If you’re the kind of skier for whom speeding backwards down a black run in an ice storm no longer delivers the requisite adrenalin kick, you need to try bob rafting.
Mooted as an amateur’s alternative to bob sledding or the luge — which really should only be attempted by those with a death wish — the pilotless bob raft nevertheless races down the track at speeds in excess of 80km per hour.
Riders in the front seat can no doubt see scenes from their past flying by on every corner; I cowered further back, shrinking as low as possible into the engine, gritting my teeth, and willing the experience to come to an end. It was a very long one minute and 37 seconds.
La Plagne’s bob track was built for the 1992 Winter Olympics. It is still used for competitive races, but today the vast majority of those thundering round its bends — some 12,000 people last season alone — do so as a one-off thrill. The draw is that you really do feel like a daredevil, as though you’re risking life and limb, when in fact the raft has been engineered in such a way that the only statistically significant risk is seeing your breakfast again.
The vast Paradiski area extends northeast from La Plagne across the French Alps to Les Arcs, and it’s all accessible on a single pass. On a clear day when all the lifts are open, this amounts to 425km of pisted runs and an uncountable number of off-piste options. Even the most determined skier could ski from the first lift until late afternoon every day for a week and still not cover all the slopes.
It’s been a long time since a ski trip was just about skiing or snow boarding, however, and it’s by recognising this that La Plagne has moved ahead of competing ski areas to become the most popular ski resort in the world. Public access to the bob track is one such example of how the resort is enriching the winter sports experience; I set out to discover more.
The École du Ski Français (ski-school-laplagne.co.uk) provides skiing tour guides who offer orientation sessions. My guide greeted me on my first morning, and having picked up boots and skis we took off across the resort at quite a pace.
The advantage of having a mountain guide are several-fold: I didn’t once have to stop and look at the map, I queue-jumped at every lift, and when I did hit a patch of ice and ski straight into a bush, there was someone friendly there to laugh at me. My guide also knew exactly where to stop for lunch: the newly opened Le 360 (le360-laplagne.fr) has panoramic views of the Plateau de Fornelet, and with Michelin-starred chef Jean-Michel Bouvier in the kitchen, you know you’re in for something more impressive than a fondue and chips.
A glass or two of wine at lunchtime will relax you and calm your nerves, which is no bad thing if you’re planning an afternoon run down the Colorado Luge. This designated sled track in the middle of Plagne Centre is terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. The sled is simply a red plastic tray, with two handles which may or may not work as brakes. In theory you steer by leaning to one side or the other, shifting your weight, but as you pick up pace on the steeper sections of the track, attempts to do this seem to go out the window. I found crashing into the ice walls the most effective way of slowing or stopping, but nevertheless emerged at the bottom covered in sprayed-on snow and grinning from ear to ear.
At the bottom of La Plagne’s Colossus lift is the most luxurious beast of a camper van you’re ever likely to see. Its name is Over the Moon. Emblazoned on the side of this converted snow groomer — the only one of its kind in the world — is the phrase “Ce qu’il se passe à 2,000m, reste à 2,000m”, which translates to “What happens at 2,000m, stays at 2,000m”.
At 9pm each evening, after the slopes have closed, one couple is driven up onto the mountain to a spot with views of Mt. Blanc. There they spend a romantic night alone, with only bottles of champagne and the starry sky for company. The camper cabin is kitted out in style, complete with a high end sound system, and should you venture outside in the snow, then you’ll find your very own private spa.
On all other nights, rather more sociable forms of après-ski are calling. Cocktails and a live DJ set in the bar at the Araucaria Hotel & Spa is a great way to get started, especially as you can combine the visit with thawing out tired muscles in the sauna and steam room. It’s then a short trip across the mountainside for dinner at Union (unionmontalbert.com), the latest culinary offering of double Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard, who made his name at The Square in Mayfair and Elystan Street in Chelsea.
Union might well give you the best value meal you’ll eat this year. In fact, that alone is worth the trip to La Plagne. For the princely sum of €55 you’ll have half a dozen starters to share, plus a main course and a dessert. Howard is a master of creating unexpected flavours: his roasted cashew hummus is a dream, and I won’t forget the goats cheese croustades with pickled walnuts in a hurry. The breast of duck with caramelised endive, crushed turnip, and orange was cooked to perfection; my only regret was that I’d not skied myself into such a state of hunger that I could comfortably finish off all three desserts.