Chalet booked, turkey ordered, lateral flow test slots reserved. What could possibly go wrong?
After two Covid-blighted blank seasons, my family and I were more than ready to hit the slopes again - this time in Morzine for Christmas. It was all looking so good, but as we know all too well by now nothing is certain in a time of pandemic. Just three days before we were due to set out an unholy alliance of Macron and Omicron appeared to have scuppered everything by shutting down the border to visitors from Plague Island.
What to do? Take the safe option, get a refund and stay in soggy grey England for the festive season? Or make a run for Dover and get across into France before the drawbridge was raised? No brainer.
With the clock ticking down I booked a ticket on one of the last ferries out of Dover on the final night and fired up the Quattro (yes I know, mid-life crisis car, utterly unsuited to snowy Alpine jaunts with four adults, ski gear and Christmas presents to cram in.)
We bombed down to Kent in hope and joined the maelstrom of traffic all trying to squeeze through the border before the 11pm deadline. We made it with an hour to spare, much tighter than planned and not helped by a student son sleeping through his alarm in Bristol.
Happy days, Morzine here we come.
Five hundred miles and a high speed motorway interception by the French Douane (polite but rather intimidating in black balaclavas and armed to the teeth) later the absurdly overloaded Audi pulled up at the accommodation. We had booked a fairly luxurious (by our usual budget standards) chalet in the pretty village of Seytroux about five miles outside Morzine. It was all we needed, loads of space, a hot tub, gorgeous views of the snowy valley, and an oven just big enough for a decent sized bird.
The only snag was the drive down to the front door. On a slope and covered in compacted icy snow with drifts on either side. The Quattro got down fine, but took one look at the incline back up and said, “Nah I don’t fancy that.” Well, we gave it a good old go the next morning and naturally skidded off to one side into one of the drifts – from where the car would go no further. A great start to a week of relaxation.
Fortunately, a very decent neighbour attached a tow rope and pulled us out without so much as a Gallic shrug. I got the impression it was not the first time he had done this favour for hapless British holidaymakers like me sans winter tyres or chains.
Once liberated we barrelled into Morzine and left the car in one of the two underground car parks. Skis, boots and helmets were duly hired at the excellent Caribou Sport and off we trudged to the Pleney telecabine, the main access point for Morzine’s sprawling ski domain.
Morzine, a bustling valley bottom town at about 1000 metres, lies at the heart of the vast interlinked Portes du Soleil skiing area, which also takes in purpose built Avoriaz, the French villages of Les Gets and Chatel, and spills over into Switzerland to Champery. With more than 200 lifts and around 400 miles of pistes there is far, far more skiing than you could ever hope to do in a week, even queuing for the first lift of the day, skipping lunch and coming down at dusk.
We stuck mainly to the bowls above Morzine taking in the Les Gets, Nyon, Charniaz and Des Chavannes sectors. For the lazy intermediate skier like me, there is plenty to get your teeth into with most runs below the tree line and blue the dominant piste grade. For the higher and more challenging stuff you need to stomp across town to the Super Morzine lift that open up Avoriaz and, if you are feeling up to it, the Swiss villages via the notorious Swiss Wall, a long black run so steep and mogulled it looks like the side of a chalk quarry.
There is just one downside to such a vast skiing area, particularly early in the season when the lifts start to shut down at 4pm: it is very easy to find yourself stranded in the “wrong” resort with no means of getting back to base. Which is exactly what happened to my two sons, who compounded the error by coming out without their wallets so could not even hop on a bus or hire a taxi. There were words. And not nice Christmassy ones.
It had been a stressful sweat to get down to the Alps, but there was a major silver lining to the Presidential decree. British skiers make up close to 50 per cent of the market for Morzine and at Christmas time even more. With the vast majority locked out, the town and the ski areas were blissfully tranquil with no problems getting a table for lunch or dinner and virtually no lift queues. We had some slopes completely to ourselves.
There was a certain sadness to it as well. The town pulled out all the stops for Christmas: concerts, performers and all the trimmings, but there were just so few punters around to enjoy them. Thankfully, Covid restrictions made little impact on us. Lift queues were supposed to be socially distanced, though I saw little sign of compliance on the few occasions where there were lines. There was more rigorous enforcement of the requirement to wear masks in telecabines.
Vaccination status was checked at every restaurant, bar and café – either using the French Pass Sanitaire or the NHS app – and occasionally at the bottom of lifts. Other than that the pandemic barely entered our lives.
Christmas Day was a blast. Virtually all the shops, restaurants and lifts were open, instructors were even giving ski lessons. Knocking back a Christmas Day vin chaud in a white-out up the mountain was a long way from sipping sherry in a centrally heated living room. Had it been worth the extra stress and expense? Without a shadow of doubt. Now it was time to load up the Quattro once again and head back across the border. Who knows when we will be allowed back in again.