Destination Ski: Morzine 2011

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Up on the mountain you get more time to think. It may be the reason why that hollowest of clichés, joined up thinking, triggered off something here in the mountains above Morzine. Skiing sans frontiers, across the Swiss border and back again, joined-up thinking in the mountain air.

In 1979 they created the Portes du Soleil. It was a major breakthrough in the piste process, linking up the big ski areas on the French-Swiss border above Morzine and Les Gets, where the original chairlift here was constructed in the 1930s.

It linked two countries, France and Switzerland with 650km of piste, 14 resorts, 288 slopes and 209 lifts. You can stay at Abondance, Avoriaz, Chatel, Champery and Torgon, or just descend to them for lunch and return to the mountain.

It is a huge area, enough to swallow all the skiing in North America and give endless itineraries to the adventurous intermediate.

It heralded an end to the days when resorts operated their own slice of mountain are long gone.

MorzineDay MorzineDayII MorzineDayIII MorzineNight MorzineSkiingI MorzineSkiingIIPortes du Soleil was followed by others: 600km of Les Trois Vallées, 425km of Paradiski, the 300km Espace Killy and 150km Espace San Bernardo, the 265km Le Grand Massif and the 180km Domaine de la Foret Blanche, in Italy the 400km Milky Way ski area and endless 1200 km Dolomites Super Ski, the 400km of piste forming the four Valleys in Switzerland, and in Austria the 260km Arlberg Ski Circus, the 250km Skiwelt, the 225km Zillertal Superski Area and the 130km Europa Sport Ski Region, and in Andorra the 193km Grandvalira ski area with its famous intermediate slopes.

That means you don’t have to stay in the flagship resort to enjoy all the skiing. It gives cheaper and less crowded options for your clients or niche bijou resorts that link into large ski areas.

And with the 6.45 flight to Geneva from Aer Lingus you can be on the mountain at lunch.

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The sun didn’t shine much in Portes deu Soleil when were there. But it didn’t matter that the view was somewhere beyond the clouds (“the best view I have never seen,” colleague Geoff Hill interjected during one run). Even the slice of mountain we could see opened us up into a magical Narnia- world.

There were quite a few surprises. One of the best is for that oft-forgotten species of skier, the beginner.

Normally beginners are at the bottom of the view chain, but at the top of the Pleney mountain you find the nursery slope with the best view in the Alps. Instead of being stuck on the valley floor on day one, you take the telecabine up the mountain and get to enjoy the views. Nursery slopes are served by rope lifts, a travelator and a two-man chair lift.

Morzine and Les Gets have some great intermediate runs, and there are places you can avoid the crowds funnelling in to the main lifts.

It can get crowded out there. The omnipresent sound of the snowboarder bearing down on you, the sharp end of his board aimed for your vulnerable ankles, can be heard when the mountain fills.

There is an escape button. When the crowds head uphill to Avoriaz (it is at 1,800m, compared with Morzine’s relatively low 1,000m) but locals escape that area especially during busy periods. If you go ten minutes away to an area called La Grande Terche, it is uncrowded with wide and long pistes, just fantastic.

Best view is Le Grand Paradis on the Swiss side, looking on the Mont Blanc’s Dents Blanches.

And for the black? Le Creux, Chamossiere mountain. Turns are tight and scarey. No, I didn’t try it.

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Morzine itself is an old favourite of the Irish. Many French resorts are hideous 1960s purpose built creations, but this is a real town with real streets with pubs, churches, bars that cater for someone other than the loud and boisterous tourists which go with altitude, a busy town with real streets and a village life that carries on even when the days lengthen and the skiers all go home.

For the Irish, who incline more towards Austria rather than France (as the Brits do) you can see the attraction. It is a more Austrian town than many in Austria, the Savoiarde feel lingering in the air long after the politics of the region plonked it on the French side of a Swiss ridge.

At night you walk around the rim of the saucer with a feeling that this is indeed a vortex of winterlife. There are surprises behind every snow pile. For example, the best après ski in town is to be found in Bar Robinson, run by an elderly couple who do not have English. There are other famous hostelries to be explored, Crepu, Le Coup de Couer (where I meet a teacher who drove her camper van here for the season, avoiding every toll from Hull)

Not being purpose built means a better range of restaurants and nightspots. Say cheese. The word is everywhere. Savoiarde fondues and raclettes.

One restaurant, La Ferme de la Fruitiere specialises in the local product like Abondance mountain cheese, evangelising for cheeses like a bovine Jehovah’s Witness. Cheeses saves.

At L’Etale you have to sample the prime cuts, cooked at your table.

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The delightful three star Hôtel Champs Fleuris is largely run (despite what the humans claim) by Gus the dog.

It has the strangest pool I have ever seen. It is an outdoor hotel in a sock, a sort of vegetable growers tunnel with a bowl shaped bottom. As you swim gracelessly, down from the slopes in the evening, the tired limbs pass through viscous stripes of hot and cold water.

You feel you are crossing a frontier with every stroke. A bit like the skiing.

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