I am not normally a nervous flyer, but on one flight to Nice, I found myself wrapped in the kind of terror those who fear air travel are often so crippled by. Unbeknownst to me, Nice airport is directly on the coast. From the right hand side of the plane, until the very last second when you touchdown, it looks like you’re about to crash into the sea.
It was a hair-raising introduction to the Côte d'Azur in the South of France. When one pictures the South of France, visions of long, Mediterranean beaches being enjoyed by sun-soaked, leathery locals exposing a little too much flesh than their advancing years suggest they should, spring to mind.
However, while this was yet to come, I was in the South of France to snowboard. It’s a peculiar destination, given the Alpine riches that France has to offer, but riding in the Med’ was too good an opportunity to pass up. My destination was Isola, a small ski town situated in the Southern Alps, just on the Franco-Italian border.
After landing at Nice airport, I headed for my transfer to the resort. Unlike the mini buses or people carriers I’m more accustomed to getting to ski resorts, my carriage was a large and somewhat ageing coach. Furthermore, it wasn’t pulling in to the airport just to take skiers and snowboarders to the mountains.
The coach acted as a bus service for locals. A handful of young families and elderly French women carrying a week’s worth of shopping were already on board. It may not have been luxurious, but the 90-minute commute to the snow cost only €8, which compares favourably to the €40 you’d pay for a similar length journey from Geneva to the French Alps.
As the coach wound its way up the mountain roads, it was strangely hypnotising to see the Mediterranean landmarks, such as lemon yellow houses and boat hire shops give way to more traditional mountain villages and ski rental stores.
It was nightfall by the time I arrived at my hotel - the Pierre & Vacances’ Les Terrasses d’Azur. After a hearty evening meal consisting of a lot of meat and double my bodyweight in cheese, I headed to bed, ready for the next day on the slopes.
It’s a small resort, but with up-to-date facilities, and made up predominantly of easy blue and trickier red runs. These, along with the soft, buttery snow, made for a thoroughly entertaining day of front-foot-heavy charging on boards, messing around, and falling over without getting hurt.
The top of one ski lift took us right to the border of Italy. A small orange piste-rope replaced the usual border control booth. “On a clear day," our guide told us, “you can see Italy in one direction, and the Mediterranean Sea in the other." Despite the blue skies, the day wasn’t quite clear enough to spoil us with such a view.
After what seemed like only minutes passing in the morning, we were told it was time for lunch. Our destination was a piste-side café called The Cow Club. The food was excellent, and plentiful. Maybe a little too excellent and too plentiful.
"Riding in Isola that day ranks among one of my favourite on a snowboard"
An hour later, when it was time to strap my board back on, I found myself having to contend with a cannonball of food in my stomach all of a sudden. Snowboarding while heavily pregnant with pizza, pasta, and an apple tart is not ideal.
There were no complaints however, as the conditions were still superb, so we rode on, albeit maybe a little slower than earlier in the day. It’s hard to tell if it was just the sunshine and handful of beers at lunch that did it, but riding in Isola that day ranks among one of my favourite on a snowboard for some time.
The giddy ecstasy of the day continued long after the lifts closed and the sun set as snowmobiles were arranged to take myself and the group to a small mountain restaurant, back up the slopes. During the day it caters for passing skiers and snowboarders, but at night it is only accessible via snowmobile.
After a safety briefing in broken English that was laced with enough peril to prevent anybody from getting Travis Pastrana-like delusions of grandeur, we headed in pairs to the waiting mountaintop restaurant. The setting, a small but charming wooden chalet, complete with open fire and the occasional stuffed marmot on the wall, was as beautiful as the four courses served.
A particular highlight was a traditional Alpine drink served in a hexagonal bowl with a spout on each surface, designed for hardy, windswept adventurers (or, in this case, slightly tired Brits) to share a communal drink from. It tasted like a boozy combination of coco, orange and rum. As if Oliver Reed had replaced Terry as the man behind Chocolate Oranges. The perfect end to a truly excellent day.
At €110 per head, snowmobile and meal included, it seemed a little indulgent, and maybe not within the budget of everybody visiting Isola, but as a treat for a single evening in a week long trip, it makes for an enjoyable indulgence.
Following breakfast, the next day started in earnest with a 30 minute minibus ride to the nearby resort of Auron. The base of the resort is at a lower altitude than neighbouring Isola, so when we arrived there was no snow to be seen. Instead we were greeted by a small town square with the regular bars, pharmacies and rental shops you’d expect to see in any French ski town.
