Here’s an admission that makes some people gasp: I’ve never been skiing. “Really?” they ask, looking at me with the sort of sorrowful look usually reserved for shoeless orphans.
Thing is, I’ve never actually wanted to ski. In my mind, people who skied were either braying Made in Chelsea types with a fondness for Jaeger-bombs, or adrenaline junkies using precious holiday time to hurl themselves down mountains with scant regard for their limbs. On and on they go about “powder” this and “mogul” that and “black run” the other. I automatically switch off.
Skiing, y’see, seems an awful lot like work and not an awful lot like a holiday.
So why, then, was I on a packed Swiss Air flight to Geneva with the sole purpose of ensconcing myself somewhere toward the snowy peak of an Alp? Well, um, not going skiing, actually, lest you think this is a “send the novice skiing” piece. Instead, I was in search of my preferred holiday requirements: rest, relaxation, peace and luxury, along with proof that we non-skiers can revel in the majesty of the Alps as much as our more athletic counterparts.
The valley fiercely protects its heritage and tradition and as a result the snowy vista is free from high rises, nightclubs or garish boutiques, and is dotted with wood-clad chalets
Sans ski equipment, I was travelling lighter than most of my fellow passengers, which meant a speedy airport exit and pole position at the taxi rank. From the jetting fountains of Lake Geneva, we drove mountainwards, passing quietly into France above trickling Alpine streams that will become gushing rapids come summertime.
I arrived in the delightful town of Châtel, nestled high in the Abondance Valley, close to the Swiss border. The valley fiercely protects its heritage and tradition and as a result the snowy vista is free from high rises, nightclubs or garish boutiques, and is dotted with wood-clad chalets and working farms hung loosely around a modest church.
A chalet, but not as we know it
My base was Maison Blanche et Verte, an exquisite new example of the luxury chalet that aims to appeal as much to non-skiers as to skiers. A glance at the wine cellar alone shows why it’s the only five-star specimen in the region. The indoor pool, private cinema, massage room, gym and sauna also score serious points.
Another particular draw comes in the shape of a six-foot Scotsman, on hand not only to cook charming three-course dinners each night, but to offer up the odd cookery masterclass. Indeed, not long after arriving, I was whisked into the kitchen and taught how to make the perfect tarte tatin, perhaps the only time I’ve been actively encouraged to drink champagne and use a blow torch simultaneously.
After some Moroccan lamb, I tucked into the fruits of my kitchen labour and defended my non-skiing stance to my decidedly pro-skiing associates. They were nice enough to invite me to join them for lunch on the piste the next afternoon.
After a restful lie-in and a quick swim, I layered up and made the short drive to Pré-la-Joux to get scooped up by a chairlift. The majesty! The tranquillity! I could have gone round on that thing all day. But I hopped off and made the short trudge to a restaurant so authentically Alpine it bordered on self-parody.
Moustachioed Frenchmen supped their vin chaud and rosy-cheeked skiers tucked into their raclette. I settled for a well-stocked charcuterie board, a cold beer and a catch-up with the skiers, who explained that the wire extending from the summit above us to one away in the distance is Fantasticable, a lengthy zip wire which allows summer thrill-seekers to hurtle face-first from peak to peak at 100mph. This and an abundance of mountain biking tracks prove that adventurous folk don’t leave the area when the snow disappears.
As my chalet-mates slid off from lunch with consummate ease, I trudged back to the lift, enjoying my descent by pretending to be a cameraman on Frozen Planet, and headed for a nearby farm (one of 30 still working in the area) to be schooled in the ways of the local Abondance cheese.
During the summer months, statuesque Abondance cattle graze freely on the grassy mountainsides, but in the harsh winters, farmers keep their herds in the basement levels of their chalets. Not only do these contrasting environments give distinctly different ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ cheeses, but the winter arrangements also afford the farmer some extra warmth, with a sort of bovine insulation during ski season.
When the aroma of cow began to overpower, I said my mercis and returned to the chalet for an evening of fine food, wonderful wine and fireside chats.
Mountain air and a candlelit massage
The next day, I rose and contemplated walking to Switzerland. “Two hours there and two hours back,” advised one of the chalet staff, gesturing at the horizon. “And don’t forget your passport.” I did, though, so the winding streets of Châtel had to do. Aside from the odd ski shop and pizza restaurant, they can’t have looked much different now than they did when the occupied French would head for the mountains to smuggle in Swiss supplies during the war.
I stopped for a Kronenbourg and a hearty lunch, consumed outdoors in the warmth of the midday sun. As the chalet was laying on massages that evening, I whiled away the afternoon strolling some more, so I could at least claim some physical exertion in the face of my stiff and sore skiing compadres.
On my return to base, I laid on the massage table and looked out over the twinkling lights of the streets I had just paced. A day of mountain air followed by a candlelit massage should be essential components of any winter break.
A snowfall akin to the most violent snowglobe shake greeted my final morning. About half an hour passed at the breakfast table until I realised I’d finished eating and was just staring at snowflakes. There were enough of them to cripple England’s flimsy transport network for a week, yet somehow not enough to stop a cheery postwoman resolutely going about her rounds.
My lazy days in the Alps had passed far too quickly, yet I felt completely and utterly calm and rested. In fact, as we packed up our things and headed back towards Geneva, I couldn’t help but be won over by the enthusiasm of the skiers.
“Would you come back and have lessons?” they asked, as we drove past the town of Evian. “If it means I can return to scenery like this – and make you tarte tatin – then yes,” I replied. “Just don’t ask me to write about it. I’ll embarrass myself.”
• For more information, visit Maison Blanche et Verte. It is available on a sole occupancy basis and sleeps up to 12 people in six luxury en-suite rooms. From £1,450 per person per week fully catered, including transfers. Phone 079 1766 0440