Some of us may have noticed the first flutterings of snow this weekend, and a distinct drop in temperature, to boot. Can it mean winter is upon us? After this unseasonably warm November? TOM BANGAY opens the batting on our winter coverage with something a little different in the French Alps…
Snowshoeing. Done it? No? Know what it is? No? Then you and I are the same. Or, rather, were the same. I was green before I ‘shoed at Le Grand Joux. Now I’m carved out of wood. Or ice, maybe. Who knows? I had previously failed at snowboarding (much like Derek Zoolander, I can’t turn left. I’m not an ambiturner) and never even bothered with skiing, but I’d like to consider myself (gulp) ‘outdoorsy’ and always liked the idea of winter sports, what with all the clean air, sunshine, wool and whisky. It was with this in mind I stepped off the plane in Geneva and hopped aboard a rugged, black 4×4, in which we wound our way through Essert Romand and made the transmission-taxing climb from sunny valley floor to snowy Graydon, a tiny hamlet perched in the shadow of the Roc d’Enfer mountains. Here we find Le Grand Joux, a sumptuous, secluded alpine lodge.
Ordinarily at this time of year (I’m there mid-March) we’d make the climb on snowmobiles but recent clement weather has exposed just enough road for the 4x4s to grip, robbing me of a James Bond moment. However I do get to crunch across the snow in the fading light and into the lodge, where the fire is already crackling and a glass of champagne is waiting for me. This will become a theme over the next few days but for now it’s a joyful surprise. The fire is the only open flame in Le Grand Joux – this is an eco-lodge and elsewhere the subtle tea-lights and candles that create the flickering ambience are, in fact, electronic. What’s more they’re on a timer, fading out discreetly when it’s time for lights out. Don’t panic though – the generator runs the wi fi.
My room is homely, wooden, and full of rich blankets. Out of the window I can see a snowy peak rising sharply, covered in trees. There are just five bedrooms in the lodge and exclusive hire is an excellent option. The room next to mine has an elevated attic sleeping area, accessed by ladder, to cater for younger guests needing parental supervision. The bedrooms occupy the top floor and the lounge and bar the ground floor, and there are even more treats downstairs in the form of the spa. Massages, facials, paraffin wax treatments and more are on offer, and there’s a steam room, a petite pool, and a fantastic hot tub outside.
The showstopper is the barrel sauna, perched on the deck with a door at one end of the cylinder and a floor-to-ceiling window at the other, so you can marvel at the snowy vista while you are renewed and remade by heat and perspiration. I decide to go native and hop straight out of the sauna into a pile of snow. It’s not quite fresh powder, so perhaps a little harder a landing than I’d imagined, but refreshing nonetheless.
Once settled in and ready for action, Le Grand Joux offers extraordinarily personalised, responsive service. Quick champagne while you’re in the hot tub? It shall be done. Coffee after your massage? Voila. The same goes for transport – Morzine, Avoriaz, Grand Terche and Les Gets are within range of the Land Rover Defenders that sit outside, primed, ready to launch you into your chosen winter sport, and there are terrific slopes for every level of skiing and snowboarding.
However, our method of alpine traversal of choice is snowshoeing, and it’s time to get started. Our instructor, Caroline, meets us halfway up a frosted peak, with a firm handshake and a radiant grin. She has the kind of deep, skier’s facial tan that speaks of years of climbing up and sliding down inspiring landscapes and I’m instantly jealous of her life to date. The air at altitude is intoxicating. It could be the champagne from earlier, of course. Snowshoes are like giant lightweight high-tech flip-flops into which you strap your walking boots, then they flap along underneath you as you move across the snow, distributing your weight more evenly over the powder and allowing you to dig in as you climb the slopes.
We set out, a pole in each hand, but they’re only necessary for balance in the trickier areas – within a few minutes we’re skipping along at a pleasant clip, gaining altitude until we reach a magnificent viewpoint that showcases three countries, with the imposing summit of Mont Blanc visible across the way. The microclimate that persists in the shadow of the tallest of Alps gives this area its temperate climate, gloriously sunny but not lacking in snow, and by the time we take a breather at the top, most of our extraneous layers have been shed. Caroline whips out some contraband – hooch-laced hot chocolate – and I really do feel on top of the world, sun-kissed and renewed in the mountain air, peering over Europe through steamed-up sunglasses.
When we finish the short drive back to Le Grand Joux, champagne and the hot tub are waiting – of course – and soon enough it’s time for afternoon tea. This involves a brioche-based boozy bread and butter pudding, which borders on the obscene, and brings me quite nicely to the crown jewel of Le Grand Joux. Periodically throughout each day at the lodge – breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner – a young Latin American gentlemen sidles into view. His name is Ivan, and trust me, you need to hear what he has to say. Ivan is Le Grand Joux’s chef in residence and at every mealtime he will present you with a degree of culinary splendour that frankly you have no right to expect from a ski lodge.
This is intimate fine dining, with one tremendous chef cooking for fewer than ten guests, elite-level comfort food that satisfies and captivates, but somehow without leaving you feeling like a stuffed, drunken oaf. I wanted to take him back to London with me. One night he made us a beef wellington and despite having thirds, I was actually upset when the last few slices were returned to the kitchen to reward the lodge’s staff for their unfailing round-the-clock attentiveness. How dare they? Of course eventually (perhaps uncomfortably late in the day) my human side kicked in and I remembered that I’d already had three courses and still had to navigate dessert and cheese, before a cocktail by the fire. But that’s the level of luxury you come to take for granted at Le Grand Joux.
With great sadness, eventually I have to leave my cave of snow, meat and wine, and descend back to the valley floor, to reality. Such is the efficiency of European air travel these days that it’s only a few hours before I’m hunched on the Piccadilly line, alpine freshness replaced with stale coffee and the freesheets, views of Mont Blanc replaced by the monument to air pollution that is Centre Point. So cruel. A few hours away there’s a castle in the clouds, with a spa, inexhaustible champagne, snowshoes, and a phenomenal chef. I need to round up a few friends.
Guests can book rooms individually in the chalet for the four-day snowshoe and spa breaks from £830 per person based on two sharing a double or twin room. The price includes snowshoeing equipment, lift passes, breakfast, afternoon tea and evening meals with wine, use of spa facilities, a qualified guide and instruction, snowmobile rides and two complimentary spa treatments plus a 25% discount on all additional spa treatments. Airport transfers are not included. For reservations visit www.legrandjoux.com or call +44 20328 75456.