In Chamonix, Nicola Boden found a place to ski with the stars
As we climbed into the back of the army truck, the same thought seemed to be flitting through everyone's minds, "How did a luxury ski weekend end up like this?"
We had left the warm fug of a Savoyard stew and aperitif lunch after a morning's skiing in the shadow of Mont Blanc to be squashed tightly together on the hard metal benches of an army van, on the promise of going to a secret location.
As we bumped along up the mountainside with tyres struggling to grip the narrow track and our drivers mumbling in incomprehensible French, our guide kept resolutely quiet until we ground to a halt in a clearing.
We were confronted by a row of skidoos (like a jet ski but for snow) for the next part of our ascent. We duly loaded up two by two and juddered off higher up the mountain, now hardly caring where we were headed: from my pillion seat, I could see stunning views of mountain peaks covered by only the wispiest of clouds.
Our destination was a hidden chalet nestled in snowdrifts where an enormous bowl of spicy vin chaud awaited us.
From here, those of a James Bond disposition might later ski or sledge down the mountain by torchlight while average skiers would settle for another form of descent.
Under orders, we knelt in the deep snow outside, awaiting our carriage. At first we could only pick out a distant whirr, but soon a helicopter appeared over the lip of the mountain and flew straight at us.
It landed practically on the toes of our boots after flinging bucketfuls of snow in our direction. But the floating flight down over the valley made up for my slightly soggy camera and chafed face, and the message was clear: Chamonix offers far more than simply skiing if you leave the beaten track to find it.
Certainly our accommodation for the weekend, Le Hameau des Chalets Philippe, was about as far from the beaten track as you can get. Its creator, French film and theatre producer Philippe Courtines, described his reaction on first seeing the site back in 1983 as a coup de coeur – love at first sight – and it is easy to understand why. This is utter picture-postcard land.
Set back in the enclave of Le Lavancher, the hamlet sits above the Chamonix Valley, catching the sunshine by day and glowing in the light of a sole lamp-post and twinkling blue roof lights by night.
Seven chalets now dot the area, courtesy of more
than 20 years' of Courtines's dedication to his labour of love. They are like little gingerbread houses on the outside and packed full of 17th century antiques inside, collected by the man himself from brocante shops and sales all over France.
This place is like Narnia, and as I unlocked the door to my little chalet with an enormous iron key the size of a grown man's hand, I certainly felt as if I could be a character in the CS Lewis children's classic.
Perfect for a romantic winter break, my miniature chalet has a bijou dining area and kitchen downstairs, with a bathroom and loft-style bedroom upstairs. As I snuggled up in the thick flannel linens on the first night, my mind wandered back to 2002, the last time I stayed in Chamonix as a student on a French university ski trip.
Then we settled for a hostel in dorms of eight, slept on bunk beds and had lentils for dinner. Chalets Philippes was definitely an improvement – by a long way. With its rustic feel, yet luxury on tap – including a personal chef, outdoor whirlpool baths, English-speaking staff to cater to your every whim and a state-of-the art cinema with a DVD collection to die for – there is scarcely need to venture anywhere else.
Nichola Boden was a guest of Pollen-Brooks Leisure which operates seven-night B&B breaks in Chamonix. The agency organises an extensive range of skiing and associated pursuits on the slopes, and practically anything else you are likely to need in Chamonix. Reservations: 01344 849 135 or www.pollenbrooks.com
Chamonix is about an hour's drive from Geneva, which has easyJet flights from Newcastle, Liverpool and Nottingham East Midlands. www.easyJet.com