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La Clusaz: A resort with bijou charm

independant

LESLIE WOIT – SATURDAY 26 NOVEMBER 2011

you-are-hereIt’s time France’s La Clusaz was back on the map for British skiers, says Leslie Woit There is a whiff of mystery about this place. A pocket of luxe, calme and volupté and only one hour from Geneva, La Clusaz has kept its

elf secreted from the eyes of most British skiers zooming past towards Chamonix or the Three Valleys. However, for those who value sportif stylishness on a smaller scale, this could be your stop. Its first five-star hotel opened just last season, and the resort is the kind of place that says “Come for the weekend” then plies you with delicious French food and wine, reveals five bijou mountains with terrain for all types, and could still leave you satisfied an entire week later.

Deep in the Reblochon zone, this pretty Savoie village reeks of French mountain culture. Tasteful wooden chalets line the streets, a lovely 19th-century church dominates the village square, and there are some excellent restaurants and a good handful of bars. Almost everyone seems to be French or Swiss, locals and chalet owners up for the weekend comme normale, and in no particular panic to party, ski like maniacs, or rip off the tourists. The first evening after I arrived I sat at the bar at Les Caves Du Paccaly, and my reasonably priced glass of wine was accompanied by a complimentary board of local cheese and cured ham. And why wouldn’t it be? The locals are on to a good thing.

This resort of five linked mountains is sometimes dismissed for its low altitude, yet during the snow-poor days of last January, the coverage was better than in the heavily trafficked Three Valleys. It has also produced more than its share of world-class athletes, a reflection of its diverse appeal. Cross-country World Cup gold medal winner Vincent Vittoz is a habitué of the 52km of pretty trails at La Clusaz’s Plateau des Confins, host of the World Cup in 2004. Seb Michaud moved to La Clusaz aged 15, destined for the French National moguls and freestyle team. Another local boy, Candide Thovex, took gold at the revered X Games. In the shadow of these freeride gods, I clicked into my skis with guide Antonin Lieuthagui of Dimension Freeride, himself a snowboard freeride gold medallist. He took me up to La Balme, the mountain with the most off-piste options, to share some of Seb and Candide’s favourites – big treeless snowfields speckled with drops, cliffs and wide carving slopes. Here he pointed to one sheer rock face with an impossibly narrow chute funnelling over its far side. “The access is a bit difficult,” he admitted modestly, “but the run down is very easy.”

I wasn’t quite ready for that, so we cruised the empty wide slopes and then looped over to another of La Clusaz’s five mountains: Beauregard. Here lay a parallel universe of snowploughing beginners, loping retrievers and tanned grannies, a world of future freeskiers riding the magic carpet.

Each of the linked areas has its own character. The wide slopes of L’Etal are pleasant in the afternoon light; L’Auguille, just across the valley, offers easy straight fall-line slopes; the meadows of Manigod are a favourite with families. It was here thatI swapped my skis for, well, shorter skis – so that they didn’t tangle in the hooves of Quick, Narcisse and Si Jolie, my Hermès-harnessed horses. “Ski joering” – being pulled on skis behind a horse – is part gentle outing, part hair-raising high-speed expedition. We stopped to set up a photograph on a long flat run where the snow was softer, then Julien and Si Jolie took off just in advance of Quick and me. Quick lived up to his name and gave chase, while I held on to the harness for dear life. Powder flew from Quick’s pounding hooves up into my face, the road in the distance neared with alarming speed. One of us had to go: I flung the harness down and Quick shot off, crossing the road and trotting straight back into his box. Done for the day, he tucked into a mouthful of hay.

On the pisteShortly afterwards I was enjoying a lunch that would rival the finest mountain restaurant in Zermatt or Val d’Isère at Le Vieux Chalet, a rustic and chic Savoyard inn on the side of the piste. It was just another of La Clusaz’s delights to enjoy, before I headed to the cross-country trails that loop the high frozen lake, followed by a massage before a wine tasting and dinner at Restaurant L’Ecuelle. Perfect..

Eating and drinking there * Les Caves Du Paccaly, 10 passage du Vatican (00 33 4 50 63 37 39). * Le Vieux Chalet, 309 route du Crêt du Merle (00 33 4 50 02 41 53; levieuxchalet.fr). * Restaurant L’Ecuelle, 388 Route Col Aravis (00 33 4 50 23 67 91). Ski joering * Aravis Passion (00 33 6 15 65 11 11; aravis-passion.com) offers ski joering for €53 per person for a 90-minute session. More information * 00 33 4 50 32 65 00; laclusaz.com