Chamonix is already a huge draw for high altitude thrill seekers and now hip new hotel Rocky Pop is making it all more accessible, says Lauren Taylor.
Ski instructor Christophe says, as we join the masses for the first lift to open: “Everyone comes here for the freeriding, they all want to make the first runs in the powder”.
The promise of making those all-important first tracks is what drags seasoned skiers and boarders out of bed on crisp winter mornings, and here in Chamonix – with all the off-piste opportunities you can dream of – it’s serious business.
But with the beauty and sophistication of the French Alps–- and the steep winding Chamonix Valley, one of the oldest ski resorts in the world with glacier skiing galore – comes steep prices, right? The lively town itself has plenty of traditional chalets and boutique hotels of the five-star variety, but the newly opened Rocky Pop Hotel – a 5km bus ride towards the village of Les Houches – feels totally different.
The words “We Will Rocky Pop You” are emblazoned across the cinema-style entrance, iconic pop visuals are everywhere and there’s a pizza van inside. It’s clear this place doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a full-size C3PO figurine at the entrance, Pac-Man symbols on the carpets and fully functioning retro arcade games sit next to the coffee machine.
There’s a laid-back lounge and bar area and long sharing tables in the two dining areas – one of which has floor to ceiling windows and 180 degree views. There’s nothing stuffy about the ambience, but there is a touch of class.
The 360-degree bar feels like it could easily fit in any London or New York cocktail club, and there’s a gin cocktail menu featuring premium brands. I’ve discovered my favourite kind of apres-ski – sipping on a gin and tonic with an olive and a sprig of rosemary at the Rocky Pop bar.
After a long day on the slopes (Les Houches being the closest and most gentle ski area) the comfort food here of gourmet burgers and thin-crust pizzas is perfect. There are a couple of French classics on offer too like entrecote steak with dauphinoise potatoes or tartiflette.
The hotel feels designed for groups of friends but there’s a real mixture of clientele, including families, and at under £700 for a week half-board including flights, it offers a lot more atmosphere and attention to detail than some staid three-star properties you usually get.
Rocky Pop rooms are functional and comfortable, but just-about-big-enough. Some with maisonettes are more spacious, but skiers spend little time in their rooms.
What you’re really paying for in Chamonix is a huge winter playground with some truly world famous off-piste runs with Mont Blanc in the background.
An unlimited lift pass (€299 for six days) covering no less than ten areas, including Brevent-Flegere, Les Grands Montets, Argentiere, Les Houches, Savoy and Balme Vallorcine, provides more than enough on and off-piste action.
The legendary La Vallee Blanche – a 22km off-piste decent from the Aiguille du Midi, through the steepest glacier in Europe and into the valley – is on many people’s ski bucket lists. It starts with a stomach-flipping walk along a panoramic steep edge at 2,700 metres.
I have to admit, I’m slightly relieved conditions aren’t good enough during my stay, but I vow to do it “one day”.
We cable car to the top anyway and with Mont Blanc on one side and the valley stretching out ahead on the other, it’s every ski enthusiast’s dream.
Tucked away in the mountain is the unassumingly charming Chalet Refuge de Lognan. Access is either via an off-piste run from the top of the Grands Montets (3,300 metres) which boasts some incredible glacier skiing or a (less scary) gondola to 2,800 metres and an easier descent.
Here, we find the best homemade food of our entire trip and a warm fire to melt the ice from our gloves.
Owner Zain Charlet is a mountain guide who comes from an illustrious family of Argentiere guides (his father was the great mountaineer Armand Charlet).
Rocky Pop, with its casual, easy-going feel, makes a homely base to go back to. And the rental shop and lockers downstairs make it all so convenient.
So if your heart is set on the freeride mecca of Chamonix, this little break from tradition is a lot of fun.
Inghams (01483 791 114, inghams.co.uk/ski-holidays() offers seven nights, half board at the three-star Rocky Pop Hotel in Les Houches, Chamonix Valley, France, from £699 per person, departing in March or April 2017. Price includes return flight from London Gatwick to Geneva and resort transfers.
Ecole du Ski Francais (skischoolleshouches.com) offers private ski area guiding from 205 euros (approx £176) for a half day.
For more information on Chamonix, visit chamonix.com