It was the winter before lockdown and looking back, we made the most of it. Over half-term, my wife, three children and I flew to Geneva. A taxi company with the novel name of Skiidy Gonzales – whose drivers wear pink sombreros – drove us to the French Alpine resort of Morzine, just across the Swiss border, which was already blanketed with snow.
The height of the ski season had arrived. The following morning, we opened our curtains to see patterns of brightly-coloured ants carving down the white slopes across the road. The sun was bright and inviting, and all that remained before we could join them in the powder was a short walk to the All Mountain Rental ski shop down the road.
This might seem like rather an old story. After all, more than a year has passed since our visit to Morzine, and it has been laden with lockdowns, Tiers, R-rates, PPE and a grim tally of death. But now that travel is possible again, (a kind of ) normality has joined with normality and that ski holiday in the time before feels almost as close as yesterday.
Pictured above is the highest point of the Morzine ski area
Jake and his three children take a break after hitting the slopes of Morzine last winter
Above the slopes of Morzine (pictured) itself is the higher-altitude resort of Avoriaz, and adjacent to it is Les Gets, which is particularly good for beginners
For those who do not ski, snowshoeing offers the opportunity to explore the mountains
Another historic change that has taken place since those days on the slopes of Morzine is the conclusion of Brexit. Now that the smoke and noise has died down, Britons have been quietly reflecting on their relationship with Europe. There can be no doubt that we are outside the club now. The question is whether we are outside the family.
My answer to that is an emphatic no. The vote itself was fractious and the negotiations fraught, but it seems obvious that there is far more binding us to the Europeans than pulling us apart. With this in mind, my family ski trip to Morzine has become even more relevant. Because we didn’t just ski. We learnt French.
The Alpine French School was founded by Helen Watts, a British ex-pat who moved to the French Alps in the early 2000s. In the summer, it holds French camps for English-speaking children and lessons for their parents, combined with adventure sports like mountain biking and white-water rafting. In the winter, the French lessons take place in the mornings and you hit the slopes in the afternoons.
The business migrated online during the pandemic. But now it is back in the real world, with open doors and open arms, and there could be few better places to spend a snowy week this winter.
The Alpine French School was founded by Helen Watts, a British ex-pat who moved to the French Alps in the early 2000s
Classes run at all levels, from beginner to advanced, and cater for people of all ages. Jake is pictured above in the middle
Children take part in one of the fun and informative French lessons at the Alpine French School
The school is housed in a wooden chalet in sight of the pistes, with big windows and an atmosphere of quiet and relaxed concentration.
My wife, who has very good French, took her lessons in one of the classrooms upstairs, while I mucked in with the beginners on the ground floor.
My children, meanwhile – a 12-year-old and 10-year-old twins – were taught in a very small group and seemed to pick the language up with alarming speed.
Advanced French lessons at the Alpine French School in Morzine
The school is housed in a wooden chalet in sight of the pistes, with big windows and an atmosphere of quiet and relaxed concentration
Children practice their French conversation skills during an informal session at the school
Next to the school is a block of flats that is used by the students. We slept in one large room with mezzanine bunk beds and a private shower; the rest of the flat was communal. The other occupants included an elderly, super-friendly Irish couple (she was the French student, he had just come for the skiing) and a Canadian dentist and his wife, a civil servant, together with two gauche teenage children. Sharing with other students was not just interesting and fun but it presented many opportunities for practising our French, too.
It was immediately apparent that we had arrived at the heart of a happy, thriving community. It was necessarily transient, but many of the students had made it a habit to return to the school over the years to continue their studies. We, in fact, had spent a summer here a couple of years before. And the French teachers made for a consistent, welcoming team.
On one occasion, my wife was treated to a French vocabulary wine tasting in class, which devolved to a bit of a party upstairs. On another, we sampled the escape room in the attic, which kept us occupied for an hour or so in the evening. In French.
We knew from experience that as a tourist trap, the food prices in Morzine were very high. So we brought lots of food with us from Britain in our suitcases, and supplemented it with fresh baguettes and milk and local cheese. As we were staying in an apartment, this worked well and removed some of the anxiety from the shopping.
Every day, after our French lessons, we chucked on our gear and took a bus or a little red road-train to the pistes. The skiing was glorious. The snow was patchy for the first couple of days, but this was compensated by the efforts of a snow machine, and an overnight snowfall soon brought about a string of bluebird days.
The bridge leading from the Alpine French School to the ski slopes at the foot of the mountain. The bubble lift pictured connects with the loftier resort of Avoriaz
Staying at the school’s apartments offers the opportunity to meet other students and practise French together, as well as socialising
This drone shot shows the heart of Avoriaz, which is a short drive from Morzine
A stunning drone shot showing the edge of Avoriaz and Morzine nestled in the valley below
My wife had snapped a ligament in her knee the year before, so she was unable to ski. Instead, she took on extra French lessons, as well as hanging around in the local cafés and going on snowshoeing adventures in the untrodden snowy dunes in the mountains.
Meanwhile, the children and I, who are intermediate skiers, received lessons from the Billski ski school. All the instructors spoke fluent English. Although we were studying French, I didn’t think ski lessons were the time nor the place to practise our vocabulary.
We had several lessons with Bill himself, a tall, phlegmatic Englishman whose laid-back approach to skiing allowed everybody to relax and make surprisingly rapid progress. I’ve had quite a few ski instructors in my time, and I have to say that Bill was up there with the best.
The variety of pistes was excellent. The resort is part of the Portes du Soleil ski area, which straddles various mountains and is linked by a network of lifts and cable cars. Above the slopes of Morzine itself is the higher-altitude resort of Avoriaz, and adjacent to it is Les Gets, which is particularly good for beginners. There were more than enough blue and easy red runs to keep us happy all day. The mood throughout was pleasantly family-friendly, and once we were deeper into the mountains, the crowds around the lifts thinned out.
The balance of intellectual nourishment and physical thrill was quite unique. We returned feeling not just exhilarated from our time in the powder, but with something meaningful as well, with our children prepared to continue to be part of the European family. With Brexit and the severe lockdowns behind us, there could be no better way to move on.
French & Ski Courses, including French tuition, accommodation and ski passes, are provided by Alpine French School. Adults choose from 10 or 20 hours of tuition per week. Children have the choice of private or group tuition. Prices start from €425 per person. Visit alpinefrenchschool.com.
Airport transfers provided by Skiidy Gonzales. Visit skiidygonzales.com or phone +33 4 50 37 36 85.
Ski hire provided by AMR All Mountain Rental. Visit allmountainrental.com.
Ski lessons provided by Billski. Visit billski.co.uk.
For more information about Morzine, visit the Morzine Tourist Office website: morzine-avoriaz.com.