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France: Merry Méribel

Méribel turns 80 this season. Beloved by Brits, few know that it was an Anglo-Scottish tourist who turned this French resort into the very first ski hub in the Three Valleys

France: Merry Méribel
Méribel Altiport in the 1960s. Image: Méribel Tourisme

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The lift is, if not a thing of beauty then certainly one of joyful audacity. As I peer closer at the grainy sepia photo, my suspicions are confirmed: Méribel’s very first ski lift was simply a tractor engine roped to a giant sledge, on top of which a clutch of rickety metal cafe chairs had been bolted. This télétraineau looks somewhere between a novelty horse and carriage ride, and a miniature train; the sort of thing bonkers Victorians might have made sport with in city parks, but this is no gentle jig. Back in the 1930s, this contraption carried skiers from the Doron Pub about half a mile up the mountainside to the Telebar Hotel. A triumph of bloody-minded determination over proven ability, it’s redolent of something only a Brit of a certain era would come up with.

I’m in the museum at Méribel Les Allues, searching for a ghost. Not a ghostly gondola but a man: a chap called Peter Lindsay. Given that Lindsay is responsible for founding the resort of Méribel as we know it, you’d think his footsteps would be easy to follow, but they’re as hard to trace as tracks under snow. Outside of these museum walls, there’s scant physical evidence that he ever existed. He arrived here in the winter of ’36, touring over from Austria, his usual terrain, to explore the peaks around Les Allues. Alongside a local and an Austrian guide, Lindsay made a fairly arduous climb up La Saulire (8,980ft) on skins (grippy ski attachments), to ski into the valley on a route that won his heart; one of the region’s most celebrated runs.

Back then, skiing here was largely the preserve of army national service brigades; the likes of Chamonix and Megève were fast developing, but as winter sports resorts dominated by climbing, luge, curling and bobsleigh. Seeing ski resort potential, Lindsay teamed up with a local Count, Jean Gaillard de la Valdenne and, with a bit of subsequent interference from the Second World War, Méribel was born. “There was English and French investment, a plot of land was sold, a ski lift went up — it was very gradual,” says Lindsay’s son, David, a former instructor with the local ski school who spent childhood winters in Les Allues. “There were télécabines — lifts commonly known as ‘yoghurt pots’ by the British — plus some other tech, but it was very basic by modern standards. Méribel was the first development in the Three Valleys; Courchevel came next but, backed by French state money, it developed more quickly.”

Right in the heart of the Three Valleys, skiers in modern Méribel have instant access to the world’s largest ski area: 370 miles of inter-connected runs, with lifts that funnel punters out swiftly across wide, open, remarkably crowd-free pistes. This lack of crush might be, today at least, because it’s uncharacteristically cold: a breathtaking -22C. Nonetheless, I spend a glorious morning briskly skiing over to Courchevel 1850, Mont Blanc sitting pretty on the horizon, sporting a bobble hat of cloud in an otherwise clear, cobalt blue sky. I’m accompanied by Julie Pomagalski, Snowboard Cross World Cup Champion 1999, who now runs local ski school and equipment hire outfit, Prosneige. She’s also the granddaughter of Jean Pomagalski, who invented the torture device of choice for nursery slopes worldwide: the pommel lift.

That’s how they roll (or slide) in Méribel: a small resort with some serious snow sports credentials. Usually a snowboarder (a constantly injured one), I switch to skis for my duration here, guided by Julie’s enthusiastic recommendation of some state-of-the-art, all-mountain ‘rocker’ skis. “You’ll love these,” she grins. “You can play on them like a board.” They’re self-drive, vibration-free beauties, leaving me time to take in the scenery, get some miles under my skis and even scoot up for lunch a little bit early. Just as well, the menu is a mountainous côte de boeuf with an equally weighty bottle of Sainte-Estephe Bordeaux at Le Clos Bernard, a pretty wooden chalet restaurant hidden in a glade of trees, just off Méribel’s Route de l’Altiport.

This secluded spot is just one of numerous tips delivered by our chalet concierge. How things have changed since tractor-lift times. Concierges, hot tubs, screening rooms, chauffeurs, and professional chefs: standard offering for local chalet specialist, Meriski. The company’s smart rental properties are among the increasing number populating the surrounding hamlets. Once-modest Méribel has become quite the fashionable resort. But, with Champagne, canapes and four-course menus tempting skiers back to base, apres here is usually an at-home affair. With plenty of traditional hearty Savoyard dishes available on piste, our chef, Richard Boggie is wise enough to serve up light, elegant dishes — among them a truly remarkable braised ox cheeks — and wafer-thin charcuterie instead of cake, post-ski teatime. All of which means we’ve got just enough oomph left to make it into town.

Here, I find a small scattering of bars, none of which name checks the town’s founder on its signage; Lindsay is equally absent in the christening of surrounding restaurants and hotels. So, I’m not surprised to find there’s no gleaming statue of the man, either. Instead, a giant teddy bear sculpture crowns a central roundabout. In L’Abreuvoir, a rather sleek bar where fake birch trees ‘grow’ artfully through the floor, I hear promises of a ‘big event’ to celebrate Lindsay’s founding of the town (now set for 14 February 2018), and even a related book to be published. But for now, most visitors remain clueless as to the resort’s provenance. 

“After father died, development of the resort was pretty rapid; quickly sold off to lift companies and property developers,” says David. The 1992 Winter Olympics in nearby Albertville saw the addition of a much-needed highway and a cable-car linking the resort with the transport hub town of Brides-Les-Bains, Méribel stepped into the modern world, leaving tractors and its founder behind. Back in the museum, I’m drawn to the town’s first tourist brochure, from winter 1948: it advertises three modern draglifts, 100 pistes (in whatever definition of the time), and the SNCF arrival time from Paris — an overnight service to Les Moutiers, where cars bleus (old charabancs) would then transport travellers an hour up to the pistes. From télétraineau to Snow Train, Méribel has come a long way, largely thanks to the now invisible man, Peter Lindsay.  

Essentials

How to do it
Méribel specialist, Meriski offers a week, full-board in one of its luxury catered chalets from €995pp (£878), with a chalet host, professional chef and in-resort driver service. Lift passes and equipment can be arranged.

More info
Equipment hire: prosneige.fr
Méribel Tourisme: meribel.net
Museum of Les Allues: T: 00 33 (0)4 79 00 59 08

Published in the Winter Sports 2017 guide, distributed with the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)