The glorious lack of traffic on the A43 autoroute on our drive into the resort, the solitary snowboarder in the Jardin des Neiges, the gaping silence filling Plagne Montalbert village were instant clues that this would be a half-term ski holiday like no other.
A window display of ‘The mountains are calling and I must ski!’ t-shirts in a souvenir shop read like a cruel joke and the shuttered façade of British chef Phil Howard’s hallowed Union restaurant – culinary star of last season, shut ever since – remains a bitter pill indeed to swallow.
With ski lifts in France closed, embarking on a family ski trip – sans le ski – in the French Alps was a gamble. Opting for La Plagne – a purpose-built resort in Savoie designed very specifically for alpine skiing – was potentially stark raving mad. Downhill is currently only available to tots and beginners, transported uphill on baby green slopes by magic carpet or ski-school minibuses. Ski touring and cross-country skiing are options too, but every ski-smart parent knows that labouring snail-like uphill or skating flats on skis is no stroll in the park – or any fun at all quite frankly – for thrill-thirsty kids.
But come what may we were in La Plagne to try and have a good time during the school break, without skiing. Within minutes of our arrival in resort, we were spidering at 20mph through a pristine winter wonderland of swirling snowflakes and storybook pines in electric Swincars – imagine souped-up go-karts. Chunky tyres made graceful work of snow-clogged trails winding uphill to the 17th-century baroque chapel, with beautiful trompe l’oeil interior, in the Savoyard hamlet of Montgésin.
“Those of us with activities not dependent on ski lifts are enjoying a successful season so far” Eric Lenoir, head pilot of E-mouv’Nature, told me. “Visitors no longer have to buy ski passes, so they are more prepared to spend money on other activities.” Such is the demand for his family-friendly forest tours that he’s hoping to acquire more of the silent off-road buggies this month.
Dog sled rides, mushing, ski joëring, sledging and electric fat biking across untouched slopes are other uplifting backcountry activities proving wildly popular with families this winter – rendering meticulous planning and reservations well before arrival in resort infuriatingly essential and time-consuming. Forget those good old days of simply booking family ski passes, kids’ ski school and voilà, week sorted.
We arrived at our chalet hotel Le Cocoon in Plagne 1800 just short of 6pm when nationwide curfew kicks in (hardly problematic – the pandemic already killed off après-ski fun last year with the forced closure of restaurants and bars). Logs stacked up in perfect symmetry against the traditional stone-and-wood Savoyard façade, and Mont Blanc views from the al fresco hot tub were deliriously giddy.
“We are not full in February, but we have a few longer stays and we are making the hotel experience as normal as possible. We’re doing everything to survive” said hotelier Corinne Michelas who runs the stylish family hotel with husband Régis and their grown-up children, Joey and Laura.
The seven-room Cocoon and three luxury catered chalets sleeping nine, 11 and 15 would normally be fully booked from Christmas to Easter – as would be the sensational live-cooking evenings Régis hosted around a Scandinavian kota grill in the snow outside (likewise scuppered by Covid this season). This winter’s desperate lack of visitors, coupled with complicated sanitary measures, means only five of 16 hotels in La Plagne have welcomed guests during February half-term.
The situation of purpose-built residences, many frequented by British ski tour operators is as dire. Ski-in/ski-out Club Med and MMV properties at Plagne Aime 2000 remain shut, rendering the highest of La Plagne’s altitude villages a surreal ghost town bar the handful of tourists who fly down screaming from 2,100m to Plagne Centre on the Super Typro zipwire – another of the areas non-ski activities proving popular this winter. Resort-wide, 12 of 37 residences and two of 13 centres de vacances (holiday centres) are open: 40,000 of 55,000 beds in La Plagne are empty.
The resort certainly misses the annual migration of British families to its slopes. Britons typically account for 17.4 per cent of visitors to La Plagne, but lockdown in Britain and tough travel restrictions worldwide mean the resort is only hosting domestic tourists, like my family and I, right now. Occupancy is currently just 25 per cent to 30 per cent – better than December (when the resort was 15 per cent full), but catastrophic nonetheless for the local ski industry which relies on February for one-third of the season’s business.
On our second day, my 11-year-old daughter was naturally apprehensive about hurtling 80kmph down the resort’s icy bobsled track, built in 1992 for the Albertville Winter Olympics. But the hair-raising descent, which navigates 19 gravity-defying curves, is a rite of passage and a family highlight. The ride lasts little more than a minute and a half, and is not cheap at £42 to £112 (€48 to €128) per person. But the unique attraction dazzles 12,000 visitors a season and is already fully booked for all of February.
Back in Plagne Centre, we grabbed a takeaway lunch on the slope-facing front de neige. In between crepe flips, the masked chef on the table-less terrace at Les Cocottes explained how fear of further lockdown prevents the restaurant serving proper meals – it simply cannot justify the waste or cost shutdown overnight would incur. I ordered a shot of génépi and squatted awkwardly with the kids on a redundant ski rack to picnic in bum-numbing discomfort.
Despite the obvious frustrations, frolicking around snowy sinkholes like tumbling marmots on snowshoes in La Cembraie – woods of centurion Swiss pines where spotted nutcrackers unwittingly reforest the nature reserve and the French Resistance hid arms during WWII – epitomised the greatest luxury of our Covid-era family ski holiday.
With the pressure of skiing all day every day removed, family time was indulgently spent deep-diving into the resort’s natural curiosities and insatiable mountain spirit.
Yes, La Plagne offers bags of Disneyland-esque thrills and spills off-piste for all ages. But it is the wild mountain hare and fox prints we tracked in virgin snow with an expert guide from Oxygène ski school, the eerie trek Charles took us on through Vallée de la Mort (‘Death Valley’), the soul-soaring flying leaps of faith from conical gypsum rocks into heaps of silky powder and the promised cheese fondue in the snow on our next snowshoeing adventure, that my daughter still talks about the most.
Her young and innocent mind saw the fun in the simple things during our trip and her euphoric delight of being in the snowy mountains was undimmed by this ghastly pandemic – we can all learn something from our kids in these uncertain times.