High up a mountain, at 1,550m and with snow all around, my children are screaming with laughter as they’re swept off their surfboards by a giant wave.
No, you read correctly; surfboards. We may be in what’s more commonly regarded as a skiing mecca – Courchevel, France – but if there’s one other feature this Three Valleys area is known for its luxury.
How do you find good surf at this altitude? Just build a pool you can surf in. Aquamotion is Courchevel’s newest attraction and, like the Three Valleys ski area it resides in (the biggest in the world) they’ve gone large. That seems to reflect the prevailing attitude at this resort, which is top-end in so many ways.
Moulded into the hillside at Courchevel 1650 (now called Moriond), the ultra-modern glass and chrome building is 15,000sqm and has a massive selection of indoor and outdoor pools and “wellness” areas. Built at a cost of £50m, no expense has been spared. In the adults-only area, there’s a wide array of saunas and hammams and even a giant salt-water hot pool to languish in while watching extreme ski videos. You can also swim outside and enjoy snowflakes landing on your head while taking in the spectacular alpine view.
For children – and big kids – there’s a three-chute 45m flume, 110m “wild river”, diving pool, climbing wall and, as you might never expect, an indoor surf wave.
So it is that the two surfing novices are being pummelled by the thousands of litres of water being flushed down the short surfing ramp. The indoor wave blaster has two settings, so the kids start out on bodyboards and gradually move up to standing position, clinging onto a wakeboard handle for dear life. Big Wednesday it ain’t, but at the end of the session there are two very happy surfers, their pride (and backsides) unbruised by a series of soft landings. Next season, a combined ski pass will also offer access to the water park.
We had come to Courchevel 1850 for a family adventure – including our first entry into the annual Three Valleys Enduro event – a day-long skiing and orienteering race that takes teams to far-flung points of the ski area to compete in everything from slalom races to dressing up in animal costumes for the obligatory photoshoot.
With snow up to 3,230m and most pistes above 1,800m, the glitzy resort ticks all the boxes for quality skiing. But that luxury reputation can bring a hefty price tag too. This is, after all, the neighbourhood where Roman Abramovich reportedly tried to buy the whole of Courchevel 1850 and where the Beckham family and, more recently, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, like to holiday with their kids.
Luckily, there are still some wallet-friendly places that more ordinary folk like us can still afford. Booking through Madame Vacances, we stayed at Hotel Courchevel Olympic on a half-board basis, in a deal that also included return transfers from Geneva airport, a reduction on ski hire and two three-course meals in local restaurants.
It’s a two-star hotel, so nothing fancy, but the rooms were cheerfully decorated and clean with ensuite bathrooms and a mountain view to die for. The young hosts Peter and Katrine were fun and the kids enjoyed the pool table and games cupboard in the cosy bar downstairs.
Best of all, it was only a short walk to the Croisette, the heart of Courchevel and the step-off point for skiing. We particularly liked Neuf Neuf, a reasonably priced and candle-lit local restaurant with quirky vintage signs on the walls and delicious French food.
Another hit was the Savoyarde restaurant, L’Alambic, we found at Courchevel 1650, easily reached by the free bus. Though it serves the likes of fondue and tartiflette, we were more than happy to stick with pizzas.
Even the alpine cheese feasts and evening flume rides, however, weren’t going to stop us getting up early to snatch as much skiing as possible on a short holiday.
With that in mind, we booked a family lesson with Bernadette Perrot, a top ESF instructor and former champion racer, to give us some tips ahead of the Enduro contest.
After guiding us to some spectacular views from the top of the Roc Merlet chair – some 2,734m up – she decided my wife and I had some ingrained habits that needed ironing out. Luckily for our children, they were deemed young enough to have escaped the worst of our style defects.
The main thing she decided we needed, to be raceworthy, was the ability to master a technique called godille, a series of rapid linked turns that will apparently control speed in steepest pistes. It’s your “get out of jail free” card on hairy bits of the mountain, apparently.
Bernadette also took us to the snowpark to practise skiing down chutes, complete with hairpin bends and jumps. “If you want to survive this, widen your stance,” she yelled behind us. I’m not sure my efforts improved my skiing, but they gave the kids a good laugh.
So, limbered up, we were ready for what is the largest gathering of amateur skiers in the world. Team 48, the Perrys, included my wife and children, with me surplus to requirements as it is a three-man event. The goal is to get as many points as possible by competing in a range of categories including freeride, ski-cross, the big air bag, giant slalom and speed skiing.
Half ski competition, half Gumball rally, the event is split into different ability levels including pro, amateur and family, and depends almost as much on making it to all the various staging points around the three valleys (in whichever order you choose) as it does on scoring super-fast times. Getting to all of the events was always going to be tricky, but was made even harder by the magnetic pull of the incredible Savoyarde food festival that was all included in the race entry fee.
We skied down into Mottaret at lunchtime to find a massive roped-off area where helpers were dishing out tasty bowlfuls of polenta, pasta, cheese and tartes, washed down with free craft beers, wine and smoothies.
As it turned out, we managed a respectable result despite having been overtaken by a skier dressed as Donald Duck. In fact, our biggest race error was misunderstanding precisely when the award cemerony was to start, so we turned up, pressed and washed, to find it was all over.
There’s nothing for it, the kids decided, but to come back next year. And this time I’ll be in the team, with no more chances to sneak off to the beer tent.