Flaine is the Vivian Westwood of ski resorts; so it was away with the expected Alpine style which has become so hackneyed across the Alps that it can be suffocating. Flaine’s style is certainly challenging; conceived in the 1960s, in the era of ‘Brutalist’ architecture which has been so derided by the general public, but loved by minimalist architects and Guardian readers. Many Brutalist buildings have now been demolished but there is now an undercurrent of recognition for the best of the era. Flaine, the original part is called Flaine Forum has embraced the movement and has preservation orders on its original buildings whilst many new ones follow the style. However, just beyond the main village’s natural boundaries, there has been a total rejection of the style whereby everything is very twee in the Alpine style – Cath Kidston no less.
The accommodation in Flaine is predominantly in apartments, the only hotel is the Hotel Terminal Neige Totem, in one of the original buildings. The entrance is rather low key to the point of questioning whether it is the right building; obviously reflecting and respecting its heritage. Inside, the décor comes alive with colour in a retro style even to the point that they have the original versions of early Atari games consoles, etc. There is a good buzz about the place, most importantly the staff embrace the fact that they are providing people with a pleasurable experience; smiles all round and very helpful. Meals are buffet style with a quality that was really quite accomplished in their three star category.
A highlight for us was to be offered the ‘Loft’, quite where that name emerged is a mystery as no loft would have a playing field size reception room. The fireplace nevertheless dominated the room as it is a massive concrete structure – it enjoys its own preservation listing. Two of the three en suite bedrooms were really quite small whilst the third was more generous. The size of everything is all over the place; the most extreme was the largest private balcony you could ever imagine.
I always like to see and stay in more than one hotel, apartment or chalet to get a balance of what is available. At the recommendation of Erna Low, arguably the UK’s most experienced tour operator (established in 1932), we chose the new apartment complex of Les Terrasses d’Helios nearby the newer and higher part of the resort; Flaine Forét. Happily, there are several very convenient automatic lifts between the two levels. A shuttle bus operates a good service but we chose to walk as the distance is really quite short. Not only is it in a ski-in, ski-out, it is ‘ski-through’ as they have a snow covered route through the building. The style is modern but it uses local stone and timber in its construction whilst the décor is well presented, reflects current tastes and has all the facilities you would want from sauna, Hamman, Jacuzzi, Deep Nature Spa, swimming pool, ski room, etc. to a well-stocked ‘Spar’ shop complete with fresh croissants.
Our apartment was configured to accommodate up to six people with two en suite bedrooms, each with a television and a spacious sitting room complete with a sofa bed. In addition, we had a balcony with views across the valley. The standards throughout would justify a good four star rating if it were a standard hotel offering.
We had chosen Flaine at the last minute for a short break as it is just about an hour and a half from Geneva Airport and one of the very few resorts with enough snow for skiing. However, on the approach to Flaine, the road passes through the four linked villages and their ski runs which is a part of the Grand Massif ski area. It would have been enticing but, as last season, had a sad lack of snow for so many resorts, it was rather frustrating to see the potential, but knowing we would not be able to see and enjoy what promised to be an interesting area in which to ski.
It turned out to be even more frustrating as Flaine has not kept up with the large majority of resorts in their investment in the infrastructure. It was surprising that despite low temperatures, the snow cannon were not used on some much used pistes in the central area; we established that the reservoir’s capacity was too small to cover enough snow cannon even for the most used pistes and the priority was given to other areas.
Decades ago Kitzbuhel had a slow and overcrowded lift system serving its really good ski terrain; the excuse was put down to ‘eco’ considerations. I stopped skiing there but returned recently to find a revitalised resort with a very modern lift system; all is forgiven. I hope Flaine does the same!
Despite the skiing being relatively restricted in area, we found a variety of runs to suit the majority of people; from the gliding slopes through to a couple of black runs that had a character of their own. The lift that serves the top of the Tete des Lindars gives you the option of a good and varied run on red piste and an ‘easy’ black. The black element is mainly the unsighted relatively small drops that can catch you out. The other black is from the top of Les Grandes Platieres, it has a narrow gully as its main challenge; the fearless enter it from the side which sorts the men from the boys whilst the easier option is at the top of the gully.
Given only an average year for snow, the skiing would be good and varied to suit most families and the more accomplished skiers. Off the slopes, it is different in style from the run of the mill resorts and if you ignore some rather uninspiring eateries in the centre and go to the L'Ancolie and Le Michet restaurants, you can forgive those shortcomings.
Erna Low offer the Terminal Neige Totem from £129 per night Room only (2 sharing). www.ernalow.co.uk. https://www.ernalow.co.uk/france/grand-massif/flaine/terminal-neige-totem
Erna Low offer 7 nights at the Terrasses d’Helios from £682. www.ernalow.co.uk
Intersport Rental has some great offers on ski rental for the coming season: www.intersport-rent.fr/en