Atelier d’Alexandre, that evening, I’m so relaxed I feel like I’m floating on a cloud. As you’d expect from a restaurant inside the very chic hotel Le Samoyede, the food is exquisite: the lentil veloute with smoked trout is rich and satisfying; the sautéed beef fillet served with butter beans and wild mushrooms melts in my mouth, and I hardly have room for the iced almond nougat smothered in stewed apricot and rosemary cream.
Finishing the last mouthful I gaze out at the glittering slopes and vow to come back to Morzine next year – if only to work off some of those extra calories.