Wednesday, 19 March 2014

L'Aiguille Percee, Mark Warner

First up, I'm sorry for the quality of some of these shots.  I don't quite know what happened (let's just go with lots and lots of free wine shall we?) and some of them are a little blurry!  I was using our travel camera, which costs about £12 and takes me a while to get used to but a good photographer should never blame their equipment either (just as good shots should never trigger the question 'what camera do you use' but rather 'how did you develop your composition eye').  Asking a photographer what camera they use is a bit like asking a good cook what oven they use. I'm sticking with the lots and lots of free wine argument.
When you go skiing the slopes are obviously the main attraction, but it helps to have somewhere to sleep at night.

Normally when we go on skiing holidays we stay in hotels on a half board basis.  I had never considered a chalet style holiday before, let alone one with a UK based company, but we were running out of options.  Most places we looked at were fully booked and the only ones with availability were costing upwards of 3 times our budget.  We needed somewhere and fast.
I had lost track of the amount of hotels all over Europe Steve had asked me to look at.  Some were too expensive, some were too far from the slopes, some didn't have a spa, some didn't include meals, some the boot hire and ski passes were too expensive, some didn't have good snow, some had a 4 hour coach transfer (I realise how picky this makes me sound - most of them had all of these problems and we don't go skiing often enough to compromise when we spend our money!).  We were getting frustrated and worried that we wouldn't be going away at this rate.  Suddenly a hotel appeared with Mark Warner that was perfect - we snaffled it up, sent our money over to book and in the 30 seconds it took for the money to clear, the final room had gone in our hotel of choice.  We had been beaten and were back at square 1.

That's when Mark Warner stepped in.  Steve spoke to the rep we had been liaising with, told him our budget and our priorities (close to the slopes, half board at least, spa) and let him run with it.  5 minutes later Steve called me on my lunch break.

S:  "Are you at a computer?"
B: "Yep"
S: "A room has just opened in a hotel that hadn't been available before as it was fully booked.  I'm sending you a link that Mark Warner have just sent me.  Call me when you have had a look".

The link I was sent was for the Hotel L'Aiguille Percee in Tignes.  I looked at the link and then looked it up on Trip Advisor.  It seemed to good to be true and I'm a naturally suspicious person.  I picked up the phone and hit speed dial.

B: "Is this right?"
S :"What?"
B: "7 nights, bed, hot and cold buffet breakfast, afternoon tea and cakes, 3 course gourmet dinner, unlimited wine with dinner, free lift passes, flights, transfers, free spa centre with pool, sauna and steam room and 2 for 1 ski hire all within our budget, hotel recently refurbished and a stones throw from the slopes?"
S: "Ummm, yep"
B: (very suspicious) "What's the catch?"
S: "No catch"

At this point I was quite glad my colleague who shares my room had decided to go on a long lunchtime walk with some of the girls in our office. 
I must confess, this still all sounded far too good to be true and I was expecting the hotel to be a real dive when we got there.

Getting there was the first challenge.  Due to various reasons (motorway accident and being stuck in the check in queue despite telling the airline we were there and what time our gate closed) we managed to miss our flight by 4 minutes, and thus our transfer to the hotel.  By this I mean that they closed the gate 4 minutes before we got to it, being stuck in the queue I'd already mentioned to the flight operator, letting them know we were there and were in the queue (grrr), and 45 minutes later we had to watch the flight take off without us.

Luckily we managed to get seats on a later flight thanks to a very nice VIP Ski rep, but we were still stuck with regards to the transfer.  Steve called the hotel.  

"Don't panic" said Sean from Mark Warner who was at the hotel we were desperately trying to get to.  "Just get to Grenoble airport, get into the country, we are talking to Mike the Logistics Manager at the moment and we will try and get you here".

In the meantime we looked at taxi transfers from Grenoble to Tignes (€450, ouch), trains (€300 odd, ouch) and coaches (€150 and we could only get as far as Aimes, still hours away from Tignes and after that we were stuck, ouch).  It was looking bleak.

We boarded the plane, and took our seats, more than a little concerned that we were going to be stuck in France or utterly broke just trying to get to our hotel.

At the other end, I waited despondently at the carousel for the bags to come out whilst Steve went to see if a rep from any of the ski companies were there to ask if there were a couple of spare seats on their coaches we could purchase.  He came bounding back in.  

S: "Do you want the good news or the bad news?"
B: "Bad news" (I'm clearly a suspicious pessimist)
S: "There are no seats on the coaches to Tignes.
B: (groan)
S: "The good news is that Mike the Logistics Manager from Mark Warner is waiting with his own car and is going to drive us to Tignes.
B: (blank stare, grabs bags, legs it out of the airport and nearly kisses poor Mike the Logistics Manager from Mark Warner)

To give you some context here - Mike had been up since 4am.  It was now 3pm, he had been waiting at the airport for 3 hours just for us (having seen the rest of the passengers onto their coach) and he now had a 3 hour drive, the last hour of which was in the wrong direction from his house to drop us off at the hotel.

Howzat for customer service?  Mike, I know you told us to stop saying Thank You and wouldn't accept any money, even a contribution to the petrol, but seriously.  Thank You.

