Saturday November 12, 2005

The Guardian

White open spaces... from Champery, there is nowhere to go except straight up into the mountains.

Last winter, only a few weeks before I made my annual visit, a car careered into the front of Mitchell's Irish/Swedish bar and restaurant in downtown Champiry. A couple of young snowboarders lost control of their vehicle on the rather sharp and fairly steep road down to the tilipherique station. In a scene straight out of a John Woo movie, the errant motor smashed into a pile of skis and poles stacked outside the property, ploughed right through the floor-to-ceiling window and parked its front bumper inches away from a couple tucking into a plate of king prawns and just shy of the trendy, brutalist fireplace. Only minor injuries were sustained and, what with this being Switzerland, impeccable medical service was administered in a neighbouring town. The windows were replaced the very next day.

I alert you to this incident because in all of the years that I have been going to Champiry, this accident is (to my knowledge, at least) just about the only newsworthy thing that has ever happened in the village. Champiry is irrefutably pretty, spectacular in its location and conveniently situated, but just not the kind of place where anything particularly exciting or controversial happens.

If you want rowdy aprhs-ski action, head for teenage Val d'Ishre. If you want to be robbed snow-blind before you even get to the funicular and be on constant rubber-necking alert for Euro-celebs, book a week in St Moritz. If you want Aman-standard luxury, try Courchevel. If it's a sushi dinner and a bottle of 150 disco vodka (at the Farm club, inevitably), go the Fergie-endorsed Verbier.

You won't get any of above in little Champiry. While its position and geology is high on drama, the village is decidedly lo w on glamour. Nightlife is quiet and unobtrusive. Restaurants and bars are mostly traditional and unfussy, neither ritzy or downmarket, while chalets and hotel rooms are dominated by a local (Swiss/French) clientele. The villagers don't appear to be wildly concerned that this entertainingly curmudgeonly attitude to vacationing conspires to keep most British tour operators away.

So, why do I keep going back? Well, Champiry is a little gem of a resort. It feels proper. Unpretentious, charming, efficient and old school. People come here to ski, drink gl|hwein and eat stringy fondue; sup a mug of Cardinal at a dodgy bar and shoot a frame of pool with a couple of French lads. Just like they used to. While it serves as a terrific base for some of the best skiing in the Alps, its reputation for exclusivity lies only in its full stop of a location.
Champiry is in an Alpine cul-de-sac. Once you've made your way from Geneva, past Montreux, winding up the switchbacks through Aigle and Monthey, you come to an abrupt halt and can't really go anywhere else. Except straight up into the snow-covered mountains, of course. (By car, you can do the 80-mile trip in an hour and a half. By train, it takes almost forever, struggling up Val d'Illiez in a couple of comical trams that appear to have been built for Noddy and his friends. That said, it's probably one of the most agreeable dead ends in Europe.

Champiry's chalet community sits like a chocolate box village in the adenoids of Les Dents Du Midi's jagged jaws and no matter how many times I visit, I never get tired of the setting's formidable amphitheatre. People will tell you that Portes du Soleil suffers from being too low, and that its lack of altitude makes the snow unreliable, but in 14 years I've always been lucky.

I go back not just for the skiing but because I like the routine. Almost every winter, I'll take the same pretty but bargain-priced chalet for a week with 10 to 12 mates, mostly dec ent skiers and mostly male (my wife doesn't ski). A pleasantly puerile and positively musky school-trip ambiance prevails and the timetable is undemanding, unsophisticated but hugely enjoyable.

We get up at 8.30am, nursing sore heads usually, eat a rudimentary breakfast of coffee and deliciously chewy, freshly baked white bread and butter, then stagger down the steep hill piling in the big red James Bond-y tilipherique up to Planachaux.

One day, we might get up extra early to attempt an ambitious circumnavigation of the whole area (locals call it "the circuit"), but usually it's just an easy long run towards the startlingly post-modern, wooden-clad tenements of Avoriaz in France in the centre of the vast Portes du Soleil area. Then into neighbouring Morgins, Morzine, Chatel, Les Gets, taking our pick from 700-plus kilometres of pisted runs and extensive, untracked off-piste opportunities before stopping for a spag bol and salad lunch at Les Lindarets.
Carbo- loaded now, with courage buoyed by red wine and lager, we may attempt the infamous Chavanette (the wall), with its moguls the size of VW Beetles, widely regarded as one of the toughest black runs in the world. But more often than not, we just glide down the hopelessly romantic Grand Paradis, an extended schuss of a road that leads back to the village (via a short bus shuttle).

