I am about to tackle the world’s largest annual sporting event in which two hundred cyclists race over 2,000 miles in just 23 days in a daunting test of super-tough mountain climbing strength and thrilling fast stages on the flat.
Up on the craggy Col de La Loze, surrounded by awesome mountain peaks that includes Mont Blanc in the distance, we are at the heart of the legendary French Alpine Three Vallees. The Tour de France is coming here to Meribel for the first time in July 2020.
What extraordinary luck. I am about to have a ‘trial run’ experiencing the Tour from these great heights. “It’s going to be spectacular; the competitors will face one of the toughest stages in the whole tour up here,” says Bernie, my guide, whose forte is skiing rather than cycling.
We will ski part of the new stage of the tour, he announces. Thankfully that involves far less effort than the upward test of endurance which the competitors face later on when the snows have melted. Instead after some shuffling from the lifts, we glide across a manicured snowy plateau, to begin an awesome descent over the future competitors’ route.
At the summit of Col de La Loze skiers pose beside an artwork of a bicycle and a board welcoming the Tour’s inaugural Meribel stage of the race next summer. Tour de France competitors will start from the picturesque village several ski lifts down the mountainside following a new ultra-steep and twisting road that has been created especially for the Tour.
After the thaw sets in and the road re-appears legions of fanatic sports cyclists and E-bike riders will arrive anxious to also try out this new Tour de France route that snakes to the top.
On a gloriously sunny afternoon in late January at 2,304 meters we skiers follow the curves of the mountain, fantasising that we’re racing each other, cheered on by an adoring public, heading for the Saulire Gondola station.
Our goal is rather different….getting to one of the best known Apres-ski hangouts in the Alps, La Folie Douce Meribel-Courcheval the place where Vegas and Cirques du Soleil collide with snow boot dancing on tables.
If ever there was a cheat’s Tour de France today I’ve definitely found it.
No longer does exclusive Courcheval rule the roost in France’s ritzy Trois Vallees ski region. Once considered a little staid Meribel at the heart of the world’s largest ski area has upped its ante attracting the up-for-it crowd led by no less a celeb than Binky from Made in Chelsea fame.
A traditional chalet resort and picturesquely Savoyard, Meribel has always appealed to old money, drawn to some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the French Alps. This clientele has sought out the resort for decades. It’s a classy spot, offering discreet fine dining and quality shopping compared with OTT excess that includes a string of 5-star hotels and couturier boutiques for which Courchevel 1850 is famous.
What makes scenic Meribel so popular too are sheltered tree-lined beginner slopes and her well -deserved stature as an Intermediate skier paradise. Renowned for great English speaking ski tuition, children are especially well catered for in adventure playgrounds, kindergartens and early ski school.
Another bonus is the multi-generational appeal of Meribel. The resort offers lots of non-ski activities, such as architectural tours, forested pony trekking, horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowshoeing and guided winter walks.
In contrast to some of the functional high-rise ski resorts that sprang up in the late 1960s, Meribel’s development was carefully monitored, ensuring that the traditional style of the region was retained. Gabled slate roofs, white pine and stone facades still dominate the steep valleys and mountainside.
Meribel is the central and best-placed resort in the world’s largest lift-linked ski area, the 3 Vallees and a favourite with the British and French, drawn to the variety of skiing on offer. The 3 Vallees ski pass is more expensive than in many competing ski circuses. But the range of terrain it covers is really impressive – eight interconnecting resorts, six glaciers and fifteen peaks above 2,500 meters. Adventurous skiers wanting to get the most out of their week, exploring new slopes and terrain every single day will be in their element. The highest village of the region, star-studded Courchevel 1850 is easily skiable from Meribel too.
Mention ‘mountain chic’ and the name Pierre & Vacances does not readily come to mind. I am reminded of the no-frills stack them high apartment complexes in a ubiquitous ‘somewhere to sleep’ category that beginner skier friends and myself chose back in the day.
Ever since the birth of mass ski tourism in the late 1960’s Pierre & Vacances has been a frontrunner in developing keenly priced ski holiday accommodation. Now one of Europe’s biggest players the company has upped its ante, offering swish, and top of the range lodgings, across favourite Alpine resorts in France as well as sun destinations around Spain, Portugal and Croatia.
Luxurious new look Pierre & Vacances 5 star L’HEVANA, in Meribel, is one of a growing stable of premium residences they have developed or are planning in key Alpine destinations. Built-in low-rise chalet-style there’s a swimming pool, a spa and beauty treatment centre. The upstairs bar looks out on the forested mountainside and the property also has an outdoor hot tub, steam room and sauna for guests.
The rejuvenating muscle-soothing massages at the residence’s lovely Deep Nature Spa are a big draw. But I can’t resist the lure of an ‘age reducing’ facial, so restful that I fall asleep like Rip van Winkle, anointed with youth-enhancing lotions and potions.
Our three bedroomed apartment, one of 95, is modelled on a small chalet, full of Savoyard charm sumptuous bedding and sofas to support exhausted post-ski bodies. The living- kitchen has enough implements and crockery to host a banquet. A few superior apartments also have saunas and fireplaces. Guests can order crispy pain au chocolate, croissants and crunchy freshly baked baguettes delivered to their doors for breakfast.
Next door to the residence a state of the art ski rental shop named Skiset uses a 3D foot scanner to correctly measure the shape and size of skiers feet before allocating a boot. There’s a rather unexpected discovery – one of my feet turns out to be considerably shorter than the other. It’s a challenge for the ski boot fitter. But he rises to the challenge, producing a pair of reasonably comfortable ski boots. Still, I reason, when my skiing lets me down I can always fall back on my odd sized feet, can’t I?
Meribel and the seven more resorts of the 3 Vallees boast fantastic restaurants and bars. Le Clos Bernard is among the most atmospheric you’ll find anywhere in the French Alps. Hidden away in the woods of Les Allues above Meribel village it is reached on skis via forested narrow tracks, by hiking up from the village bus stop or by horse and sledge. La Folie Douce is unmissable and non-skiers can reach this amazing dining and entertainment spot with DJs, a live band and floor shows from the Saulire gondola halfway station.
One of the best restaurants in Meribel stylish Le Cepe serves fine local produce and Savoyard specialities. For a fun-filled evening of informal food and great cocktails we snuggled up in an Igloo under sheepskins. L’Igloo on Galerie des Cimes is just across the road from L’Hevana Residence. Jack’s Bar has live music and stand- up comedy and O Sullivans is for even later libations and a bit of clubbing or Les Saint Peres.
Tell me more about Meribel
Getting to Meribel: Return flights to Lyon from London Heathrow with British Airways from £68 pp return. Transfers through Ski-Lifts from £43.84 pp. Meribel Valley adult lift pass from £45 per day and £229 for a six-day adult lift pass.
Click here for more information about Pierre & Vacances or call 08700267145; accommodation at Premium Residence L’Hevana in a one-bedroom apartment sleeping up to 4, seven nights from £1,242.