How To Ski In Europe For Cheap This Winter

Ahhh, the cozy snow-covered chalet on a dramatic backdrop of jagged peaks and blue skies. The steaming cup of mulled wine and boiling pot of creamy cheese fondue. The picturesque mountain villages and the sophisticated ski resorts spreading over multiple valleys and sometimes even over nations’ borders.  Living the dream; a dream of carving turns down the European slopes…and all of that without breaking the bank. Yodel-a-hii-hoo!

Snowed in – at Pralognan, Savoie
A sunny winter day in Valais, the Francophone region of Switzerland
Last winter was very special for us as we got to travel around and ski in some of the best places on the planet as a family during one of the snowiest winters in years: Switzerland, Savoie, Hautes-Alpes, Grindelwald, Courchevel, Les Saisies, La Grave, Serre-Chevalier…We were so fortunate to stay with friends in most places we visited, which made it easier on the budget but with no income and the hefty exchange rate between the $CAD and the Euro, we still had to be super thrifty and look for the best deals.  I would like to share a few tips for those considering a trip across the pond this winter.

1. Early Season Online Deals and Passes

IKON, Epic, Mountain Collective, Magic Pass, etc.

Lift passes are usually slightly cheaper than in BC – typically between 45-55 euros per day in large resorts. However, convert that in $CAD and the costs can add up fast.

Perhaps your local mountain is part of the same group as world-class European resorts? Those passes present excellent deals for skiers. Finally, resorts have understood that lift passes are not where they will make money and they are extending the deals to skiers who know how to take advantage of them. Buy them early!

Same goes for flights. Start looking for seat sales in the late summer, early fall. 

2. Pick your country…and time of year

Italy and Austria are usually on the high end of the cost spectrum. Switzerland is flat out unaffordable unless you are royalty or CEO of a multi-national corporation. France, on the other hand, has made vacationing a human right. Well, almost.

Les vacances aux sports d’hiver or winter sports vacations are accessible to almost every French citizen accepting to be piled up with 3-5 other people in a 300 sq. foot- accommodation unit. Through company unions, school trips and low-cost tour operators, Frenchies always get away with at least one week of skiing per year, in a relatively affordable fashion . By avoiding school holidays periods (insanity and higher prices) and by avoiding to travel on Saturdays (when the whole country travels in or out of ski resorts = insanity +++) you will save a great deal. 

Stone and wood, charm and character everywhere you look!
Exotic and exciting

3. Go All In

All-inclusive Resorts can be a great option for those who want convenience and value for money. ClubMed offers week-long stays including accommodation, meals, après-ski, lift tickets, ski lessons, childcare AND flights from Canada.

For a younger, more adventurous all-in experience UCPA is also a great option.

Your travel agent can make you save some precious dollars and make your booking experience easy by extending its bulk purchase savings on flights, lifts and lodging to you. Gendron Ski is the largest Canadian Tour Operator specialized in ski holidays offering very competitive pricing for packages on the old continent. 

Rallying a group of 4 people is the best way to travel as quadruple occupancy usually gets you the best bang for your euro buck.

4. Stay Low

Something to consider when booking a ski vacation in a large-scale resort in the Alps is that the higher in elevation you stay, the more expensive the accommodation bill is. For instance, Courchevel 1850 – meaning 1850 metres of elevation is way more prestigious and pricey than Saint-Bon, located lower in the valley. You are also likely to find cheaper lodging options at Serre-Chevalier 1200 (Briançon) than higher up the Valley in Villeneuve. Bear in mind that those resorts are really well connected and organized and moving around via lifts or shuttles is easy.

Heritage and history in every wood plank

Looking for small-scale family resorts can also save you a considerable amount of dollars. Pralognan-la-Vanoise is a super cute family village-resort with a shuttle service to the 3 Vallées. A 6-day pass gets you a free day at the larger resort and there are many add-on options.

5. Skin Up

There is nothing like earning your turns to save big on lift passes and expensive meals at the ski lodge. Skinning up is also a great way to save on extra belt line inches and balance the extra indulgence in fine cheeses, bread and wine. 

Many resorts offer discounted “randonnée” passes to get a quick lift up in the alpine. Also look for guiding service and intro to alpine touring packages. 

Fresh tracks in the alpine

Just like in Western Canada, there is a growing trend for in-bound up-track itineraries providing a safe and fun experience in addition to the ability to discover a resort without shedding a single euro. Arêche-Beaufort, the alpine touring mecca and home the Pierra-Menta, one of the world’s most prestigious ski mountaineering race, offers three different up-track itineraries. 

Endless snow fields to be explored on skis

Those in search of a wild skiing experience, big lines on big mountains and deep snow will find happiness in La Grave. There, a mere 89 Euros will get you a day pass to 2,200 metres of pure mountain bliss AND a guide for yourself and three buddies. 

