Chalet Aurore, Meribel
We whip through the Blackwall Tunnel, exhausts flaring and roaring, enjoying the hum and purr of the monstrous engine restrained in this glowing rocket. Headlights flit-flit-flit through the central reservation but our eyes are on the lookout for Gatsos, flashing blue lights and undercover coppers. We’re encapsulated in a quiet pod, a super-smooth ride that’s surprisingly easy to drive for a vehicle of this power; the quiet breaks when you put pedal to metal and suddenly you’ve hit the ‘on’ switch – she roars up to speed (yes, she is a she). You feel more like you’re flying that driving – it’s a smooth effortless drive, the steering is light and responsive.
There were, as per usual, all the debates about French speed limits. “It’s 90”, someone had chimed in before we left. Ks or mph? Who knows, who cares – we’re tearing up asphalt, watching like hawks for any signs. Fast drivers beware – in France le cinq-zero just love to lurk behind bridges. Masters of disguising their blue motors, they know all the stash points and are quite happy to slap you with a hefty fine (up to 350 Euros) or impound your motor. Now the danger of a ride like the Ferrari California is that you’re happily tearing up the road and she’s so smooth you won’t even notice that you’re touching a ton – and you won’t hear it either. Anyway, the French police are set on being a bunch of spoilsports – I’m sure they’d be happier making cheese or wine or some such genteel occupation. Saying that, some of the cheeses we sampled were far from genteel – when a cheese creates a physical wall of smell it’s time to run for the hills.
It turns out after a spot of impromptu research (god bless the mobile internet) that the speed limit is 130km/h on the motorway (and thus the route of choice for speed freaks) – but be warned, get caught doing over 50km/h over said limit and risk having your car forcibly removed – not an entertaining way to start your holiday. Still – do a bit more research: check out what the French cameras look like, keep an eye on your map for any road-spanning bridges and you’ll be off to a flying start. Not that we’d suggest going over the speed limit. Obviously.
Putting England behind us as we chug across the narrow sea, shrouded in low-lying mist that means as soon as we turn our backs, our homeland has disappeared; the white cliffs have vanished into a thick fog that encircles us until we almost hit the coast of France. The joy of taking the ferry route is that virtually as soon as we bump into the French coastline, we’re back in the comfort of la California, resuscitating its beating heart, before we rumble out of the bowels of the ship and we’re back on the road again, the car eating up the miles like the hungry machine it is. We’re craving a bit of sunshine – the roof is begging to slip away effortlessly into the boot.She’s subtle, understated and not a flashy car – although still a definite head-turner, those blue-white lights let you know something stonking is on the way. Up close, her lines cut a slick, aerodynamic shape – part space age, part lithe creature.
The age-old expression that getting there is the adventure, couldn’t have been more true. With Satnav systems doing away with the mystery, the days of stumbling upon somewhere out of the ordinary or seeing inspiring sights by accident are gone – but so is the several hours of negotiating Paris’s crappy traffic system. It’s been a hefty blight on some of the journeys I’ve taken to the Alps, often a pain-in-the-arse stumbling block seemingly devised by the French to trap us British wayfarers. Even Sally Satnav gets a little confused, but we manage to put Paris behind us and hit the highway with a foot craving to press pedal to metal. And we do. Needless to say, a discussion of quite how fast we went might land us in a spot of bother with the long arm of the law, but let’s just say, there’s a lot of green blur in France and not a lot of coppers on the road; a race through one of the tunnels along the Route Nationale with a souped-up Supra was of particular amusement and stops every few hundred miles to fill up the guzzling beast provided a few moments of tranquillity and the occasional bland sandwich (a Michelin-starred meal compared to England’s motorway stops, in fairness).
The French Alps are where the fun really begins. We hit them at dusk, purple skies and glistening peaks catching the last of the waning sun. Whichever god you pray too, he must have built these mountains knowing that one day someone would come along and carve sweeping roads through them, built to test a car and driver, to stun and excite, to encourage and tease, to reward and punish. If you’ve ever watched a shark cut its powerful path deep within its own territory, watched it flex its muscles and plough fearlessly through the water, then that should give you glimpse of what both car and road do through these mountains.
Up here is where we really get to feel the traction control in its full glory – there’s none of the power-loss you expect when it kicks in. It’s an utterly smooth transition with no noticeable shift in the handling and ride of the car – someone’s invested serious time turning this car into a terrain-conquering beast.
