Sacrificing a good night's sleep in order to catch the first short haul flight of the day, Sarah O'Meara discovers the art of the ski weekend
Once a luxurious adventure suitable only for James Bond, families with hyphenated surnames and tax dodgers, skiing has now become an great holiday choice for everyone.
But it's only in the last few years that new, innovative holiday companies have started toying with the limitations of the Seventies-style week package and giving more choice to those who want to ski frequently, for short periods – and not very much money.
You can now nip off for three days skiing, two nights sleep, at a relatively low price, in order to keep those ski legs fresh. And having headed to the slopes with Skiweekender.com, I can confirm that during the course of one weekend, the turnover of guests at their lodge near the resort of La Clusaz, just an hour from Geneva, is dizzying.
"It is more work," admits Jess Shirley-Smith from Skiweekender.com, over a beer, at the end of a long day working at Les Aravis lodge. "Our aim is to make sure not a minute of a guest's time is wasted."
Sure enough, we were on the slopes within two hours of arriving at Geneva airport and could immediately see the benefits of this kind of trip. Arriving mid-week for a short stay in March, the airport was quiet, and with our ski passes and equipment organised in advance, we were propelled effortlessly on to the deserted slopes by the grinning, youthful Skiweekender staff.
Instead of being part of the weekend rush, we had the chance to ski like locals and found fighting the fatigue a little easier than normal with the help of blasting fresh air, exercise and the odd biere, s'il vous plait.
"Staffing this kind of lodge is expensive," says Jess, hours later, when we're back in the lodge and plonked beside the bar.
"Chalets tend to be run by couples, so it's a different business model, but we work it out so the costs aren't passed on to the customer. French hotels won't do it this way; that's one of the reasons we ended up buying this hotel ourselves."
Skiweekender.com offer a wide range of packages to suit the individual, rather than the needs of a tour operator: "We make sure everything is on tap as soon as guests get here," says Jess. "The boots, lift passes, rides to the lifts – all those things which usually hold you up. And you also pay for these up front, rather than getting there and suddenly wondering where 300 euros went!"
The internet has meant that Jess and the team can compete with more established companies, and lure people with their promise of flexibility and low-cost fun.
"For us, the internet and Easyjet are key!" laughs Jess. "People like the idea they can take a day or two off work and they're off down the slopes. We see people coming back again and again. One guy has been three times, and blames his skiing addiction on us. Apparently we make made it too easy!"
According to Jess, just 10 to 15 years ago, only those with plenty of time of their hands could really get into skiing. But now people are realising you can take time off to hit the slopes without sacrificing your summer holiday.
"For us, the short break is definitely growing. I'd say 95 per cent of our customers come for just a few days."
It's interesting to meet other ski-weekenders that evening over dinner. Like a band of adventurers, the spirited group quickly let their hair down (we've only got a few days after all) and gassed on about how great it all is, until late into the night.
From families with kids to a group of girlfriends wanting a weekend away from the city, Skiweekender.com attracts a range of types with one thing in common – a love of winter sports.
La Clusaz is a great resort, too. Filled with local skiers and families, it's not for those who like to go to bed at dawn, but perfect for a few days of mastering the moguls or chilling out on the easy slopes, before topping it off with a biere and croque monsieur.
And as you've literally only got a few days, most visitors tend to 'party' at the lodge, where you'll always find someone wanting to have good conversation.
"We really cater for the UK market, because that gives us a very specific flight window pick up time between 3pm and 9pm," says Jess, which certainly explains the sound of British voices echoing round the bar.
The tight scheduling also means guests are allowed to keep their rooms until 5pm on their day of check out, so you really do fall out of the hotel and into the airport.
"We want this to be a home from home," says Jess. "Each year we add a bit more, a sauna last year, a terrace next year."
Despite having only been at Les Aravis a few days, by the time we're picked up on the Monday, it feels like a whole week has flown by.
We agree we'll definitely be back to enjoy a few more days, skiing in the shadow of Mont Blanc.
LA CLUSAZ, FRANCE – Escape to the slopes with minimum hassle. For great deals visit www.skiweekender.com (01202 661 865).
GRANADA, SPAIN – Wicked Campers are offering a budget snow special to Spain's southernmost ski resort, where you can ski and sunbathe. Prices for van hire, accommodation, ski pass and equipment hire start from 147 per person, based on two nights. Visit www.wickedcampers.co.uk.
OSTELLO DOLOMITI, ITALY – Located in the heart of Paneveggio Natural Park, just two hours from both Venice and Cortina, guests can ski straight on to the beautiful Dolomite Mountains. Visit www.hostelworld.com. Rates from 23 per person per night and flights from 38 with Ryanair.
FRENCH ALPS – Take a coach from London Victoria Bus Station and wake up Brides les Bains. Visit Skiweekends.com (08444 060 600) and Crystalski.co.uk (0871 231 5655) for package deals.