Assured of snow higher up, we boarded a very old fashioned gondola; the kind of precarious contraption you’re probably see in a Pink Panther film rather than a modern ski resort. Just as it started its ascent of the hill, one of the doors opened slightly, giving the man standing near it legitimate cause for concern. Happily, the 15 or so of us aboard made it to the top in one piece.
Stepping out of the gondola onto the snow proved something of a shock. Underfoot, the snow was hard and slippery, not soft and forgiving like the day before. It had frozen over night and, despite the fact that the sky was a beautiful blue, unbroken by cloud, the sun had done nothing to make conditions easier.
I was met by a local guide who was going to take me off separate from the rest of the group to find some areas that suited snowboarding. “Don’t worry," he said with the kind of French accent that would be at home on a 1980s British sit-com, “I think the sun will have softened the snow at the top". So, assured, I strapped in and took a chair to the top of the mountain.
"A fall would have been bone-shattering"
As we passed over the pistes below, I noted how nice the area looked. If Isola was like a small village resort, Auron resembled more of a former farming area. It was smaller, more rustic, and on that day the slopes were all but deserted.
As we reached the top, I got off the lift and immediately noticed the much promised sun-softened snow was absent. In it’s place, more ice. Hard, unforgiving ice. A fall on this stuff would have been bone-shattering - a fear that my guide confirmed.
After departing the chair lift, I gingerly picked my way down a slope. It was only a blue run, and a fairly tame one at that, but the snow conditions - or rather ice conditions - made for hard work. The fun of the previous day seemed like a long time ago. It felt like a war of attrition between myself and gravity. By half way down I realised why the slopes were so empty.
Of course, to hold these conditions against Auron would be unfair. After all, you can book the holiday, and you can book the local guide, but you can’t book the weather. On another day, with more forgiving slopes, Auron would have been an absolute blast. However, this was not that day.
By early afternoon I met up with the rest of the group and we all broke for lunch at a piste-side restaurant. It was equally as delicious, if a little more expensive that the day before in Isola.
After the meal some of the group went back up the mountain to contend with the insufferable ice once again. Instead, I opted for the safety of the local bar-lined town square beneath, where a cold beer in the warm spring sun proved a much more rewarding alternative to battling the conditions further up the hill.
By late afternoon we transferred back to Isola, where we enjoyed more traditional alpine food in a local restaurant called Raclette.
"...it felt like I was in an entirely different country"
I always find the last day on the slopes of any snowboarding trip a somewhat mournful experience, pondering when the next time I’ll have chance to snowboard again will be. The urge to make the most of it can so often crush any pleasure that’s to be had. However, Isola offers a panacea that many other French alpine resorts can’t - a beach holiday at the end of the snowboard holiday.
With Nice just 90 minutes away, the temptation to spend my third and final day there proved irresistible. Back on board the old coach, I gazed lazily out of the window as it made its way down winding mountain roads, and through small villages as the snow slowly disappeared, giving way again to hints of my Mediterranean destination.
It was late morning when I arrived in Nice. Although the snow-capped mountains I’d left that morning were less than two hours away, it felt like I was in an entirely different country.
From the art-deco style hotels that lined the promenade, to the leathery-skinned 60 somethings stripping off on the beach ahead of a dip in the glistening ocean – I was now firmly in the Mediterranean. In the very heart of the Cote d’Azur.
The city, flavoured as much by neighbouring Italy as France, had a warm, dog-eared charm about it. It was market day when I was there, which was an impressive display of colour and scents, as stallholders and locals jostled for space among the assorted fruit, flowers, and confectionaries on sale.
Sat at the bottom of the market was a large, mustard yellow building containing the apartment that revered French artist Henri Matisse once called home.
Further away from the sea front and the market, small, twisting backstreets, shadowed from the sun, reminded me of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona. In fact, Nice as a whole would make an excellent substitute for anybody looking for a smaller alternative to the Catalan capital.
The south of France may not be at the top of many people's list when it comes to planning a snow trip, but it proved to be an excellent location for an end of season break. A combination of the warm sunshine and varied locations made the three days feel like a much longer trip. Indeed, the horror of the flight in, by the time I was ready to leave, felt like a long time ago.
While the snow side of the trip was good - Isola in particular being excellent - the real treat was the day in Nice. A holiday within a holiday. It felt like an indulgent luxury, but when such a treat an €8 coach ride away, it is a guilt-free pleasure that more people should enjoy.