After a few hours of exquisite driving and a couple of oh-god moments when car and driver both nearly took the quick route down, we touch down at Meribel. Arriving at night, the lights of the car cause the snow to twinkle like a thousand crystals illuminated by a caver’s torch. The town is typical Alps – all unfinished wood, piles of snow, dim swaying yellow bulbs, mysterious lights shining from somewhere up, up and away on the sides of the mountain. Iridescent beams from the snow-plough’s fog lights cutting through the night sky and illuminating great swathes of the mountain as it swings back and forth, smoothing and shifting the snow for tomorrow’s ski.
Chalet Aurore is the perfect foil to our long, exhilarating journey. As soon as we step inside, it’s warm, comfortable, retaining that chalet feel without being contrived, without feeling like you’ve stepped into an Abba video or that you’re going to have to sit next to a sweaty naked man in the sauna. Wooden-carved beams giving a subtle nod to the genre, while all around you feel like you’re somewhere more sophisticated, more developed, more stylish. Flatscreens, an enclosed fireplace, a real coffee machine and the occasional subdued clatter from the kitchen all reassure that this is no ordinary mountain retreat. A walk outside provides further proof – a long, beautifully blue pool hides outside, warm enough to jump in even on a wintry night; a hot tub steams and fizzes, ready to ease away the day’s aches and the perfect counterpart to an icy beer. The views are stunning; the mountains stretch away, as the sun arches round the back of our palatial wooden retreat, it slips slowly between two peaks, bathing the mountains in amber light. Staff are on hand to supply the needy with delicious chow and more beverages in the tub, if you’re still peckish after the spread laid on for your return from the mountains.
We chat with the Aurore chefs – how do we like to eat, plated or family style; what sort of food are we into – classic French, Thai, Italian; when do we want to eat. We try a mix – on the first night we go formal and the food is as good as any we’ve tucked into in England’s finest eateries, made with a deft and skilled hand. Jerusalem artichokes are a smooth partner for the fork-soft braised beef cheeks in their dark, sticky sauce. On the following night we take it casual, a slow roast leg of lamb to please a crowd. Both are brilliant, as is the service – relaxed, casual but polite, efficient and happy to accommodate even a troublesome rabble like us. The same staff work throughout – breakfast, lunch and dinner and are happy to arrange everything. Phone numbers are handed round for collection from the mountains, restaurants are recommended for dining out, suggestions of pistes to try are given. Skis are collected and dropped off, boots are warmed before we head out, pockets stuffed with bars of chocolate to scoff in a moment’s rest snatched on a chairlift. Instructions are given for the more advanced skiers in the party to try a cross-country route back to the chalet. “Easy,” they tell us – we end up skiing through four-foot deep snow, jumping a river and firing sparks off our skis down a road. They are surprised – they haven’t skied the route for a year or two and will be checking it out. We show off battle scars and are happy with an ‘extreme’ skiing story to tell. We regale our comrades and are met with cheers and back slaps. A happy time. We drink and then party late, only telling the story several more times to impress the models present. A glorious spread saves us at breakfast – stuffed with croissants, fresh juice and granola, we head back out up into the mountains.
The slopes of Meribel are excellent for all levels of skier and boarder. Two of us head out with a guide to conquer a treacherous part of the mountain. Several hours of hard skiing later, we look back at the side of the mountain we’ve beaten and can’t even see a clear path from our vantage point. We call for a pick up, head back to the base of the mountain and join the others in our group who are happily trundling round the more gentle slopes – we ride hard and fast, cutting corners, dropping through trees to wind up our friends but they are having as much fun as us. For the young and beginners, the mountain offers up the shallowest of slopes closest to its base. For the advanced, it hides challenges in its furthest recesses, off the beaten track and away from the masses.
Snow. Mountains. Chefs. Ferraris. Hot tubs. There’re not many times in life when all of the above will collide so harmoniously and uproariously.
And to have done so courtesy of Ferrari and the lovely people at Consensio and the Chalet Aurore only makes this jammy bugger feel even more jammy, an utter compote, if you will. I could talk about the journey back in the car, how we gave the models a lift, but, well, why rub salt into the wound? Mother always told me to play humble because people never like a show off. Sorry, Mother.
For more information on Chalet Aurore visit consensioholidays.co.uk or call +44(0)203 393 08333, for information on visiting Meribel visit meribel.net and for details on the Ferrari California, visit ferrari.com.