The proximity of quality ski stations to Nice make it an affordable option for Irish skiers for that impromptu break
One of my favourite lines from the classic British comedy series “Fawlty Towers” was when a guest at the hotel was talking about life in California: “You can spend the morning swimming in the sea,” said the ex-patriot Englishwoman, “and in the afternoon you can head up into the mountains and go skiing.” Fawlty didn’t like the American attitude of his guest and replied drily: “It sounds rather tiring.”
All jokes aside, however, I remembered the idea of such a place as the stuff of dreams. The Côte d’Azur in the South of France does have a lot in common with California. Both have a lovely climate with a rugged coast and wonderful light, both have a close association with the world of films and glamour and both have mountains that tumble right down to the coast. The capital and largest city along this attractive stretch of coastline is Nice. It is a completely charming and vibrant city. Imagine blending seamlessly the best of France and Italy in one pulsating metropolis on the Mediterranean coastline. It’s not easy to tear oneself away from it, but if there’s anything that will pull you away from here, it’s the magnificent Alps, looming invitingly in the distance with their snowy peaks.There are quite a few ski stations within striking distance of Nice, but for what appeared to be a fairly optimum choice with regard to choice of ski runs and of atmosphere, we checked out the twin resorts of Auron and Isola 2000.
I took a hired car from the airport and took the option of getting snow chains just in case it would get difficult either getting up the mountain or getting back down again. In my case, I wanted to see a few more places besides the ski stations while I was there, but if you’re only going for the skiing, then I would definitely advise the far simpler and cheaper option of getting the bus directly from the airport. The return ticket to either station (with free shuttle service between the two of them) is a highly measly €8 per adult.
The plan was to visit Isola 2000 first and Auron second. The former is the newer of the two stations and it’s at a higher altitude (up to 2,610m) so you’re virtually guaranteed your snow. But on this day, although the car drive was pleasant and sunny with a few passing clouds, I got a phone call en route to tell me that there was a real tempête blowing up at Isola 2000 so instead we visited Auron first.
Auron was one of the very first ski stations in France. It is relatively small but with everything required in a ski station. For those looking for their skiing coupled with crazy night life, this is not the place for you, but for those who are interested in the skiing for a short visit, its size is ideal. Also, Auron was always regarded as a bit of a “fancy” spot for the winter break and its limited size meant that it was always regarded as a place where the riff-raff, nouveau riches and non-skiers were kept to a minimum.That fancy notion is a bit of a dated one at this point and the whole station looks a little old, but it’s a charming place for all that and one with as much of a village atmosphere in it as you’re likely to find in the French winter resorts. In addition, although the accommodation has become much more affordable than it used to be in its heyday, it’s still a place that attracts the more discerning skier – the sort of place where you’re more likely to bump into a French government minister on a well-earned break in the mountains rather than your neighbour from home.
Having said that, I did bump into a couple from Dublin on the gondola who had been coming to Auron for years. They explained that the twin resort idea was great because on days like this when there was a snow storm in Isola 2000, then you could come here where the sun was shining. And, on days when the snow was not quite so good in Auron, then it’s always a bit better at Isola 2000.
The runs give a good variety for the intermediate skier and they’re nicely located looking down on the village at all times. We stayed and and ate out in the “L’Ecureuil“. It’s classed as 2-star, but seems to offer far more homely timber-clad luxury than that suggests. Also, they do a superb line in a sort of crumbled lean loose “burger” of beef placed upon a bed of rice surrounded by dark French-onion-style gravy. Enough to warm the cockles of any skier’s heart and replenish aching muscles instantly.
The next day, we went to Isola 2000. I still didn’t have to use my snow chains as the storm had cleared and the snow ploughs and gritters had been out. It’s only 35 kilometres or so, but involves many dramatic twists and turns to the top – well above the level of the village of Isola itself. All was decidedly whiter, with a thick layer of fresh snow. The sun came out and the conditions for skiing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Isola 2000 is a lot more lively than Auron. Here, the multi-levelled purpose-built village has a fuller range of exciting shops, eateries, cinema, loud bars and plenty of clothing options and ski-hire places.
It was built essentially as a higher, larger version of Auron and one to cater for the growing legions of twenty-somethings who love to ski/party. As a forty-something myself, I had no problems with it, I’m glad to report. Many of the red runs are of do-able level for the intermediate ski-meister and the runs are longer and more plentiful than they are at Auron. In a nutshell, what it lacks ever so slightly in charm, it more than makes up for in level of facilities (including the 2nd-fastest chairlift in France).We stayed at the 3-star C2A Residence. It offers B&B and is on the eastern end of the village not far from the roundabout. This has the advantage of being a little bit away from centre of the village which can get noisy. It also has excellent facilities that include a swimming pool (with gorgeous panoramic views), jacuzzi and steam room. It is a superb way for skiers of any age to ease the bruises (I had picked up a few) and replenish the energy levels in the evening before going out for a drink or some food.
Next morning, it was time to head back to the airport, return the car and fly home. Just as the météo on the television the previous night had predicted, temperatures had plummeted from -1 the day before to a face-numbing -14C. After breakfast, I struggled in the relentless blizzard to put on the snow chains. Bereft of ideas, I trudged into the middle of the village to ask for assistance in putting on the chains. It’s amazing what you can learn about something in a short space of time when you want to. I learned that delivery men have no time to spare when they’re driving around in sub-zero temperatures at 7:30 in the morning. I also learned from a ski instructor heading out with a group of children that the chains I had were the “easy” ones – the new type that any idiot can put on without having to lay out the chain and drive on top of it (as is the case with the traditional type).
And so, flushed with pride and blue with cold, I managed to chain up and get on our way. Later on that same day, we were back at home and in another world – just as the lady on Fawlty Towers had said. That wasn’t too tiring, I thought – maybe I’ll go again next weekend.