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I just nodded. I was slowly becoming familiar with Serge's wily ways. The weekend reunion, I knew, was going to test me to my limits. But I girded my loins for battle. No way was I going to show weakness. Canadian honour was at stake.
We left Thonon-Les-Bains early on Friday morning. There wasn't a cloud in the sky; already the thermostat was pushing 15°C. It seemed more like a day for sailing than a day for skiing. Serge ignored my questioning glance and kept on driving.
Situated on the bucolic north shore of Lake Léman, just across the waters from Lausanne, Thonon (like next-door Evian) has been renowned for its healing waters since the time of the Romans. A sometime-summer home for the Dukes of Savoie during their 500-year reign over the region, the spa town of 40,000 seems a world away from big-mountain fun. But don't let appearances fool you. No matter where you find yourself in Haute Savoie, skiing is never very far away.
And like other Savoyard destinations, our 35-minute drive up to Avoriaz was like a journey through the looking glass. Slowly the vegetation changed. The quiet little roadside stream grew in volume until it was a rushing, dancing torrent. The valley narrowed. The road steepened. Suddenly alpine peaks began to appear through the forest of pine and yew. Steep and rocky and intimidating. And oh-so beautiful.
As usual we were late. We rushed through the classic village of Morzine — so many British tourists! — and swung into the final looping hairpin turns that take you high above timberline to Avo. I was almost feeling seasick by the time its Seussian buildings came into view. But the scenery was a mountain lover's delight. I soon forgot about my heaving tummy. So much to see. So much to take in. "Just over the ridge there," Serge pointed, "is Switzerland. I'm sure the group will head there first thing. There's a lot of good off-piste skiing over there. And the snow is usually better. And of course, there's the Fendant..."
Meaning? A legendary white wine only grown on the sunny south-facing slopes of the Swiss Valais region, the Fendant has a glowing reputation with visitors to Portes du Soleil. And I was soon to find out why.
But first we had to find Les Longs Pieds. Which didn't take all that long. Have you ever encountered a group of people that made you feel welcome right away? That drew you into the bosom of their company like a long lost cousin? That dispensed with the formalities and started teasing you the moment they met you? I'd been warned. I was prepared. But the warmth of the Longs Pieds' greeting still took my breath away. There was Manu and Jean-Phil and Fifou and Isabelle and Patrice and Jeff and... They came from Biarritz and Strasbourg and Grenoble and Toulouse... and Thonon of course. And they had a joie-de-vivre that was almost palpable.