6. Ski tiny

Skiing in Europe as a family is simply magical. The scenery and the experience are just second to none. There are so many options of runs to choose from, sophisticated cable cars, funiculars and gondolas, endless kilometres of gentle slopes, many cozy chalets to warm up in and have hot chocolate and eat a bagged lunch.

Small resort towns, big experience
Gliding until the cows come home from the high pastures

Kids under the age of 5-6 usually ski for free. Last year we found out many fancy resorts boast a higher elevation beginner area, where parents can for a discounted price (15-25 Euros) ride a gondola to the mid-station, spend the day with the little ones going up and down the magic carpet, enjoy the view and the ambiance, and finish the day with a long ski down on a super long green run. 

Sophisticated lift systems in Courchevel

Last but not least, remember to soak it all in 

Skiing is really only part of the fun when you travel this far. The list of amazing activities that don’t cost a ton is endless: go for a soak at the nearby hot springs or the resort’s aquatic centre, explore the snowshoe or the Nordic trails, take a shuttle to the nearest town and go grocery shopping (an experience in its own right), grab a tea on a busy patio and spend some time people-watching – the Euro winter fashion is quite something, check out the local cheese co-op to learn about cheesemaking, and shop for a souvenir to bring home, like a bottle of local liquor, genepi, vervaine, suze or Chartreuse.

Mountains as far as the eyes can see

Happy skiing (Yodel – a -hi- hoo)!

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A Week in Pralognan-la-Vanoise

It’s hard to believe we are already half-way through our 6-month journey.

Our time in Europe has been truly amazing so far and packed with quality time with friends and relatives and lots of traveling in between and we feel it’s time to re-centre and get back to a quieter routine, unpack the suitcases and have some family time, just the three of us.

We have obviously spent lots of time with the in-laws so far and even a little more than anticipated, with Hervé’s torn meniscus and related surgery. We have visited Ardèche and the Italian Riviera. We have spent some time with our friends near Albertville and a full week in Val d’Anniviers, Switzerland.

 

Every day feels a bit like Christmas as everywhere we go we get to enjoy feasts and celebrations (along with the odd heartburn and overhang it brings), lots of time outdoors, a big share of adaptation and improvisation, of packing and unpacking, of searching through our bags and trying to keep some sort of order and tidiness and attempts to maintain a healthy routine for our 4-year old daughter.

 

After doing some research on the web for affordable accommodation in small family-oriented ski resorts, we settle on Pralognan-la-Vanoise. Around mid-January, we are outside of the busy school holiday periods and other major events that could disturb our peace and quiet AND our tight budget.

 

Our choice isn’t completely random, however. Pralognan, although I only have a vague memory of the village itself, is reminiscent of very sweet memories for Hervé and I. It was the starting point of my first ever overnight ski tour, some fifteen years ago. I remember the jagged peaks and impressive glaciers of la Vanoise range as well as the bright blue skies and the spring weather. I remember the warmth of the hut, how good the evening meal tasted after a day of skiing and the good times we shared with our companions.

 

I also remember and laugh at how much of a beginner skier I was, the tears I shed skiing back down to the valley and the huge blisters on my feet from the way-too-small ski boots I had borrowed. I remember the pride I felt and the endless admiration I had for my man who taught me everything about the mountains.

 

Since we have also climbed few classic routes in the Parc National de la Vanoise, one of France’s largest and most diverse mountain ecosystem protected through the National Park designation, but we have never really spent time in Pralognan.

 

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It keeps dumping!

 

I know that the ambiance of the village is exactly what we are looking for this time for our family stay: a pedestrian village, outdoor activities for kids and adults alike including some great options for backcountry skiing, a small kid-friendly ski hill with an affordable ski pass, some genuine mountain culture and a small alpine village feel and of course, SNOW!

 

Well, a few days in I can say that all our expectations were exceeded. More than that, I think am officially in love with this place.

 

Anne-Marie, the owner of the little flat we rented on AirBnB is just adorable and so thoughtful. Her place is sparkling clean and just right for the 3 of us and equipped with all we need, including a washing machine, thank goodness! The price for the week was more than fair and most of all, we have a little nest on a quiet street where we can settle in and most importantly feel at home. Upon our arrival, we find a hand-written greeting note, a bottle of local pear juice and a jar of local honey. God does Savoie ever produces good food!

 

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The lovely view from our balcony with fresh snow piling up on the railing

 

During our first day here, the snow started falling and it hasn’t really stopped since. Over a metre of snow has fallen upon Pralognan in 5 days.

 

On the second day, the whole ski resort was shut down because of the wind and heavy snowfalls.

 

On the third day, it was still snowing and we got to enjoy this one-in-a-season amazing day. We had the brilliant idea upon our arrival to sign our daughter up for some ski lessons and to the local “kids club” for afternoon child care, which she was ecstatic about. Hence, Hervé and I had the day to ourselves to ski fresh powder snow and explore the resort.

