Snowplowing My Way Through the French Alps

Snowplowing My Way Through the French Alps

By Wendy Hammerle

Looking down an intermediate slope at Alpe D’Huez - photos by Wendy Hammerle
Looking down an intermediate slope at Alpe D’Huez - photos by Wendy Hammerle

Boom! The sound of cannons, muffled by the fresh snow, was my wake-up call that first morning in the French Alps. As part of avalanche control, the cannons are fired before the first skiers head up into the mountains.

I began to wonder what I was doing here. At 50-something, I hadn’t been on downhill skis in 20 years. Visions of leg casts and crutches planted themselves firmly in the left side of my brain. But in the end, learning to ski, or in my case re-learning to ski, on some of the best slopes in the world turned out to be a rejuvenating, wonder-filled experience.

No Lift Lines

I spent the first morning snowplowing down a beginners' slope at Alpe-D'Huez, a big resort about an hour and a half drive from Grenoble. Alpe-D Huez, which in the summer is famous for being a stop on the Tour de France, is linked to several other resorts for a total of 152 miles (245 km) of ski trails and 84 lifts.

This means there are absolutely no lift lines and plenty of room to practice without worrying about getting clobbered by somebody zooming down the hill behind you. We were there in early March and happily avoided the crowds that show up in December and February during European school vacations. Under the watchful eye of a very patient ski instructor, I progressed slowly and survived my only wipeout without breaking any bones.

While I mastered the so-called “green slopes,” the better skiers in our group headed to a run that starts at Pic Blanc for what Alpe-D’Huez officials claim to be the longest groomed slope in the world accessible by cable car. Expect a 7200-foot (2200 m) vertical drop on this 10-mile (16 km) trail. The resort also sports a half-pipe, a floodlit run for night skiing and dozens of snowshoe and cross country trails.

Mountain Cuisine

But of course skiing in France is not just about the skiing. It’s the cheese, the wine, the fairy-tale villages, the spectacular views, and all things français. After a morning of skiing, we took a cable car to a mountaintop restaurant for lunch. Le Signal has a 360-degree view and traditional mountain cuisine including homemade pastries. After dessert, the owner brought us samples of his homemade Génépi, a local liquor made with alpine flowers. Just a whiff of this stuff will curl your nose hairs!

Some hearty souls brave a brisk wind to enjoy a meal deckside at Le Signal overlooking the mountains.
Some hearty souls brave a brisk wind to enjoy a meal deckside at Le Signal overlooking the mountains.

Skiing back down the hill after lunch, however, presented its own challenges. A little groggy from the hearty meal, this was my first attempt at negotiating an intermediate slope. Somehow, I managed to snowplow my way down, rubber legs notwithstanding.

Later that afternoon, we took a snowcat ride to another “Restaurant d’Altitude,” the Chalet du Lac Besson, where we relaxed amid the warm alpine décor with some hot mulled wine. This remote little eatery is also accessible by snowshoe.

Diner was at Sporting with its heavy wood beams, a blazing fire and lots of local specialties. We sampled the requisite fondue and the regional dish called a tartiflette, a hearty potato, ham, onion, cheese casserole. Both paired well with local white wine and big green salads.

But my favorite restaurant in Alpe D’Huez was Au Grenier, a cozy little place in the village where I enjoyed a tagliatelle (a type of pasta similar to fettucine) with salmon that was out of this world. Others in my party had scallops, mussels, prawns and mushrooms in a creamy seafood sauce. Serving sizes here and at most other restaurants were extremely generous and could have been easily shared by two light eaters.

A couple enjoys a lunch of Raclette, melted cheese that is scraped off a wedge as it’s heated in a special grill.
A couple enjoys a lunch of Raclette, melted cheese that is scraped off a wedge as it’s heated in a special grill.

Lodging Choices

Lodging choices in Alpe D’Huez include dozens of chalet-style hotels. When we arrived at The Hotel Royal Ours Blanc, cranky and jetlagged, the smell of a sweet burning wood fire in the lobby made us feel human again. We got breakfast, a room with a balcony and a view that belongs in National Geographic.

Our next stop was Megève, an old Alpine ski village of cobbled streets, stone bridges and horse drawn carriages. About an hour from Geneva, Megève has a large pedestrian-only center lined with pricey skiwear shops, bakeries, and chocolate shops. Despite its reputation for being somewhat high end, I found the people in Megève to be warm and helpful.

My ski guide, for example, remained ever cheerful as he coaxed me into sloppy parallel turns through patchy fog and rain. I was just getting the hang of it when we broke for lunch at a local spot next to the lifts. Le Matou was crowded and smoky (no such thing as non-smoking sections in most of these restaurants) but filled with interesting mountaineering artifacts. The menu was hand written on old sheets of music. The food was good and reasonable – try Le Croque Monsieur, a hot open-faced ham and cheese sandwich, with real French fries and salad.

A young family window shops in charming Megève.
A young family window shops in charming Megève.

