Irish Times reviews La Clusaz
Besides snow, the perfect resort needs good runs, lifts, food, accommodation and apres-ski. The stunning scenery around La Clusaz, in the French Alps, is the cherry on top for MICHAEL KELLY
WHAT MAKES the perfect skiing holiday? A ski trip is a complex beast, so a range of elements have to come together: good access from the airport, accommodation, gastronomy, apres-ski, runs, lifts – no queues, thank you – and, above all, snow. Our week in the village of La Clusaz, in the French Alps, was our fourth ski holiday and the first time that all the pieces in the jigsaw fell gloriously into place. La Clusaz looks the way you expect a ski resort to look: picture-postcard perfect, with spectacular views of tree-lined mountains; farms dotted on the landscape; chalet-style architecture with snow piled precariously on roofs; and a real village where life goes on when the snow melts and the skiers have returned home. That might sound like pretty standard stuff for a ski destination, but it’s not necessarily so: Mrs Kelly and I once visited a purpose-built resort that was excellent in almost every sense but was downright ugly to look at.
Then there’s access: on our previous ski holidays we have faced the torture of bus transfers of up to four hours from the airport. La Clusaz is in the Massif des Aravis ski area, in the Haute-Savoie region, which is about 50 minutes’ drive from Geneva. Our flight from Dublin arrived at 9.15am on a Sunday, which meant we could have been on the slopes by 11am. Instead we opted for a few hours’ sightseeing in Geneva and still arrived in the resort before teatime. A tour company that we found on the internet (its details are in the panel, right) transferred our group from Geneva to La Clusaz in a comfortable minibus for €130. If you’ve had the misfortune to walk any distance in ski boots carrying skis and poles, you will know that finding accommodation near the ski lifts is another vital component of a successful holiday. Anything more than a five- or 10-minute walk turns into a Shackletonesque trek that will leave you exhausted before you even click on your skis. Thankfully, we found a charming little two-star hotel, the Christiania, that was the very definition of central. Our bedroom overlooked the centre of the village and was across the road from the Caisse Centrale, where you can buy ski passes. We couldn’t quite ski to the front door, but a short walk through the village brought us to the two main télécabines (cabin lifts) for the resort, La Patinoire and Beauregard.
There are plenty of places where you can rent equipment when you arrive. We popped into Goy Sport, whose staff were friendly and didn’t even look for a deposit. Expect to pay about €110 a week for skis, poles and boots for an adult. No amount of planning, strategising or scheming can guarantee perfect snow. We went to the highest ski area in Europe one year in search of quality white stuff, and even there they had to turn on the cannons to make fresh snow. It made us wonder if we had embraced the sport at a time when global warming was in the throes of killing it off completely. Were we doomed to ski on artificial snow for the rest of our days? As luck would have it, our trip to La Clusaz coincided with the best snow the resort had in nearly 10 years – God was in his heaven and all was right with the world again. As with most modern resorts, La Clusaz has extensive snowmaking facilities, but nothing can beat the feel of real powder under your skis. It’s a relatively low-altitude resort – the village is at 1,100m, and the mountains rise to 2,600m, so the best time to visit is probably in February or March.
La Clusaz has access to five linked ski areas, with a total of 84 slopes and 54 lifts. It’s probably best suited to intermediate skiers (“intermediate” is probably a generous description for the snowploughing descents that Mrs Kelly and I attempt each year): it has just seven black runs, plus about 25 each of reds, blues and greens. We found the best snow at Massif de Balme, the highest of the village’s five peaks, at 2,600m, which you get to along La Motte, a charming green run through a forest. All the views in La Clusaz are stunning, but it’s worth trekking to the top of Massif de Balme for a breathtaking panorama that includes the majestic Mont Blanc, in the distance. Because this area is made up of mainly challenging red runs, and as it doesn’t get sun until late afternoon, it is much quieter than the rest of the resort. Another slope that merits a mention is the red run that links L’Aiguille (2,257m) and Balme: take the chair lift to the top of L’Aiguille, then ski the Fernuy run all the way down. We also enjoyed the genial Guy Périllat blue run, which takes you from Massif de Beauregard (1,690m) all the way home to the village – a nice one to finish off the day.
Adrenalin junkies such as my friend Dee were also well served: she skied red and black runs to her heart’s content – and when she got bored with that she did a tandem paraglide from 1,700m with her skis on. There are other snow-related activities you can try out, including speed riding – a terrifying combination of skiing and paragliding – heliskiing and night skiing. There are also great off-piste opportunities, though, being a relative novice, I wasn’t inclined to try them – except for one afternoon when I fell off a button lift and had no choice but to go cross-country back to the piste; Mrs Kelly, who was on the lift behind me, stepped over me deftly in creases of laughter.
As we didn’t book our accommodation until the last minute we had to go half-board. Premonitions of dodgy nightly buffets made us very nervous, but we need not have worried: the food was spectacular. A five-course meal was served by friendly staff in the hotel’s comfortable dining room each night. We were stunned to be tucking into sea bass, foie gras and pigeon, particularly as the hotel had only two stars. Fellow diners told us they had been coming to Hotel Christiania for 30 years. It’s not surprising. In fact, La Clusaz generally seems not to buy into the seasonal price hikes that often beleaguer French resorts. Our experience of the village’s restaurants was limited to lunches, but we were impressed everywhere we went. (We can particularly recommend Ugo’h Café, at 248 Route des Grande Alpes, 00-33-4-50631366.) Local specialities include diot (Savoyard sausage), farcement (savoury cake made with potatoes, bacon and fruit), polenta and regional charcuterie and cheese. Locals are obsessed with fromage , so it’s not a resort for the lactose-intolerant. The local economy still relies heavily on income from sales of Reblochon, Tomme de Savoie and Chevrotin cheeses, so make it your business to try cheesy dishes like tartiflette, raclette and fondue. The village also has an array of bakeries, patisseries and chocolate stores. Our group of mainly thirtysomethings had long since lost our ability to party into the wee hours, so the relative lack of nightlife here didn’t bother us.
We still enjoy apres-ski, of course, and particularly liked Bar le Salto (91 Montée de la Croix, 00-33-4-50633701), which is owned by a French-Scottish couple – and, conveniently, is at the foot of the Crêt du Merle chairlift – and Les Caves du Paccaly (10 Passage du Vatican, 00-33-4-50633739), which serves steaming bowls of mulled wine. I normally find it depressing to go to the trouble of travelling only to find yourself surrounded by the people you left behind. But La Clusaz’s visitors are predominantly French and Swiss, so we heard scarcely anyone outside our group speak English all week. The French call La Clusaz their best-kept secret. Visit soon, before the hordes find out about it.