 

Pralognan in January has many pros one of them being that the very few vacationists around are mainly retirees and family with young children, most of them with limited skiing abilities if I may say so without any disrespect. For us, that meant that the competition for fresh tracks was non-existent and so were the lift lines. Pure bliss!

 

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the joy of skiing in knee-deep powder! Feels like BC…

 

The scene is quite a bit different in the spring when spandex-dressed ski mountaineers and herds of French Alpine Club adepts rush to the nearby peaks early in the morning and stop in for a beer and a tartiflette en masse after their tour and wander through the streets in their high tech gear and colourful clothing.

 

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Skiing right down to our doorstep

 

In very high avalanche risks conditions all week, we are staying very conservative and sticking to low angle off-piste itineraries well within the ski area. Hervé is also taking every opportunity he has to chat with local ski patrollers and mountain guides to learn about the conditions. Everyone is very friendly and generous with information. The current conditions are quite unusual and haven’t been observed by the locals for at least 20 years. All around us, roads are closed and mountain hamlets are being evacuated. We feel blessed that Pralognan is a relatively safe haven.

 

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Out on a tour with my love

 

Meanwhile, our daughter who is now entering her third ski season is taking her first ski lessons: 2 times 2 1/2 hours of skiing with other little French kids. Even though her ability to manage her speed with snowploughs and turns is improving highly when skiing with us, we feel that some lessons are going to help improve her autonomy and her ease in the transitions like putting her skis on, riding the t-bar on her own, going up small hills, walking around, getting back up after a fall, etc.

 

She is so proud of getting her “ourson” medal. She can now ski at the level of a bear cub, whatever this means!

In the French culture, everything is very standardized and there seems to be tests, levels and categories in every sport as I have learned over the years.

The ski instructors in their very French way don’t put on white gloves to tell your kid that he or she isn’t doing things the right way. If at first, it makes my teeth cringe as a firm believer in positive reinforcement, I acknowledge that life isn’t always easy and that my child will have to face her share of frustrations and failures… might as well start now.

At the end of our ski day we like to meander in the village to check out the lovely storefronts, have a drink and some appetizers or buy our loaf of bread or a bottle of wine to go with dinner before retreating to our cozy nest, tucked away at the dead end of a quiet street.

 

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Farmer’s market day

 

In my suitcase, although space is very limited, I will be bringing back a few bottles of locally made génépi and verveine liqueur, a piece of Beaufort, one of my favourite cheeses in the world and perhaps a picture to hang on the wall of our apartment in Kimberley and dream of this unique adventure we’re currently living. The village has no shortage of cute little artisan stores, bakeries and sports shops that we try to stay away from…

 

On the weekend we have our friends Fabrice and Magali and their three kids Zian, Liv and baby Dolma come over for the day to try out the Nordic trails. By the end of the day it’s snowing so hard they can barely make it back home to Albertville. Meteo France, the French weather office, has issued a special warning for heavy snowfalls in our area and urges travellers to stay home or plan alternative accommodation in case the roads close.

 

During our time here, we are also experiencing all the many amenities the village has to offer. It’s impressive to see a place of 700 souls residing year round with an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, skating rink, indoor climbing wall and even a spa!

 

Savoie – Mont Blanc is definitely a wealthy district and the fact that Pralognan is located nearby the infamous resorts of the “3 Vallées” is certainly contributing to the wealth.

 

Skiers staying in Pralognan for the week can purchase a 6-day ski pass for a mere 170 euros and have a free entry to the pool, the skating rink, unlimited access to the Nordic loop and the ability to ski in La Plagne or Courchevel for a day with a free shuttle!!

 

For that amount, a skier in BC barely gets a 2-day ski pass at one resort like Fernie or Revelstoke. Now you get why Canada isn’t a competitive destination on the world scheme of ski holidays…but this is a story I save for later on how to ski for cheap in Europe. Stay tuned!

 

As the sun goes down on our last day in Pralognan, I know for certain that we will return to enjoy more of the high alpine, the magnificent meadows and the peaceful atmosphere of Pralognan.

 

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The Bouquetin or Ibex: Pralognan’s icon

 

We are now packing our winter gear and clothing away for a two-week hiatus as we take off for Tenerife and the Canary Islands on Tuesday to meet up with my mom.

 

We hope all this fresh snow settles a bit for when we return and pursue new adventures in the Southern Alps…

À bientôt Pralognan!

The Best Cheese Fondue Recipe

…and it’s Backcountry-Friendly!

 

At least five different people have asked me for my cheese fondue recipe this past month. Last winter alone, we must have hosted at least 5 or 6 fondue dinners at the request of our friends who have all wanted to reproduce the feast at home…Each time I have happily explained the recipe how-to verbally, or in a text message, or scribbled the instructions on a post-it…until I reminded myself: “eh, don’t you have a blog about skiing, climbing, adventure travel AND food?!”

