YOU will hear many British voices on the slopes of the French ski resort of Morzine, but despite the fact that “the Brits are here” the region still retains a Gallic shrug.
Unlike Meribel, which has long since been colonised by Brits, and where the main town is full of raucous British pubs like Dick’s Tea Bar – Morzine’s most prominent British export is a classy restaurant playfully called Numero Dix, run by head chef Phil Wallis who serves dishes like tapas of potted rabbit or roasted apricots and quails eggs to a more restrained but just as contended crowd.
It is a wonder that it has taken so long for Morzine – in Avoriaz, northeast France on the Swiss border – to come to the serious attention of the ski-mad British. The Portes Du Soleil ski area, which Morzine is at the heart of, is a sizeable region with 650km of pistes covering 12 resorts across France and Switzerland serviced by 195 lifts.
The range of the Portes Du Soleil’s pisted runs are not that far behind its great French rivals Val d’Isere and Les Trois Vallees, and its off piste compares well with most resorts. However, it is not as easy to get around the area as it should be. There are some choice runs to the east of the snow area, but you have to get your skis off and trudge through two towns, Morzine and Les Gets, to get to them.
Apart from skiing there are plenty of other alpine activities including husky dog and horse riding, skidooing and snowshoe walking. For those who like to arrive with a bang Morzine even offers a ride on a piste basher this year. But for those who are more adventurous Yannick Heiser, the local diving instructor, will take you on an ice dive in nearby Lake Montriond.
Heiser, 36, says you do not need any experience to go on a 15-minute dive with him. “In many ways it is easier because you have not picked up any bad habits,” he jokes. After an afternoon’s training and a €65 fee, you are ready to dive. Once under the icy waves the stark blues and whites of the water are worth seeing, he says. But a word of warning: do not disturb an fish you see because they will be hibernating and if you wake them they will think it is spring and head for the surface thinking food is available only to find out their mistake and die.
However, the British influence in the area is perhaps at its strongest in the key private chalet market that has overtaken the charter business that used to dominate the UK winter holiday market up until the late 1980s.
But the expansion of budget airlines has made it easier for skiers to fly themselves to the slopes, while the growth of the web has made it easier for small chalet operators to market themselves.
Fifteen years ago there were around five independent, mostly British-run chalets in the area, now there are over 160.“As little as 10 years ago at Geneva airport the car park was packed with hundreds of coaches waiting to take people up the slopes,” says one local chalet operator. “Now it would be hard to find more than five coaches on any given day. Instead, the car parks are full people movers ready to take skiers to small chalets.”
Few British chalet operators have lived in the region longer than Paul Eyre, 43, and Francesca, 39, who moved to the area in 1992. They own Chilly Powder, a business made up of three chalets in village of Les Prodains, just outside Morzine.
The largest one, Au Coin du Feu, has 17 bedrooms and sleeps 53 when fully booked. The chalet caters for families in particular and has a crèche with three full-time nannies, earlier meal times for kids, and a games room. But restless adults can amuse themselves in the sauna, or the hot tub, around the pool table, or give yourself over to the capable hands of the chalet’s in-house Spanish masseur.
However, the highlight of the evenings was always the four-course dinner, which is overseen by Francesca, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, which was never less than excellent. There is nothing like telling your dinner companion once again how you cheated death on a particularly nasty black run over a marvellously light salmon fillet and your second bottle of Gamay.
After years of renting chalets from local owners and managing them through the winter – which is how British chalet operators usually work – the pair decided build their own place in 2000. Paul is a qualified quantity surveyor from West Ham and Francesca, the great grand niece of Lord Curzon viceroy of India and foreign secretary during the First World War, had some money from friends and family she could call on.
The couple designed the chalet together with a local architect, Paul oversaw the building work and Francesca, who is full of bubbly can-do, handled the interior. As ever with construction, little of it went smoothly; work stopped and started as contractors came and went between rival jobs. Building stopped completely over the winter months. In the six weeks before the chalet’s December 2001 opening Paul lost one-and-a-half stone running around the site tying up all the loose ends before their first guests arrived. This included putting in the main staircase four days before opening.
But they opened on time, and the business shows no signs of looking back, with the three chalets they now have valued at €2.5m. Francesca says: “Last year because of the downturn bookings were affected a little, but around 70 per cent of our business is repeat bookings so our core market was not affected. And this year has begun well.”
Skiing holidays are holding up well: that, surely, is as good a sign as any the recovery is beginning to gain traction.
There’s nothing like telling fellow diners how you cheated death on a black run, while sinking a second bottle of Gamay