Going Green in the French Alps

Cathy Bartrop discovers a city/ski/spa combo within 30 minutes of Grenoble, the EU’s Green Capital of the year for 2022

Having not skied for over a decade, I don’t mind admitting clicking on skis once more in my early sixties was somewhat anxiety inducing. Would I remember what to do? Would I break something? Would I be way slower than the considerably younger members of our group? 

Well, I’m pleased to report skiing is not off limits in your seventh decade and it is, as many people reassured me, like riding a bike. As ever, getting fitted with ski boots proved to be by far the hardest part. Boot design has moved on, but it’s still a struggle to persuade an unwilling foot into a rigid form. However, having jumped that hurdle and, after a couple of gentle practise runs, I was relieved to find muscle memory awakening and the endorphins kicking in, reminding me that there are few sporting activities to match the exhilaration of skiing. That crisp mountain air, the sun on your face, the dazzle of the snow’s crust, the exhilaration of peak panoramas and better yet, in Chamrousse, great value skiing, uncrowded slopes and no lift queues!

Chamrousse is a ski resort that the Grenoblois have kept largely to themselves – and who can blame them? It’s so close, city dwellers can gaze up at the Belledonne mountains in the morning and, if conditions look good, be on the slopes within the hour. In harmony with Grenoble’s commendable green credentials, there are even electric busses to get them there. Maybe you remember the Winter Olympics of 1968, when Grenoble was host city? Chamrousse was, in fact, the venue for the downhill ski races where French ski hero Jean Claude Killy famously won 3 gold medals.

Two of the three villages that make up the resort, Chamrousse 1650 and Chamrousse 1750, were largely constructed for those Olympics and, aside from new lifts and expansion of the ski network to include snowboard parks and child friendly areas, it hasn’t changed much since. You can still tackle the Men’s (black) and Women’s (red) Olympic downhill runs and see how you measure up against Monsieur Killy. Here’s me on a Friday in mid-March, finding myself alone on the Dames Olympique run – ski bliss.

But in a post Covid world, change is afoot… ski resorts were hit especially hard by the pandemic and, alongside obvious climate change concerns, simply cannot afford to stand still. Big plans are in place to develop Chamrousse 1650 into ‘the first smart resort of the new urban generation’. The idea is to create a new mountain economy model, replacing the old notion of a pure ski resort with a more virtuous ‘connected 4 season mountain resort’. It makes perfect sense to harness new technologies, provide eco conscious accommodation and to encourage visitors all year round, not just in the precariously short snow season. Time will tell if it all pans out by 2030 as planned but, meanwhile, for international visitors, Chamrousse feels very much like an undiscovered and authentic gem.

With predominantly green, blue and red runs, it’s ideal for families and beginners. More advanced skiers might struggle for variety after a few days but the wide, uncrowded slopes, dotted with pines, are a delight for all. Facing south/south west, when the weather gods smile, the vast majority of slopes enjoy sun all day and the sunsets can be spectacular. From the peak there are 360 panoramic views of the Belledonne mountain range and on the descent you catch views of Grenoble that take your breath away. Once a week on a Saturday they even offer night-time skiing on illuminated slopes – a magical experience under star filled skies with the lights of Grenoble twinkling in the valley below

There are plenty of options for non-skiers too – snowshoe hikes, dog sledding and 133kms of cross country trails are on offer in the Chamrousse Nordic Park. There’s a small ice skating rink in Chamrousse 1650 and just above it a relaxed, inexpensive Spa complete with a small indoor pool, jacuzzis, saunas and massage treatments.

The apres ski is low key. This is not a late night party town – a plus in my view, I can live without nightclubs. That said, there’s a good choice of bars and restaurants, most with large sunny terraces for the all important vin chaud. Expect traditional, hearty mountain food – rib sticking piles of melting Raclette, rich and creamy Tartiflette, mounds of meat, chips and a mini mountain of salad alongside.

There are a couple of 2 star hotels including the Auberge du Virage where we stayed, but most of the accommodation across the villages is in self catering units ranging from very basic to…um, basic. What Chamrousse lacks in luxe accommodation though, it more than makes up for with an inclusive, friendly atmosphere and great value from accommodation, through to ski hire, lift pass prices and dining out. It would be a great choice for a budget conscious, multi-generation ski holiday.

If its luxury you are after, there are nearby options. You could of course base yourself in Grenoble which, as you would expect, has hotels to suit all tastes and budget. Or, better yet, stay in the picturesque spa town of Uriages les Bains, close to the city and only 20 mins or so drive from Chamrousse. The discovery of the benefits of its thermal waters date back to Roman times but the town had its heyday in the late 19th century and to this day retains the feeling of the ‘Belle Epoque’ especially in gorgeous villas that edge the large central park. 

We stayed one night in the charmingly old school 4* Grand Hotel . Built in 1864, the hotel has played host to many a famous guest and, naturally, named their rooms after the most notable – Maurice Chevalier and Coco Chanel, to name just two. The hotel has its own connected thermal spa, with 3 pools, sauna and steam rooms and a wide range of spa treatments on offer. A few hours soaking in the warm waters and being pummelled by massage jets here is a wonderful way to ease aching muscles from skiing, hiking or even a round of golf on the local 18 hole course.

For a more contemporary experience, neighbouring La Maison Aribert is another option. Fully committed to eco ethics, it currently has 5 spacious and sleek guest rooms featuring luxurious Hästens beds, original artwork and private terraces overlooking the woods. 5 more rooms are due to open for 2023. The hotel has a very reasonably priced Bib Gourmand brasserie, Cafe A, popular with guests and locals alike.

Its undoubted jewel in the crown though is its Michelin 2 star restaurant run by the supremely talented chef and owner, Christophe Aribert. We were privileged to take a seat at the Chef’s Kitchen table and see the team in action as they conjured up a sublime, 5 course tasting menu based on seasonal local products. Two star Michelin dining does not come cheap but, as a holiday treat, a meal here is certainly memorable. The images, I think, speak for themselves.

In late Spring and Summer, of course the mountains themselves turn green, opening up a raft of additional possibilities for hiking, biking as well as golf, sailing and lake swimming. As a year-round option for an easy access, eco-friendly, great value City/Mountain/Spa break, this little corner of the Alps is tough to beat.


Factbox

Cathy travelled as a guest of Isere Tourism.

Easyjet fly to both Lyon and Grenoble. As an alternative, greener way to travel, the train option would be Eurostar to Paris and a direct TGV service getting you to Grenoble in around 3 hours.

A one day adult lift pass for Chamrousse is priced from around £30. For full details of all the latest lift pass and activity prices visit ski.chamrousse.com/nos-forfaits.

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Cathy Bartrop

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