After tea, cakes and a snooze in the chalet, we will put on our hiking boots and take a spirit-soaring walk along the Galerie Difago, a trail cut high up into the rock face of Les Dents du Midi range in 1905. Come the evenings, we pair off and cook an evening meal, each laughably aspirant Jamie Oliver contributing a menu and a wine list for every night that we stay.

I know all this sounds somewhat unremarkable and ordinary, but when the snow is deep, the weather fine and the fire roaring, it is utterly delightful. And what with boutique hotels and members-only ski-lodges coming increasingly into vogue, it's also the kind of earthy ski vacation that feels endearingly unfashionable and, as the years roll by, a simple winter holiday that is harder and harder to find.

And at night? Well, take a walk around after dark and the village appears to be enduring a kind of social ice age. But behind closed doors, it's discreetly rocking. Mitchell's bar and restaurant, the aforementioned car crash venue, is Champiry's newest bar (it opened five years ago) and has played a major role in revving up the night life. It's a funky little place decorated in fashionable eco-raw style, with tree trunks seemingly propping up the ceiling and groovy low-voltage lights hanging at random angles from fluffy white clouds. Food is a brave combination of pan-Asian and Swedish specialities.

When Mitchell's closes at midnight, it's a stagger up the hill into the middle of the village to Bar des Guides or "Le Min", a rocky labyrinth of a music bar in the converted wine cellar of the Hotel Suisse.

Other recent developments include the acquisition (six years ago) of the Hotel de la Paix by Stephen Purdew, the owner of the famous Champney's health spa chain. Purdew has spent over #1 million furnishing the hotel in English country style. He's named the rooms after counties, fitted tartan carpets and en suite whirlpool tubs. In typically tricky Champiry style, it's a corporate-bookings-only operation. The owner insists it is a labour of love rather than a serious business venture.

"I've been to all the main resorts in the Alps," says Purdew. "But Champiry is the best of the lot. It's a real hidden treasure - nicely lively, unpretentious with access to some of the best intermediate skiing on the planet. I think during the next two or three years, Champiry will become much more prestigious."

The Alpine Aspen, then? It's unlikely. So far, Purdew's plan has included inviting some of his many celebrity mates over for a blast on the slopes. English holidaymak ers momentarily gawped when the likes of Frank Bruno, Ross Kemp, Anthea Turner and Jamie Theakston did the Douglas Bader walk thing in their rear entry boots towards the lift of a morning. Formula one driver David Coulthard, comedian Rory Bremner and a rogue Pet Shop Boy have also popped by. Swiss locals, of course, didn't bat an eyelid.

Big-name skiers like it, too. One year, I shared a chalet with Americans Gordy Peifer and Dave "Swany" Swanwick, two of the high-octane freestyle skiing fraternity's most famous exponents. In the evenings, we sat by the chalet fire watching scary videos of them straight-lining near-vertical descents in Alaska or surfing through neck-high powder in the Himalayas. Focused dudes, they only had two forms of response to any matter of contention. Things were "awesome" or they "sucked". I asked them what they thought of Champiry. "It doesn't suck," they assured me as we downed endless Cardinals at the semi-legendary La Crevasse dive bar.

La Crevasse is run by Andy MacMillan, a Vancouver-born ski obsessive who's lived here more than two decades but appears (spiritually, at least) to be still in his high-fiving mid-20s. Andy is a piping-hot extreme type who has skied around Everest and standing at La Crevasse's bar talking to him, it's rather satisfying to know that someone who grew up in the shadow of cosmopolitan Whistler Mountain, one of the best ski areas in the world, prefers to live in this unassuming Alpine village. "Put it this way," he says, clearly relishing yet another perfect day up by the snaggled dentistry of Les Dents du Midi, "I'm not here for the cheese."