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For many successive winters, I would scroll forlornly through Facebook and Instagram, glaring bitterly at my rosy-cheeked and fluoro-clad friends swishing down the slopes, wishing that I had learned to ski when I was eight years old and invincible. Ski holidays, however, hovered tantalisingly out of my reach.
My right leg is a coward, you see. I can’t blame her for being so: I’ve smashed her up. Twice. First on a mountain bike in Virginia, then on a motorbike in Laos. Both accidents landed me back at my parents’ house in Belfast in a wheelchair for months at a time. And although I am very proud of my titanium-pinned and surgically-scarred leg’s everyday pluck, I just can’t talk her into activities that involve repeatedly whacking a hard surface – an inevitability for a new skier.
And then, three years ago, I discovered cross-country skiing, and have remained a convert. There has been growing buzz among travel editors and savvy snow-junkies about cross-country (or Nordic) skiing, which was for decades dismissed as the boring cousin of downhill skiing. Today more resorts are offering cross-country trails, celebrities are gliding gracefully through snowy forests clad in Perfect Moment, Moncler and Canada Goose, and ski instructors are touting it as a physically challenging yet lower-risk alternative to downhill.
Since discovering cross-country skiing, I’ve explored the cross country trails of the Italian Dolomites, in Gstaad in Switzerland and in Yosemite National Park in California, but my destination this winter was a resort famed for downhill skiing; Courchevel. As the most eastern resort of Les Trois Vallees, the biggest connected ski area in the world, Courchevel 1850 has earned a reputation as one of the starriest sets of slopes on the planet, known as “the St Tropez of winter sports”.
Growing up, I devoured Audrey Hepburn and vintage Bond movies and found myself thoroughly seduced by the wintry romance and old-school glamour of alpine resorts like Gstaad, St Moritz and Courchevel. I would dream of clinking cocktail glasses with a dashing lover after a day on the slopes. And as the sort of traveller who gets fidgety after 15 minutes on a sun-lounger, the allure of a trip combining scenery, adrenalin, exertion and liberal quantities of cheese and booze was strong. This winter, I’m keeping all the bling at a tasteful distance, however, by checking into Le Portetta in Courchevel 1650.
Le Portetta is the snowy sister hotel to the glorious Pigs, dotted all around the UK. The Pigs are a favourite of mine, for delivering style, superlative food and sparkling service all at a price that doesn’t make my soul weep. The Pigs, to me, put effort into all the right places, and don’t waste time with formality or fuss. Le Portetta sticks to this winning formula, with inviting public spaces and simple bedrooms, all without a hint of alpine twee. This 38-room ski-in, ski-out hotel is all sheepskin rugs, taxidermy, oxblood leather banquettes, walnut wood and plaid carpets. Six sleek apartments make the perfect pads for families or groups of fabulously wealthy friends. Bedrooms are comfortable, not lavish, with bathrooms spruced up by Bamford products. But the simplicity of the bedrooms means you’re coaxed gently into the public spaces, and these are spaces worth lingering in.
The rest of my group are downhill fiends, but the joy of staying at Portetta is that I can venture off on my cross-country skis and meet them for a hefty raclette lunch at La Ferme, by taking the lift up the slope from the door of Portetta. There are rough and ready cross-country trails at Belvedere just a five-minute taxi ride from Le Portetta, where I contentedly swish through forested trails and luxuriate in the marshmallow softness of snow-cushioned silence. On a more intrepid day, I ski from Courchevel 1850 to the neighbouring resort of Meribel, a comfortable two-hour jaunt, and an easy bus ride back.
A more thorough cardio workout than downhill, which lets gravity do some of the work, a growing number of skiers are turning to cross-country skiing as an alternative to jam-packed resorts, pricey lift tickets and crowded slopes. It’s certainly a refreshingly different experience to crowding into slush-covered lifts and dodging fellow downhill skiers like Christmas shoppers on Oxford Street. Plus, I feel a lot less likely to break my leg.
And when you’re staying at a hotel with an Angela Hartnett restaurant, Cucina Angelina, it’s nice to feel you’ve earned your beef bourguignon. Settling down into the leather banquettes with an impeccable dirty martini, I reflect that this trip is delivering all my giddiest Alpine daydreams.
Spectacular mountain scenery, tranquil trails, and a rustic yet pleasingly rock’n’roll boutique hotel to retreat to at the end of the day – this is the world I thought might be denied to me by my wimp of a right leg. I’m so glad we worked things out.
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