I have a confession: when it comes to ski trips, it’s not the powder or piste mileage I’m fussed about. What I’m really anticipating is that moment when you prise off the goggles, pop open a chilled bottle of rosé and kick back on some panoramic, timber-lined terrace on a bluebird afternoon. Or sinking into the chalet’s hot tub with a gaggle of friends, knowing an excessively cheese-laden supper awaits.
It’s not that I don’t relish the sensation of gliding down a fondant-iced slope, listening to the ASMR hiss of my skis carving the snow, and blood pumping through limbs usually cramped behind a desk. But, in my book, the ideal ski-trip formula is equal parts parallel turns and piste-side partying. And clearly I’m not alone.
Loosely meaning social activities that occur after a day on the slopes, the après-ski pastime can be traced back to the late 19th-century, when British aristocrats began spending winter holidays in the Alps and held afternoon ‘tea dances’. It really took off in the 1950s, though, with the commercialisation of ski holidays. These days, there’s an après for all tastes – as raucous or refined as you like. It’s vin chaud, cable-knits and parlour games beside the fireplace, but also piste-side parties fuelled by toffee vodka shots. The common denominator: the particular satisfaction of earned indulgence.
A youthful, sporty crowd tend to head to Val Thorens, a resort abundant in superlatives: the highest resort in Europe; one of the longest seasons (November to May); part of the world’s largest linked ski area, Les Trois Vallées. Slope-side après favourites include the Igloo Village ice bar, and the sun-trap terrace of Base Camp at La Pashmina.
Come evening, the action gravitates towards Place de Caron, where La Maison and La Fondue ensure the wine – and fromage – flows freely, and cocktail bar 1971 warms the cockles with various hot toddies and liqueur-laced coffees (for something chilled, try an off-piste sour). It’s part of boutique hotel Le Val Thorens, which wears its Seventies heritage on its flared sleeve, with a palette of mustard, saffron, tan leather and vintage posters. As one of the first hotels to open in the resort, 50 years ago, it nabbed a prime, ski-in, ski-out location: the Plein Sud chair lift even passes right over the property’s pitched roof.
My next stop in the French Alps had a lower altitude but loftier pedigree: Megève. A 90-minute drive north of Val Thorens, this village with its mediaeval storybook looks has long been a favourite of the Rothschild family, French royals, and an ensemble cast of Hollywood A-listers. In the distance rises the whipped cream peak of Mont Blanc with its signature flick. Megève’s gastronomy scene similarly soars above its alpine neighbours. At suite-only retreat Zannier Hotels Le Chalet, Michelin-starred chef Julien Burlat’s new menu shakes up this famously dairy- and meat-loving region with a new focus on plant-based dishes, like avocado pistachio tartare, leek salad with wakame seaweed, and smoked carrot tagine. But before you start thinking it sounds too virtuous, get a load of the hotel’s OTT afternoon teas, the star of which is the snowflake-light, sugar-dusted Savoie sponge (serving suggestion: drench with cream and devour beside the lounge’s open log fire).
Padding between my suite and the cave-like spa in thick, gunmetal-grey robes and hotel-issue Uggs, it’s hard to peel away from the property, even with its private chauffeur service. But when I do venture up Mont Joux ski area above the village (which links to Chamonix and Courmayeur as part of the Mont Blanc Unlimited lift pass), the abundance of lengthy green and blue runs meandering between trees was right up my piste, as an unashamedly fair-weather skier who’d rather soak up the scenery than go in for a white-knuckle descent. There was a civilised lunch stop of langoustines and oysters at the aptly named Ideal 1850’s seafood bar, lingering at our outdoor table to savour that view: the starched white collar of the mountains against a blue-silk sky and, below, the dark, velvety folds of forested valleys.
A few more runs, and then, just as I’m beginning to wilt (and the unseasonably warm weather is making the snow edge towards slushy), there it is, appearing on the mountainside like an alpine mirage as the chair lift crests the next peak: La Folie Douce. Synonymous with après-ski, the iconic mountaintop bar now has eight addresses scattered across the Alps. I’d already been to the Val Thorens branch on this trip; was two Folies in one week excessive? I give a Gallic shrug and decide it’s all about excess here.
The outdoor terrace starts revving up around 2.30pm. There’s sustenance on site in the shape of the creative brasserie fare at La Fruitière: escargot parsley and garlic, crispy wheat shells, spider crab with coconut foam, veal gyoza, plus live music, DJs and magnums of rosé. Before long you’ll probably find yourself attempting to dance on a tabletop (and it’s generally best not to think too much about having to ski down to the bottom again come 5pm).
It’s undeniably obnoxious, sure, but I’d defy the sourest of pusses not to be swept up in the euphoria, watching people once again sing at the tops of their voices to Abba. And hug. And try and reacquaint themselves with long-forgotten dance moves. In neon-bright salopettes.
A dash of Folie-branded frivolity, it seems, is just what the doctor ordered. Plus, there’s nothing like the crisp mountain air to whisk away the hangover.
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With additional thanks to the Val Thorens and Megève tourist boards