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Orcières - A winter sports destination worth discovering (even if you don’t ski)
In the Southern French Alps within the Ecrins National Park, and readily accessible from the town of Gap, Orcières 1850 is a purpose-built ski village. Although the south-facing slopes catch lots of southern sun, some very significant snowfalls generally ensure a long season, and we were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of snow cover when we arrived in late March.
The drive from Gap to Orcières 1850 is not one we'll forget. The landscapes of the Southern French Alps, at the gateway to Provence, can be unnerving for a travelling skier, convincing you until you begin to climb that surely there's no snow to be had nearby. This time we're driving through it long before the ascent to the village, and the scene is just pure picture-postcard. As we climb, though, we're seeing less and less. As we enter the village in thick mist we're peering at every sign for the name of our hotel. It appears to us just in time, at the top of the resort.
The next morning we awake and gaze from the balcony at the fresh accumulations of snow on the mountains which surround us. We never tire of moments like this. Better still, the exit door of the hotel ski-locker room feeds directly onto the piste for a 30-second drop down to Drouvet 1 ‘télémix’ lift carrying both chairs and gondola-style cabins. We grab a cabin, and after transferring to the lift's successor (Drouvet 2) arrive at the summit of Le Drouvet (2655m) feeling in every sense uplifted and ready for anything.
With broad smiles on our faces we launch off along a nearby ridge on Les Bouquetins, a long Blue-graded cruise which connects to another (Les Vallons) for a steeper Red-and-Blue drop which eventually takes us all the way back to where we began. After taking the same lifts back up, we peel off the ridge onto Les Clots, a Red-graded blast which we have all to ourselves on the run back to the base of the Drouvet 2 lift. This time we spend time taking in the scenery, which is fast acquiring a surreal quality as a thick white carpet of mist builds in the valley floor far below.
Since we’ve obviously found Ski-Heaven, we take the Blue-graded Les Pépés and savour the above-the-clouds moment. The sense of space up here is a real revelation, with wide pistes and very few tracks to disturb the previous night’s efforts by the grooming crews. After a couple of gentle hauls up to Le Drouvet we arrive in time to watch someone flying over the mountains suspended on the longest Tyrolean cable in Europe. After deciding to forego this particular adrenalin surge, we launch ourselves instead onto a couple of bracing Red descents (Les Crêtes and Bartavelle) before heading off for another change of scenery.
The Les Lacs chair takes us some way towards the Col de Freissinières (and also accesses Le Gourou, a truly long and winding Red), but for now getting there means dropping down to pick up the Le Gourou chair for the final haul up to 2727m. Eventually there will be a cable-car even higher to the 2956m Roche Brune, and new Red-graded terrain, but we're not complaining; the ride is magical, as we glide in near-silence past huge walls of pristine snow. At the top La Jalabres spears off into a steep Red descent which brings us to the base of the lift for another haul, by which time we're feeling the call of the nearest mountain restaurant.
So we glide off on a succession of Blue cruisers – Freissiniêres and Sirènes –which will take us down to the Roche Rousse, and the promise of a hot meal on a spectacularly-sited sun terrace at the top of the Rocherousse télémix (accessible by pedestrians). From here we can see a husky-dog team, impatiently raring to be off, while hitched up to their well-anchored sled. Further in the distance, a small group gathers beside a frozen lake, in nervous anticipation of a dive under the ice.
As for the afternoon, well, we take it easy, particularly on the final leg, and we encounter soft conditions as we alternate between late March sunshine and slowly-rising mists. But we've had a wonderful day’s skiing in truly epic scenery and the following day we return to do it all again.
Orcières’ strongest appeal is undoubtedly to young families, as children can learn quickly in a safe environment. In fact, it would be hard to find a more reassuring start than the Piou-Piou dedicated ski-school area for small children. Meanwhile, skiing parents are free to enjoy the entertaining pisted terrain, much of which will encourage those who are less skilled to go for it and raise their game. And there’s plenty to entertain non-skiers, including those in search of an adventure.
Activity holiday specialist Undiscovered Mountains arranges tailor-made winter holidays for those who are non-skiers or who simply feel like a break from skiing. With a choice of activities, from snow-shoeing, husky sledding and ice-climbing to a night spent in an igloo, there’s something for almost everyone.
For a more detailed Orcières resort review visit www.mountainpassions.com
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