 

So, I have decided to share my recipe for this traditional alpine dish we all love so much, but also, to tell you a bit about how and why it became so special to us, in addition to being so darn rich, smooth and delicious.

 

Those of you who have read my first food-related blog will recall that I have a pretty special relationship with cheese.

 

Maybe my deep interest for everything cheese has something to do with why I became so close with my dear friend Rachel Martin from La Grave, Hautes-Alpes, France.

 

Rachel owns the most incredible cheese shop right in the Village. She is one of the first individuals I met when we moved to La Grave in 2004, but also the one who has been so kind and caring to me that she became like my second mom.

 

Not only does she hold this very special place in my heart, she also taught me how to make real cheese fondue.

 

In Rachel’s shop, you find the finest looking display of cheeses and charcuteries one can find in the whole Alps. From Gruyère to Abondance, Comté, and Beaufort, from Tomme de Savoie, truffle cheese to Jura’s very own Mont-d’Or and the best goat cheese around, from boar saucisson and speck ham that melts in your mouth, there is more than one’s eyes and belly can take in.

 

If you happen to spend some time in La Grave one day, which should obviously be on every skier’s or mountaineer’s wish-list, La Fromagerie de Montagne must not be missed.

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Rachel’s Fromagerie de Montagne under one of the most majestic mountains on Earth, La Meije (3983m). Photo courtesy of Ben de La Grave, our dear friend and Rachel’s son http://www.bendlg.com

 

At Rachel’s I would pop by for tea every second day if not every day during the six years we lived there. She would send me home with a bag full of most amazing cheeses each time, which is worth a little fortune by-the-way. At the time, being a dirtbag student with not much to put on our table, Rachel’s cheeses and cured meats made us feel like millionaires.

 

She also throws the best dinner parties out there. I recall squeezing in her great big living room with 20 or 25 other fine folks for voluptuous meals, usually a cheese specialty of some kind, and eating and drinking and listening to the latest indie music hits (Rachel also has amazing musical tastes) until late at night…

 

You will now have guessed that I hold my cheese fondue recipe from her. I obviously had to find an adaptation somehow, to Kimberley’s ingredients supply (between Crème Cheese Shop and Overwaitea you can actually find all you need at a fairly decent price).

 

I am pretty satisfied with the result and I hope you will too. Once you try, I promise you will never go back to packaged fondue ever again. Here we go…

 

For The Best Cheese Fondue, you will need:

200 grams of cheese per adult. 3 types of cheese minimum. Grated.
Gruyère, Emmenthal or Comté, and the local touch, some Kootenay Meadow Alpindon
1/2 bottle of dry white wine (the best is Vin de Savoie but it’s hard to find around here so Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio will do. For the record, I have tried it with Champagne once when we were out of wine and it tastes great too!)
4 cloves of garlic
fresh ground pepper, to taste
a pinch of ground nutmeg
a pinch of baking soda

 

For the bread:
1 large loaf of white or whole wheat sourdough (a day old is best)

 

Instructions:

Cut the bread into 2″ cubes ahead of time and set aside for an hour or two so it’s a bit dry. Alternatively, you can also place it in the over on a baking sheet at low temp for a few minutes.

Cut one of a garlic clove in half and rub the pot with it.
Add 250ml of white wine and turn the stove on a medium-low temperature.
Add half of the grated cheese and stir gently while it melts.
Alternate between wine and cheese so the texture is liquidy enough.
Add the rest of the garlic (chopped), the freshly ground pepper, nutmeg, and baking soda.
Keep stirring until the texture is a smooth as possible.

 

Transfer to the burner. Dip a chunk of bread and savour!

 

I like to serve my fondue with some small Mailles pickles (cornichons extra-fins) and a bit salad with slices of apple, walnuts, and a Dijon-based vinaigrette.

 

For the backcountry lovers, cheese fondue is a fun dish to serve on a hut trip. You can just grate the cheese ahead and store it in Ziploc bags, the pepper, the nutmeg and baking soda already mixed in another bag and garlic on the side. Bring wine in a tetra pack box and heat it over a camping stove. It is such a comforting and high-calorie dish, it will fuel you up for the next day for sure. It is, of course, great for sharing too.

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A backcountry fondue shared with family on a snowy autumn hike to the Jumbo Pass Hut for my daughter’s second birthday

 

I hope you will enjoy this fondue as much as my family and friends do. Every time we have it we create more great memories and still recall with so much joy the amazing time we’ve had and we will still have over fondue, here in the Kootenays or at Rachel’s house.

 

Cheese it up!

thebestcheesefondue
Cheese fondue is the ideal party dish on a cold winter night