With my husband's Verbier business trip, our 15-year anniversary, our boys' winter break, and plenty of Starwood points — a family adventure paired with some European culture was a must.
Swiss Air offered direct round trip flights from JFK to Geneva, and for a last-minute booking it was our best economical choice. There are no direct flights from Vancouver to Geneva, but there are plenty of one-stop flights — check Expedia. The Geneva airport is centrally located: 160 kilometres from Verbier, 80 kilometres from Chamonix, and Courmayeur is a 30-minute drive from Chamonix. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months from time of travel.
Alpybus, a comfortable spacious bus picked us up at the airport. We drifted in and out of sleep during the morning ride surrounded by the Swiss sensibilities — smaller automobiles, en francais signage, farm landscape (especially vineyards), which wound up the mountainsides along our route, and the Swiss chalets with gabled roofs and decorative carvings flanked the roads that are maintained like the four-century tradition and reliability of a Swiss watch.
Un bouquet de roses et de pain frais et de fromage sur un marche local, La Chaumiere, from my husband greeted me at the hip W Hotel room. The boys only had eyes for the mini bar filled with sweets and Pringles, but I hurriedly relocated it all, and assured them we'd buy some healthy snacks later (I could have requested the fridge to be emptied before our arrival).
We dined at Le Caveau, the W Hotel restaurant and lounge, and La Marlenaz, a cozy Swiss chalet located 400 metres above Verbier. A snow cat carries patrons up to the restaurant. It's not a romantic ride in the oil-smelling cabin, but our boys were amused with the big red machine. The cheeses and herbs from local Valaisian farms made for a fine fondue along with a bottle of Gamay. The boys were satisfied with poulet et frites.
The true romance of the evening was the descent by sled. The boys raced down the windy snow trail overlooking a breathtaking view of the valley town lights.
Do ski Les 4 Vallees — Verbier, Nendaz, Veysonnaz and Thyon with over 400 kilometres of pistes. Hire a guide, because not only can you end up in the wrong vallee, but also if you are late and miss the last lift, you will be inconvenienced with a long, expensive cab ride.
Also noteworthy is Bruson, situated on the northeast side; it is colder and consequently gets more snow accumulation. Go early in the day, as we did, the sun hits the northeast in the morning so it is warmer. For the more advanced skier head to La Pasay; we found fresh snow, and also perched atop is a petit outdoor cafe with extraordinary views of the Alps — even Mount Blanc, our next locale, was visible.
Book a car in advance — we made a last-minute decision, an expensive one for the leisurely 90-minute ride — about 65 kilometres to Chamonix. It was obvious when we left Switzerland, and it wasn't because of the signage, but the conditions of the roads changed drastically in France. Switzerland's perfectly maintained roads shine compared to France's poorly maintained ones riddled with potholes.
Chamonix at 1,035 metres is a big valley town, vastly larger that Verbier. We stayed at a classic old world hotel, The Grand Hotel Les Alpes. At the front desk we purchased Le Pass Chamonix, a pass for the western intermediate side of the valley. There is free bus service to all the lifts. We began at the Plan Praz lift finding our way to La Flegere where we had lunch at L'Adret de la Flegere. Food is a big part of the Alps, and when it's delicious, what's not to love about taking the time to dine?
Our hotel recommended a regional Savoyard restaurant steps away on the pedestrian promenade — Le Caleche. It was atmospheric filled with local antiques and the cuisine was typical fresh local fare.
The train station sold lift tickets for Courmayeur, which is a 30-kilometre ride with a 26-kilometre tunnel — tunnel fee included. The base of the Courmayeur lift is 1,224 metres; we explored many of the 23 runs, which are primarily intermediate. Eventually we ascended to the Cresta Youla (2,624 m) in the 20-person cable car — definitely worth the sardine experience. We tried the local polenta and game dishes, but we preferred the lasagna and sharing the sunny terrace table with a local family at La Zerotta, — cosi simpatico!
Et voila in the Alps we skied three countries in a week: Verbier, Switzerland, Chamonix, France and Courmayeur, Italy — with our eight and 10-year-old boys!