BRIDES les Bains may be the smallest place you ever visit. With a population of just 600, it’s reminiscent of those little Irish towns where everyone knows everyone and the pharmacist is also the butcher and the local mechanic on Tuesdays. In fact, while dinning at the town’s main restaurant, La Petite Auberge (where 80 per cent of the menu involves melted cheese), I am told that Jean-François, the owner, is also the former town mayor and the person responsible for extending the gondola down to Brides les Bains prior to the Winter Olympics in 1992.
This gondola has provided back-door access to Méribel, allowing the spa town of Brides les Bains, formerly only enjoyed in the summer months, to pinch skiing tourists from the older, bigger boys of Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens.
Without the expense of Courchevel or the party-atmosphere of Méribel, Brides is a low-key alter- native to rest and recuperate. The town is so small that if you stand in the right place you can take it in in a single glance – the tabac, the cob- bled streets and the charming little stream clinging on to a different era. However, it does have a pleasingly French charm that will appeal to those looking for a winter sports holiday away from the Chanel-clad après–skiers who fill the rest of the three vallées. The bread is fresh, the wine is a fraction of the price it is higher up the mountain and no one will expect you to dance on a wooden table. They won’t even ask.
It is also very easy to get to. As anyone who has been stuck in a coach halfway up a mountain can testify, skiing terrains are not always straightforward. Blizzards, accidents and unfriendly narrow roads can all conspire to stretch out your travelling time, which is often directly linked to your piste time. By contrast, Brides is a flat – and therefore easy – hour’s drive away from Chambéry, and with a new service from City Airport you can leave your desk at 10am and be on the slopes by mid-afternoon. The gondola up to the slopes is a fairly heart-stopping 25 minutes (anyone uncomfortable with heights should close their eyes) but once there you have the three vallées at your feet, especially as it comes into Méribel, which helpfully lies right in the heart of the mountains.
For those unfamiliar with the three vallées, they provide some of the best, and certainly some of the most enjoyable, skiing in the world, with easy access to the mountains via one lift pass. With such a vast landscape it is almost impossible to get bored and even the most advanced skiers can flit between long tree-lined blues and sharp, narrow reds and blacks for days without going over the same ground. In good conditions you can go up to Courchevel in the morning, before stopping for a few runs and lunch in Méribel, and then cruising over to Val Thorens before catching the last gondola down. For beginners, there are endless green runs, but all with their own little challenges – one in Méribel is over a huge, blanketed golf course, allowing for fun dips and jumps out of snow-covered bunkers – you will certainly come back a better skier than when you left.
Non-skiers can also get in on the action, as the gondola services can take you up and – more importantly – back down again, allowing you to lunch at the top. This service is also great for people who think mulled wine might help their skiing; it won’t, take the gondola home. Panoramic restaurant is a great place for a mid-day debrief, balanced on what feels like the very edge of the vallées, the views are, as the name implies, truly awe-inspiring.
The big news this season is the opening of La Folie Douce in Méribel, following in the footsteps of its snow- thumping, table-dancing-by-4pm sisters in Val d’Isère and Val Thorens. It’s a fun, expensive, cool place to hang out and a must-visit for lunch, if not a full afternoon’s partying. Just make sure you set yourself a curfew – it’s a steep red back and the last gon- dola to Brides is at 5pm on the dot. You really don’t want to miss it; it’s a long way down...
Elle Blakeman is the Editor of The Mayfair Magazine