White-Knuckle Flying

That afternoon, we took advantage of a break in the weather to fly over Mont Blanc in a little four-seater on skis. The views of the peaks and the turquoise glaciers were well worth the white knuckles as we got bounced around in some gusts coming off the mountains. There were times when I felt like we could reach out and touch the rocky peaks – we were that close. Not recommended for the faint of heart or anybody nervous about flying!

We had several great meals in Megève. If you like upscale modern, try le Puck. Our first course was served in a section of an egg carton and the salmon was done to perfection.

For dessert, I’m not sure which melted in my mouth first, the ice cream or the apple tart. If you want more traditional alpine ambience, I’d recommend le Saint Jean under the Hotel Au Coeur de Megève, which has lots of dishes from the Savoy region including raclette and flaming lamb.

Snowshoeing in the Alps is like being in another world.
Snowshoeing in the Alps is like being in another world.

For lunch, save all your pennies and splurge on a carriage ride out to the Ferme de Marie. The architecture alone is worth the visit – think restored farm chalet converted into a luxury inn, spa and restaurant. If you can afford to eat there, do so. The dining room, gourmet food and service will be worth every cent. We sat by a tall window, all cozy and warm, eating our carrot soup with truffles, grilled beef and pear tarte, watching the snow fall outside.

Spotless and Cozy

Our Hotel in Megève was the Royal Rochebrune, spotless and cozy with lots of wood paneling and the perfect alpine touch, beautiful carved wood doors. The front desk staff was wonderful, letting me check my email for free on the computer in the lobby.

For longer sessions online here and at other hotels, expect to pay a couple of Euros. And be advised, the keyboard is different than in the US – it took me forever to type a short message. If you bring your own laptop, you’ll find wireless service to be a bit spotty.

A young farmer proudly displays his newest crop of Reblochon cheese, used in several regional dishes.
A young farmer proudly displays his newest crop of Reblochon cheese, used in several regional dishes.

Our final destination was La Clusaz, an unspoiled little alpine village of only 1,500 inhabitants. Eighty percent of the visitors to La Clousaz are French so it has a real hometown feel.

This place lived up to its claim that visitors are not customers, they are guests. Like Megève, La Clousaz is about an hour’s drive from Geneva. It’s also close to Annecy, which sits on a lake and has a wonderful old section – worth a side trip. And like both of the previous resorts, the skiing and snowshoeing here was nothing short of spectacular.

Snowshoeing Through Powder

While the expert skiers in our group headed to the slopes which were deep with fresh powder, I opted to try snowshoeing. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. We took a lift up to a high ridge with a groomed snowshoe trail.

It was snowing heavily but was so still and beautiful that I kept stopping to take it all in (and to catch my breath!). We did about three miles (5 km) in a couple of hours, up and down gentle slopes, through some pine groves and even cut across some virgin snow, which by now was about three feet of powder. Rooftops of remote little chalets peaked out from under ten feet of snow.

La Scierie, a restaurant in the village at La Clusaz, the food is as good as the ambience.
La Scierie, a restaurant in the village at La Clusaz, the food is as good as the ambience.

Lunch was at L’Ourson, a small restaurant near the ski rental shop with carved wood menu covers. It was here that I had the best dessert of the trip, a crème brûlée with slivers of chocolate throughout.

Be advised that meals, including lunch, can take several hours with lots of time between courses. This was a welcome change for those of us used to scarfing down half a sandwich at our desk.

Learning About Cheese

If you’re interested in the local cuisine, take a short trip out to a traditional farm where they make Reblochon cheese, a key ingredient to some of the Savoie area dishes. The farmer explains the process (in French) and then gives you samples of cheese and wine in a room right next to the cows.

We forgot to buy our little wheels of cheese while on the tour, so the farmer hand delivered them that evening to a restaurant in the village where we were having dinner. He stayed to share a glass of wine with us. That restaurant was La Scierie, covered with snow and white lights outside, warm and rustic inside, it serves wonderful regional dishes.

For lodging in Clusaz, I suggest the Hotel Beauregard, nice rooms with balconies, a charming restaurant (try the mushroom soup!) and a great location at the bottom of the slopes with a short walk to the center of the village.

And finally, if you are worried about being an American in France, don’t be. With the exception of one snippy lift attendant, and one very unhelpful train conductor, everybody I met was warm and friendly.

There was something about the skiing and snowshoeing that put us all on the same page. We were all there to enjoy the magnificence of the mountains. All of us, young and not-so-young, locals and visitors, experts and beginners, totally blitzed by the beauty of the French Alps.

Some words you won’t find in your French phrase book:

Piste – ski slope
Moniteur – ski instructor
Debutants – beginners
Telcabine – cable car
Telesiege – chairlift
Plan des Pistes – ski map
La Station – ski resort
Raquettes - snowshoes
Vin chaude – hot mulled wine
Tartiflette – regional dish - potato, onion, bacon and cheese casserole
Restaurant du altitude – mountaintop chalet-style restaurant
Wendy Hammerle

Wendy Hammerle  is a former television news reporter/anchor and TV commercial writer and producer. She now works as a Public Relations Director and is a member of the Manhan Rail Trail Committee in Easthampton, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and children

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