I arrive in Les Menuires just in time for the 6pm curfew in France – and I feel like the apocalypse has hit the ski resort.
The resort is a gateway to Les Trois Vallées, one of the largest and most famous ski areas in the world. There are usually a lot of people coming out of the après ski bars, crowded restaurants, and skiers coming down from the mountains before sunset.
But tonight it is not about a soul, but incongruous and joyful music can be heard through the speakers on the empty terrace of my hotel in the dark night, lit only by the colored lights dancing on the structures of the empty square, where the bottom of the slopes meet. .
At this time of year when the February school holidays take place, the resort normally accommodates between 16,000 and 22,000 people.
But for the moment, believes the director of Les Menuires Tourist Office, Marlene Giacometti “we have between 5,000 and 6,000 people, 30% of the usual”.
I am the only guest at the Hotel Pelvoux and I feel a little guilty for accepting the solo member of staff’s offer to take out the cheese and cold meats platter for my breakfast.
After last night’s take-out pizza and an early morning night, I’m not that hungry, but rearing up to climb the mountain.
Outside, the morning brings a more optimistic scene. There are energetic children in their ski schools who learn to clear snow and groups of locals who get back into shape through ski touring (hiking on skis that have a piece of cloth attached to their base to keep them from sliding down). slide) up the empty ski lifts and ski down.
And of course, the increasingly popular sport of cross-country skiing.
I have a take-out coffee in front of the hotel where I meet my ski touring companion for the day.
Francesca Smith has lived in the Alps for almost 12 years. “It’s a season like no other,” she told me. “I don’t think we’ll ever experience this again.”
She ran a 100-bed luxury chalet business, Powder and shine. But first Brexit, then the COVID crisis forced her to let go.
“The three weeks surrounding the day the UK was due to leave the EU in March 2019 were exceptionally quiet as people feared crossing borders,” says Smith.
“Brexit has also had an impact on the way we recruit staff (due to prohibitive labor costs) and COVID has meant the business is no longer viable.”
She is now starting a ski travel consulting firm ‘Mountain spy‘where she will act as “ your local guide to mountain accommodation’ ‘, helping guests book upscale accommodation in the French Alps, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, as well as information on seaside resorts and trends.
I soon discover that Smith is a wealth of information about Les Menuires. In daylight I can clearly see that the older part of the resort can hardly be described as a classic alpine chocolate box, but rather a fine example of high rise apartments being put together quickly in the 1960s. and 1970 for the sole. purpose of skiing.
But I am surprised to learn that the apartment building next to my hotel, called the “Brelin” was built in 1972 and is in fact listed as a “remarkable 20th century heritage” work.
According to its architects, its slender shape evokes that of a ship moored at an angle, a real “snow liner” that evokes images of old sanatoriums built in sunny resorts.
We meet the local ski guide, Coralie Gerrett in front of the Les Menuires ski school, and since it is snowing quite heavily and the visibility is not great, we decide to stay safe and go up the ski slope of La Croisette at Le Grand Lac restaurant.
The snow is still tinged with the sands of the Sahara from yesterday and it is quite soft, so I soon undress on my T-shirt as we climb higher and higher up the mountain.
It’s a privilege to be here at a time when there are so few others, even if an hour or two of climbing only means 20 to 30 minutes of descending.
I’m curious if a lot of people head to the wild backcountry to ski. Coralie, also known as Coco, says most people stay in the secure areas the station has prepared.
While the ski lifts are not functioning, the ski patrol still opens some of their 600 km of slopes and makes sure they are safe from avalanches.
Coco explains that people who usually travel to the backcountry are less likely to take the risk right now because if something does happen and they have to call emergency services, it’s more expensive than usual. .
“100 euros per minute for a rescue helicopter”, estimates Coco.
As a ski instructor, Coco received money from the government in December when it decided to keep the ski lifts closed. But she tells me that she’s not sure what’s going on now.
Growing up in Les Menuires, she feels good about everything and happy to take time off because she had a baby four months ago. But her British husband, Sam, couldn’t work as a ski instructor at all this winter, instead he enjoyed split boarding with friends.
We reach The Great Lake at 2250 meters where we stop for a mulled wine. The refreshment stall selling hot drinks and take-away snacks in front of the mountain restaurant opened only two days ago for the school holidays.
Its owners, Bertrand and Nelly Cointy, bought the company in November and had to adapt their plans. They didn’t see the point of opening earlier in the season and now plan to stay open only for the holiday period.
With almost zero visibility, we decided to stop here rather than continue to the top of the Roc des 3 Marches at 2704 meters above sea level.
The fresh snow cover on the slopes, however, made the descent very pleasant and we get a few turns before reaching The Corbeleys Restaurant.
The owners Bruno and Martine Suchet have also just opened for take-out. Apologizing for not being able to let us in, they say they have to be very strict with hygiene and distancing measures because the police came the day before to check everything.
There are no seats outside, other than an old ornamental chairlift, and we are offered blankets while we wait for our food.
As I feel my sweat starting to chill and chill me, I really miss being able to warm up in a cozy mountain hut between the slopes.
We order the local cheese tart (Tarte au Beaufort) and the “ Rissoles ”, a traditional Savoyard dessert, consisting of a crispy pastry “ slipper ” filled with sweet cream, which we eat on paper plates. disposables and wooden spoons.
All washed down with more Mulled Wine, a coffee and finally a Génépi, a traditional alpine aperitif to sharpen us for the final descent.
With a full stomach, we finally ski to Saint Martin de Belleville. The pretty seaside resort is practically empty.
Its new wine bar and restaurant ART B also offers take-out meals, as is La Bouitte near St Marcel. The three-star Michelin restaurant, whose name translates from the local Savoyard dialect as “ little house ”, also serves meals to guests in their rooms in its upgraded five-star Relais and Chateau.
It is certainly a season like no other, I think, because I take the way back to Les Menuires, instead of being able to take the cable car back to the station.
And while there is a special atmosphere in the ski resorts right now, no one wants the partial closure to continue for much longer.