‘And this is your circus instructor…” Those words, both intriguing and slightly alarming, are not what you expect to hear at the start of a week’s skiing. But this wasn’t a typical ski trip. For a start there were 80 of us, complete strangers at the beginning, sharing a youth hostel. Then there was the unusual location – a hamlet at the far end of the Chamonix valley – the yoga, and the group hand-holding, both literal and metaphorical.
Perhaps it’s unfair to launch straight into the more eccentric aspects of the annual ski, circus and yoga holiday run by Kent-based Source Holidays. For me, the trip’s biggest appeal was that it offered a faff-free way to try skiing with my son (then seven) for the first time. As a non-skier, the thought of having to find a suitable resort, arrange ski passes, kit, lessons and decide on chalet versus hotel versus apartment seemed a monumental headache.
The Source holiday does everything for you: providing equipment hire and ski pass, plus meals and conversation, with other parents to talk to in the evenings and a ready-made gang of playmates for my son.
In fact, we made friends with another family before we even got there. Saskia Anley-McCallum, who runs the trips, put me in touch with a mum travelling with her teenage daughters on the same train from Paris to Le Buet, which made the seven-hour journey go much quicker than I’d anticipated. At St Gervais-Le Fayet, we changed for the Mont Blanc Express, a fantastic route that runs along the Chamonix valley and into Switzerland. From a distance, the little red train looked like a toy; from inside it provided views of the mountains that got more spectacular the higher it climbed.
Le Buet, the penultimate stop before the Swiss border, is well-known to mountain climbers – the 3,096-metre Mont Buet is used as a training ground for ascents of Mont Blanc away to the south. But its size means it has stayed under the radar as a ski resort. There are no big apartment blocks here, just the 130-year-old Hotel Le Buet and Skiroc, one of the few independent outdoor centres left in the Alps. For most of the year, Skiroc hosts underprivileged city kids on school trips, but every February half-term, Saskia uses the lodge as a base for this family ski week.
The centre has seen better days – bedrooms are basic, communal areas shabby, and the food had a whiff of school dinners about it: meat stews, barely a vegetable in sight. But the pluses far outweighed the lack of frills – the atmosphere was friendly and the location was brilliant. From the kit room it’s only a short trudge to the nursery slopes of La Poya.
Skiroc sits on prime real estate but its owner, Philippe Bidault, refuses to sell, sticking instead to the centre’s original raison d’etre – providing access to the mountains to children who rarely leave their home cities. “We are rebels,” he told me one night.
This maverick spirit extends beyond the doors of Skiroc, for Le Buet and its neighbour, Vallorcine, are also fiercely independent and anti-commercial. Regularly cut off from the rest of the valley in winter, the local people have developed a sense of protectiveness and self-sufficiency. In the Vallorcine tourist office, the woman behind the desk described the village church – which has a wall to protect it against avalanches – as “strong and strange, like us”.
Our first ski instructor fitted this mould. A bear of a man with a face ruddy from a lifetime in the mountains, Bernard was the human embodiment of the French shrug, yet he guided us down the nursery slopes so well that we were all eager to get straight back on the chair lift. Every now and then I remembered to look up and take in the view of the valley, and peaks connected by pristine blankets of snow.
While more experienced families took the Mont Blanc Express to areas with blue and black runs, my son and I spent the mornings at La Poya in separate lessons, and the afternoons either practising our new-found skills, or exploring.
One afternoon we joined a dad and his two daughters for a snowshoe walk through woods to a restaurant overlooking the frozen Cascade de Bérard. We trudged up the hill, past snowdrifts and white trees dripping in icicles, and into a cabin filled with the scent of chestnut soup. Hot chocolates and chocolate cake were ordered to fortify the kids for the journey back down, which took us through a cluster of chalets buried up to the rafters in snowdrifts.
Another day I left my son in ski school and headed off to Chamonix for a trip on Europe’s highest cable car – to the 3,842-metre Aiguille du Midi for heart-stopping views of the Mont Blanc massif.
After five days on the baby slopes, I felt brave enough to venture further, and booked a lesson with two other mums. Our instructor arrived at the cable car station with a ready supply of jokes that instantly took my mind off my fear of heights. In between joking about disaster movies, he expertly led us through thick fog. Thankfully, it cleared halfway down, revealing Vallorcine spread out below, and I gave myself over to the unexpected joy of gliding down a long ski run between the trees without falling over.
There were also daily yoga and circus skills classes. My son was determined that we take part in the end-of week circus show so I made a beeline for the least-complicated bit of kit, devil sticks, for juggling, and devised the shortest act possible. Others were more courageous: a 70-year-old grandma amazed everyone by unicycling across the room. No one is forced to join in but there was a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” vibe to this trip.
And there was always enough time for more traditional après ski – rude not to when red wine was €4.50 a carafe in the bar – while 20 children ran in and out of each other’s rooms or watched a film. Daily group hand holding to “feel the pulse” was arguably a step too far, but beneath the hippy vibe there’s a serious dedication to creating an accessible, low-impact, less-commercial ski trip.
I’m hoping to go back next year. But I’m still not ready for the unicycle.
• The trip was provided by Source Holidays, whose 2019 ski, circus and yoga holiday is on 16-23 February and costs £825 per adult, 7-11 years £665, 3-6 years £520, including accommodation, meals, ski pass (worth €250) and excursions. Train travel was provided by Loco2, which lets customers set up an alert so they are emailed when tickets go on sale three months before departure (prices not yet released for 2019). Accommodation in Paris was provided by Citizen M Gare de Lyon (doubles from £136 room-only)
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