We arrived at the hotel and I was stunned.  A dive this was not - the photo's really don't do it justice.  We had Room 102, a large double room on the ground floor with French doors leading out to the shared deck with a fantastic view.  
There was 1 other room right next to us that was occupied (a lovely couple we got chatting to whilst we were all relaxing on the deck in the sun post skiing) and the sauna, spa and crèche were all on the same corridor as us.  There was a large bathroom with bath and power shower (plenty of hot water) and heated towel rail (essential for drying the hand-washing, and believe me, you want to hand-wash ski socks on a daily basis), a separate toilet, corridor with large wardrobe and shelves and pull down bunk beds that we didn't use.  
The bedroom had twin Austrian beds that we pushed together, large TV with about 10 English channels, small dressing table, two small side tables, side lamps and hooks for hanging up your ski clothes.  The rooms were warm, cosy and comfortable with carpet on the floors and heavy curtains to block out the dawn sun.  Steve was most excited about the fact that all the plug sockets worked with the adapters without having to wiggle them into strange positions!  We spent most evenings after dinner relaxing in the room, watching a film on the TV.  The only thing it lacked was tea and coffee making facilities, although there was an unlimited supply up in the restaurant that you could help yourself to until midnight; we just bought cups down and I took a litre bottle of water and glasses down to the room every night as well as I would wake very thirsty.
Upstairs was the games room with the pool table, the cosy bar filled with bar games and the restaurant (no photo's - it would have been a bit odd for other guests!).  All areas have been recently refurbished and were completed to a very high alpine standard with plenty of exposed wood and soft furnishings.
The bar really became a bit of a hub, especially when the French-Irish Rugby Match was on!  Kids would run around quite happily, playing scrabble and Jenga with their families.  It wasn't just the kids who enjoyed a quick game of Jenga either!
Next to the bar is the games room and a separate soft furnishing area to sit and work on a laptop or read a book in.
Downstairs was the sauna and steam room and the resistance pool.  This space was open all day and whilst I was originally worried it may get crowded, we never had a problem getting in, even at the peak time between 4pm and 7pm!  Be warned though, kids are allowed in the pool despite what the signs say (although obviously not the steam room and sauna) and they can get quite splashy! The picture doesn't show it as this was taken quite late at night when it was turned off, but on the wall on the left hand side there is a massage fountain that comes out of the wall to pound tired shoulders, and at the bottom of the picture there is a control for the resistance jet which was powerful enough to push me to the far end!
I only used the pool once as it was quite cold, but I spent a good half hour between the sauna and the steam room every day to relax tired muscles and chat with other guests about their day on the slope.  There is an ice bucket that you can tip onto your head straight out of the sauna if you are feeling brave as well!
Next to the sauna and pool area was the spa.  There were a good variety of treatments on offer, all of them reasonably priced, including hot stone massage, sports therapy massage, manicure and pedicures, Indian head massages and combination packages.  Every day there was a special offer on a treatment as well.  I didn't actually indulge in any, but other guests did and were all very complimentary.
Now the food and the drink.  I don't actually have a single photo of the food at the hotel but believe me when I say it was spectacular.

Breakfast was served until 9.30am each morning and included cereals, yoghurts, fruits, porridge, hot buffet with sausages, bacon, baked beans, scrambled eggs, mushrooms etc, fresh toast, jams, pastries and also an à la carte menu with hash browns, eggs cooked to your liking and a special every day.  We would fill up on as much as we could, always choosing porridge for its slow release of energy and hot food options and this would take us right the way through to afternoon tea.
Oh my, if you needed a reason to come off the mountain and return to your hotel, afternoon tea was it.  At 4.30pm all the guests would flock to the restaurant still in their thermals, socks and salopettes to grab tea, coffee and squash and peruse that day's offerings of soup, fresh bread and jam, sandwiches or savory pastries, large cake of the day and biscuits and pastries.  There were mille-feuille, coconut biscuits, brownies, cream cheese and chive sandwiches, pumpkin soup, carrot cake, giant gateaus and many more.  The entire menu for afternoon tea changed on a daily basis and people would eat their fill, thinking that there couldn't possibly be room for anymore.

Until you got to dinner.  You booked a time slot in the morning (normally around 8pm for us considering we had afternoon tea at 4pm) and once there were given a menu.  Each day there was a choice of 3 starters, 3 mains and 3 desserts and unlimited wine until 9pm - 2 whites, 2 reds and a rose.  The food was top quality,  goats cheese and rare lamb, there was sword fish and risotto, gnocchi and soups, pasta and shellfish,  roasted vegetables and a pork roast on the first night, lemon tart and ice cream with brandy snaps.  In short, we did not go hungry.  I was hoping to loose weight through skiing every day - no chance!

As it is a chalet hotel the staff who run it are normally quite young (late teens to early twenties for the most part) but incredibly professional and the level of customer service is second to none.  They do however all get Thursday night off (how rude, anyone would think they had earned it!) which means that on Thursday's, guests have to organise themselves.  The bar is still open and they still serve breakfast and afternoon tea so some guests gorged themselves on that (no word of a lie, we saw 1 guest cut half the giant gateau and put it on his plate.  The staff were completely unfazed and just bought out another one).  However Steve and I decided to try one of the restaurants next door, 
We shared escargot in parsley and garlic butter, then Steve had a steak and I had a pizza with goats cheese and honey (and chilli oil that our waitress set down on our table with a wink - how did she know?!)
It was all nice, but pricey and not a patch on the hotel's food.  The only thing I would be critical of was their reliance on one herb - rosemary - something that Steve can't eat but for the most part (apart from when the food had been marinaded in it), they were really good at working around this.  I also heard them say that they always had gluten free bread in, had soy milk and could cater for any food intolerance or allergies.  The little ones also had separate menus that they could choose from earlier in the day.
So as an experience, would we travel with Mark Warner again?  Absolutely - the customer service, value, quality and level of care and attention was second to none.  I'm just going to investigate what they have in Italy next!

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