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Picture the scene: you're in a warm, woodsy brasserie perched in the French Alps, peckish after a morning's fun and games in the snow, snuggling up around a table with loved ones and new friends and licking your lips at the prospect of a deliciously cheesy lunch. There, on the table, emitting a heavenly scent to any fromage fan, is a bubbling pot of Fondue Savoyarde – a speciality of the Savoie region of France in which we're holidaying.
Cooked with white wine and garlic, this creamy ensemble is flavoured with three different alpine cow's milk cheeses – comte, emmental and beaufort – and is nigh on impossible to look at, and smell, without wanting to dip in your fork, to which you can attach crusty chunks of baguette nestled in the bread baskets on the table.
Exceedingly tempting, too, is raclette, another pungent alpine cheese that's being toasted to near-melting point on a small grill. We just have to scrape it off and drip it on to our baked potatoes and charcuterie. Complemented by vinaigrette-laced salads, Chignin-Bergeron (a crisp Savoie white wine) and a dessert of blueberry tart, whipped cream and espresso, this is a typical lunch in the Savoie region, and indeed in other parts of the Alps, and brings not just immense satisfaction but also provides fuel for further alpine adventures in the afternoon.
As we depart Brasserie des Pistes, the chalet-style venue for this calorific feast, the easiest thing to do would be to get back on the real pistes. A two-minute walk down the mountain-side, below the brasserie's sun terrace, is one of the myriad chairlifts of the Paradiski region, one of the Alps' premier winter sports areas.
Boasting 425 kilometres of ski runs, with altitudes ranging from 1200 metres to 3250 metres, Paradiski is spread across the gorgeous Tarentaise valley and sub-divided into three major zones: Les Arcs, Peisey-Vallandry and La Plagne. We're staying at Club Med Peisey-Vallandry, which is located at virtually the midway point of the region.
Walk, ski or snowboard out of the resort's back door and you'll find apres-ski bars, said chairlift (which whisks you to a variety of slopes suitable for all levels) and the Vanoise Express, a cable car that links Peisey-Vallandry with La Plagne. It bobs 1824 metres across the valley – and 380 metres above the valley floor at its highest point – in just four minutes.
We board this engineering marvel using the Paradiski pass that allows you to hop on the region's buses, chairlifts and funiculars (Club Med guests get the pass for "free" as part of its all-inclusive package). Unveiled in 2003 and made up of two double-decker cars that can each hold 200 people, the Vanoise Express is the longest cable car in the world without pylons.
Right now, we probably wouldn't be able to see any pylons even if there were any. The sun had been wrestling with the fog all morning and the fog has temporarily won the battle, wreathing the whole valley. In clear weather, spectacular views are a given through the windows and glass-bottomed floors, with everything from quaint little alpine villages to Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain, there to be gawped at.
As we close in on La Plagne, however, we can just about make out the tips of the frozen pine trees we're drifting above. My fellow passengers debate which movie or TV show this spooky scene reminds them of. There's talk of Game of Thrones and its zombie White Walkers. Some of the older folk – OK, me – mention The Fog, a 1980 film by horror director John Carpenter. A few hours later, I find myself wallowing in nostalgia once more and daydreaming about The Chronicles of Narnia. I half expect the White Witch or Aslan to make an appearance as we tramp through the magical, snow-drenched Vanoise National Park, a few kilometres from our resort.
With the fog-induced poor visibility dashing any post-lunch downhill skiing plans, we opt for a safer and more leisurely activity: snowshoeing. We clip on our plastic snow-shoes, and grab some walking poles at the park's Nordic Centre, a chalet-style hub where you can hire equipment and source maps detailing local trails.
With the fog dissipating, we hike, in the company of local guides Yann and Marie, through this sublime slice of countryside – France's first national park, founded in 1963 –beneath towering, pine-carpeted peaks and past avenues of larch trees, sprinkled with white powder. Apart from the sound of us scrunching through the snow, and of water trickling under ice-blanketed streams, it's blissfully silent. It would have been much noisier here a few centuries ago, says Marie. She reveals that this was a bustling silver and lead mining area and we pass an abandoned stone building, formerly the French School of Mines, where engineering students from across the country would come to learn their trade.
Back then, the area was called Monts d'Argent ("mountains of silver", or money). A little further on, we come to a cluster of rustic wooden homes, icicles hanging from the roofs, in the one-street hamlet of Beaupraz aux Lanches. There is no sign of life as we shuffle along. We're told people live here in summer but in winter it's empty, almost eerily so, due to the threat of avalanches. With our cold breath wisping through the air and the setting sun causing bursts of pink and purple to mark the darkening sky, we return to the Nordic Centre, where the effects of a particularly torrid avalanche in 1995 are depicted in framed wall photos. Then we return, by bus, to base camp where roaring fires, hot chocolate, cocktails and nibbles await in the welcoming lounge area of Club Med Peisey-Vallandry.
Decked out with plush leather and fabric sofas, stone columns and timber beams, this 284-room resort opened in 2006 and is set to be "refreshed" over the next two northern summers. It has a quainter, more traditional alpine vibe than Club Med Les Arcs Panorama, which was unveiled, 10 kilometres away as the bearded vulture flies, last December.
While not as cool and contemporary as its sleek new baby sister, Club Med Peisey-Vallandry resort has a cosy charm, with many of the same perks and facilities as Les Arcs Panorama, such as free skiing and snowboarding classes, heated indoor and outdoor pools, all-inclusive meals and alcohol and quirky evening entertainment by the affable, youthful Club Med staff known as GOs (gentils organisateurs).
The Peisey-Vallandry location, with its cute village setting and wide array of easily-accessible slopes, might have more appeal, especially for beginners. And, as we discovered, if you fancy a break from the pistes and the resort, you're not short of alternative activities, whether it's fondue-munching in local brasseries or falling under the spell of the beguiling Vanoise National Park.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN VANOISE NATIONAL PARK
Harking back to the days when hardy alpine folk would use skis to chase game and gather firewood, this form of skiing involves propelling yourself across snow-covered terrain, and guarantees a good upper-body workout.
HORSE AND PONY RIDES
Trot through the snowy forests in the saddle, keeping an eye out for local wildlife such as the alpine ibex, a type of wild goat that flourishes in these mountains.
Try your hand at one of the most watchable of the Winter Olympic events, combining skiing and rifle shooting.
Glide across the park's winter wonderland in a husky-pulled sled and learn how to harness, steer and brake.
A step up from snow-shoeing, you'll eat up more ground – and burn off more calories – with this fast-paced hiking technique.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Club Med and Peisey-Vallandry Tourism Board.
The nearest train station to Peisey-Vallandry is Gare de Landry, a five-hour trip from Paris. See en.oui.sncf
A seven-night winter stay (December-April) at Club Med Peisey-Vallandry is from $2385 a person; children under four, free. Nearest airports to the resort are Grenoble and Geneva, about 2½ hours by road. See clubmed.com