Off they went, shouting and howling into the void. Hopefully, stories that begin like this end well, rather than “and we never heard of it again.” Especially when it’s his own offspring who are the whooping cough. But two parachutes rolled out like giant yellow smiles against a perfect blue sky, and all we had to hope for was that their instructors knew what they were doing.
Such is the joy of a ski holiday that is not all about skiing.
For obvious reasons, you may not have done a lot of winter miles recently. After a three-year break (a skiatus?), we were desperate to see the mountains again but anxious to get back on the slopes slowly.
If this sounds familiar, think of Alpe d’Huez, in the region of Isère in France. Neither the newest nor the glitziest, neither the biggest nor the smallest, it’s the perfect resort for everyone, with plenty to do.
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In the center of town is a heated outdoor swimming pool and a choice of skating rinks; there are fairground rides, walking paths, a toboggan run and even a chic modernist church. The après-ski ranges from the gloriously scruffy Underground Bar to the faux-energy Folie Douce. You can tell the first one is run by a Brit – the blackboard outside doesn’t have happy hour, just heavy drinking from 5-6pm.
Listen carefully and you will hear the howls of huskies coming from the mountain kennels. Look up and you will see paragliders.
The colorful exterior of the PopAlp Hotel
We decided to try as many new experiences as possible, starting with the unthinkable extravagance of hiring a guide for the morning. I had always thought it was for the Others. Obviously I was wrong: skiing with a guide is wonderful.
Davide, faithful red beacon in his ESF outfit, showed us the ski area, five villages in total; 111 tracks to choose from – while giving us all the personalized advice to improve our technique. With rusty legs, it seemed reckless to plan off-piste excursions, but the ever-optimistic Davide led us over a plush quilt of untrodden powder less than an hour after hitting the slopes. That’s the essence of a good guide – they’ll push you to try things you might not otherwise consider.
We skipped the lift lines, got the best table for lunch and didn’t look at a single card. I think my wife would have preferred to ski with Davide all week. Maybe without me or the kids, which may indeed explain why we pushed them off the mountain the next day.
It was a big deal. Tethering your teens to strangers in a parachute is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You certainly wouldn’t want to pay to do it twice. But Nicolas and Guillaume from Akènefly were models of professionalism in paragliding, explaining the process to us before take-off. The flight itself lasted about 20 minutes, but can take longer. After seeing Miles and Ava pull away from the DMC gondola, 2,700m above the resort, I ran to try and get a shot of them landing. Ava got ahead of me but Miles seemingly suspended more slowly, before seemingly appearing out of nowhere.
“That was sick!” he said as he landed. I only realized I had misheard that when he handed me a warm little bag. Apparently they hit a thermal pocket.
The bodily functions didn’t stop there, but at least the following were entirely canine.
Dogsledding is more relaxing than paragliding but also more exciting. A pack of 12 huskies provides an unparalleled sound and scent experience, howling and yelping while playing fights with each other and relieving each other at will.
Despite appearances, the huskies were very friendly and received lots of cuddles before they got into action. It reminded us that not every experience on the snow has to be an adrenaline rush, and it was heartwarming to see our teenagers go back to being kids when they loved dogs.
The funky decor of the PopAlp Hotel
All these activities are best appreciated under a radiant sun, which Alpe d’Huez, facing south, has a good chance of providing. There are plenty of restaurant patios for working on your tan with glasses, including some very fancy options. Our favorite, however, was Le Spot — an informal spot with deckchairs next to the Chez Roger piste — which we found to be the most affordable spot for beer, fries, and pancakes.
We were regular customers until the last day when the sun came up and I booked an afternoon of ski touring. This involved climbing the mountain on lightweight skis with hinged bindings, assisted by “skins” placed underneath to prevent you from sliding back down. On a good day, you can burn 6,000 calories doing this. The family foolishly left this for me while they retired to the pool.
I had climbed mountains many times before, most recently under sunny skies in France. It was one of my best days on the snow, but I had always put it down to the perfect conditions. Now I could see that time was irrelevant. On the contrary, the monochrome palette of the day gave an austere beauty.
While talking with the instructor William, I learned that Alpe d’Huez is changing: a move upmarket with more four and five star hotels. Which made our digs all the more unusual: the new three-star PopAlp was a great find. Unpretentious but cheerful, it has a pop art theme where all the decor is for sale.
If you wanted to embrace the changing face of Alpe d’Huez, the four-star Hotel Grandes Rousses is just up the street, packing a luxurious spa and fancier restaurant within its walls, but I preferred the PopAlp . The staff were lovely and there was even a happy little dog to greet you after a day on the slopes – or a day in the air, or a day on husky-drawn sleds. He was trained at home too.
Matt Hampton was the guest of Isère Tourisme (isere-tourism.com). B&B doubles from £80 and family rooms from £288 (popalp-huez.com). Private half-day accompaniment with an ESF instructor from £130 (ski-school-alpedhuez.co.uk); paragliding from £42 pp (akenefly.fr); dog sledding from £42 (alpedhuez.com). Seven nights half-board at Hotel Grandes Rousses from £1,395 pp including flights (inghams.co.uk)
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