Getting chilly in the powder on Portes de Soleil’s unmissable mountains
16:13 11 March 2016
It’s dinner time at the chalet-hotel Au Coin Du Feu. There’s a log fire roaring in the central stone hearth and the first portion of our nightly three-course meal has been devoured with gusto between chatter of today’s skiing conditions and generous glugs of wine.
We’re a few days into our stay at Chilly Powder’s 17-room chalet-hotel in Les Prodains, part of the famous Portes de Soleil ski area and nestled between the larger resorts of Avoriaz (1,800m) and Morzine (1,000m).
Even though I’ve spent a season amid the rustic finery of Val d’Isere, I’m bowled over at first sight of Morzine glimmering in the chill night air with hundreds of chalets stretching off down the valley and half-way up black mountainsides.
Morzine may be the heart of the Portes de Soleil, but there’s total of 12 resorts across two countries to explore with an area pass. For your money (a seven-day adult pass costs just under €300) you can traverse at leisure down 300 pistes covering 400sq km.
The majority of runs are blue and red – well over 100 of each – with 37 green and 30 black. There’s also plenty to satisfy any off-piste fans though the area’s low altitude means it’s best to avoid the very start and end of the season to ensure good snow.
Going between resorts feels like an adventure in the best traditions of alpine exploration and, depending on your speed and departure time, heading there and back can take up most of the day.
For long red and blue runs down the mountain with fantastic views over the town below, head to Morzine. From the bottom you can take the rapid cable car back up for another go.
Nipping over to Les Gets – the third largest resort in the area – is as easy as two lifts and a blue from Morzine. Or if you’re feeling bold you could strike out for Chamossiêre, the area’s highest peak at 2002m, and try the black or red back down.
Avoriaz is a gateway to Switzerland and as a result key runs can get very busy and bumpy. Its lofty perch also means that higher parts of it are exposed to bracing winds but once in the valley it delivers a bounty of tree-lined tracks to cruise.
Heading in to Switzerland opens up four new resorts, including Les Crosets, Champéry, Champoussin and Morgins. Here we found some of the best runs of the whole area – wide, fast reds and rolling blues – so it really is worth the trip “abroad”.
With such a vast area to ski, the simple knowledge that a cake and hot cup of tea are waiting for you when you finally return to base is enough to prematurely ease your aches and pains.
Our home for the week is run by English owners Francesca and Paul Eyre whose focus is on great food, comfort and friendly service.
Mother-of-three Francesca, 45, is a former chef who trained at the Cordon Bleu. She started Chilly Powder with husband Paul, 49, in 2001, having lived in the area since 1994.
They personally designed and built chalet-hotel Au Coin Du Feu (which means “by the fireside” for you non linguists) at a cost of £3million, including their family home next door. It forms part of a cluster of catered and self-catered chalets.
The chalet-hotel boasts huge windows that fill one side of the living/dining room wall with light and mountainous views. Each room has an en-suite and there’s also a bar, outdoor hot tub, sauna, games room, a library complete with pool table and a crèche.
“We have put our whole lives into it,” says Francesca, who is clear about what she wanted to offer guests.
“I wanted to make sure that people felt at home straight away. Not to feel like it was a hotel but that they were in someone’s home and that it was very personal and if they wanted to come down in their slippers they could.
“It’s a home from home. If you are in a hotel, it can be a little bit formal.”
Indeed homely touches are everywhere. A colourful, hand-drawn poster adorns the front of the ski boot room declaring a ski wax and edging service for guests from ski prodigy Eloise, just 12, and pictures of the family hang on the fireplace.
Arguably the chalet’s biggest draw is the Eyre family themselves. Capable, knowledgeable and friendly, they feel like true mountaineers, happy in their surrounds and having carved out a name for themselves in the area.
As for childcare, we constantly heard parents telling each other that the facilities at Chilly Powder were among the best in the alps. A dedicated cohort of English-speaking nannies work to the English ratio of one to two children under 12 months rather than the slightly more lax French ratio. More are brought in depending on demand.
Chalet Au Coin du Feu doesn’t only cater to families however, it can also be rented out as a whole for large adult-only groups.
If you’re thinking of fitting in some skiing this year, the Portes de Soleil has plenty to offer all abilities and simply isn’t to be missed.