Skiing: learning to Alpine ski in Courchevel

imageLisa Grainger finds a brilliant tutor, a scenic setting – and champagne in the hot tub – smooth the path to success on skis in the French resort of Courchevel.

That I have skied only twice in my 47-year life is unsurprising, given the success of my first attempt in my thirties. Ten friends were renting a chalet in Utah with an outdoor Jacuzzi, and it sounded fun: parties, snow, whizzing down a mountain – what could go wrong? Answer: everything. Not only were all my friends serious skiers, who insisted they could teach me (never a good idea – it’s boring for them and you end up feeling like an uncoordinated clown on skates).

But Utah is an alcohol-free state and the fragrant herbal cigarettes that my friends insisted would relax me turned me instead into a female Mr Bean: all bulging eyes and terror-stricken face, uncontrollably soaring down the slope before falling and chin-boarding all the way to the bottom, where I flapped helplessly on my stomach like a walrus in the snow. I had two twisted ankles and a grazed chin – not to mention a horribly bruised ego. There were tears. There were remonstrations. And I was never, ever going again.

Until, that is, I was asked if I’d join friends for three days in a luxurious chalet in Courchevel, with two private lessons. My instructor would teach me on my own – so no one else could laugh. My measurements would be taken in advance, and comfy ski boots delivered beforehand. The beginners’ slopes were right by the car park – so if I hated skiing, I could go back to the chalet. There would be glühwein breaks. And my tutor would be a smiley Italian whose skill was, as he put it, “helping people with psychological problems about skiing”.

Arriving in Courchevel a week after several feet of snow had fallen certainly lifts my anxious spirits. As we climb the mountain roads of the famous Les Trois Vallées area, it soon becomes clear why wealthy Russians who can buy their way into any ski resort come here.

There are four villages in Courchevel, named after the heights at which they are situated; they get increasingly pretty, the chalets twinkling with white fairy lights, the branches of pine trees groaning with snow, and at the Russians’ favourite, 1850, hip hotels and opulent boutiques sparkling with bling. My friends are excited because there are 350 miles of ski runs – from extremely difficult blacks to basic greens. I’m cheery because I’ve spotted an artisanal chocolate shop. And, best of all, the Alps this year have had the best snowfall since 1981. It’s all looking pretty perfect.

At our chalet, Chamois Lodge in the 1650 resort, there is nothing for a beginner to worry about. My skis and boots have been delivered and are warming in the boot room. Upstairs, the chef from the Michelin-starred Chabichou restaurant (who caters for the four upmarket Le Portetta Mountain Lodges, including Chamois) has prepared delicious lunch by a fire. Our bedrooms, with their opulent throws, L’Occitane products and tasteful Alpine décor, have been inspected and approved, as has the outdoor hot tub backing on to the slopes.

By that evening, having been initiated into the joys of après-ski, Courchevel-style (chocolate tart, champagne in the hot tub, red wine and cigars on a snow-covered balcony after dinner), I am almost prepared for my second Mr Bean audition on the slopes the next day.

Except, of course, in the hands of such an expert teacher as Andrea Vitton from New Generation ski school (, my role is not to make other people laugh. Courchevel, he explains, is one of the best places to learn to ski, with dozens of beginners’ runs and, best of all, at 1850, “a magic carpet”: a rubber-floored travelator to transport beginners slowly up the slopes. I don’t have to go near a lift, he says, until I’m ready.

Which, thanks to his patience, his quiet tutorage and his enthusiastic Italian encouragement of “Bravissimo, bella!”, I am within about an hour.

Learning to ski is like learning to dance, Andrea explains; it is all about feeling the correct position in which your body should be and replicating it. Patiently, he shows me and gives me time to work out what a correct position feels like – body facing down the slope, knees bent, shins pressing against the front pads of my boots – and, eventually, I get it. By the end of our three hours, I’ve been taught how to ride a gondola and draglift, and am snow-ploughing behind him on long runs, past palatial private chalets and the aerodrome into which the rich jet.

By day two he’s teaching me to turn with my pole, my skis in parallel. And by the end of my last, third, day, I slowly accompany my friends (all black-run skiers) on a few green runs. Yes, I fall, but this time I know how to get up, without looking like a marooned walrus.

And even if I do fall, I soon learn that there is always lunch to cheer me up – at which I meet my friends daily (particularly recommended is the Fire and Ice bar at Le Portetta hotel, where one sits outdoors on heated bar stools swathed in fake-fur throws to indulge in iced vodka shots and wood-fired pizzas).

None of this privacy, of course, comes cheap. Chamois Lodge costs from €18,000 (£15,200) a week for up to 14 people and private ski lessons are €165 (£139) for two hours. But the chalet is utterly luxurious, and without the irresistible lure of a beautiful chalet and private lessons, I might never have slithered back on to the snow at all.

And it is possible, I discover, to stay in Courchevel for a lot less. While in 1650, I had a tour around other Powder White chalets, several of which cost from £349 per person, full-board, with house wines (plus about €100/£84 for skis, €197/£166 for ski pass, €156/£132 for return transfers to Geneva, and group lessons from €175/£148 for up to eight), and are cosy, well-maintained and well-positioned for beginners’ lifts.

Now I am what Andrea calls a “group two beginner” (hurrah!), I might, just, have the confidence to rent one of those and invite friends to join me. Yes, there will be a next time…

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