Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way. This week we’re in Morzine, capital of the Porte du Soleil, which spans a dozen ski destinations and hundreds of kilometres of pistes along the French Swiss border. It’s a little more than an hour’s drive from Geneva Airport, and there’s some great skiing territory based around the bustling French town. Morzine has a year-round life that includes a lot more than just sliding downhill. in these uncertain winters, that’s just as well, because the town is located at 1000 meters, which is quite low. It means that the snow is by no means guaranteed in the valley all winter.
Peter Now, from a ski point of view, the big plus mark for Morzine is that just above it reached directly by lift and it’s no sure. 2500 meters lies Avoriaz, the highest village in the Port Soleil, where skiing is virtually guaranteed throughout the entire season. No serious, snow worries here at any time. Of course, you’ve come to Morzine to ski, but as we found out, you don’t have to do it all day long.
Felice We’re walking along a lovely wooded path to go and see some eagles today. We’re not skiing and this is just one of the many things you can do in Morzine if you’re a non-skier or if you want a day off. It’s snowing really hard so we’re wearing…not quite ski clothes, but a ski jacket, two layers, thermals, mid layer, thermals under my jeans, proper snow boots, ski socks and ski gloves – so we don’t get too wet.
Peter Yes, it’s about minus five degrees and it’s an absolutely beautiful walk. The trees are covered in a huge blanket of snow. Snow is coming down like billio and we’re just passing a little stream now and then on our right and then on the left is a really fast flowing river. Quite beautiful.
Felice We’re just following the path of the river now to get to the Nyon télépherique.
Peter Yes, it’s probably about a half-hour walk or something like that. Really absolutely stunning scenery.
Felice And there’s lunch at the top.
Peter That’s the important bit. But once up the mountain, it’s just a five minute cable-car ride away, the weather is deteriorating fast towards what I can only describe as blizzard conditions right now. Who said there was a shortage of snow this winter? It’s incredible the amount of snow that’s being driven into our faces right now. Not that any of this seems to worry the birds of prey that live up here beside the Pointe de Nyon mountain restaurant. They’re housed in giant cages inside an aviary that’s well protected from the wind. We’ll bring them out now, one by one. Eva Meryier is the bird woman of Morzine, a 32-year-old biologist who looks after this extraordinary diverse collection of birds that live here, as well as those in her sanctuary on the shores of Lake Geneva, far below.
Now we’re wearing thick leather gauntlets, and the birds seem quite happy to perch on our arms, provided that we keep still and don’t try to smooth ruffled feathers. They really don’t like being petted. For the smaller birds. That’s okay, you can even manage to support a four kilo eagle on your arm. But hey, the South American condor…that weighs a mighty 13 kilos. Eva knows every one of her birds by name. You look after all the eagles here?
Eva Yes, actually, we have a little bit less than ten people. It’s a small company, and I am looking after the birds and all the collection part with the breeding and of course, the paperwork, because we have to.
Felice How many birds do you have here?
Eva So here on the mountain we have only 13, but actually in the park where we are normally and when all the birds are, we have 320 birds.
Peter A lot of birds. All eagles?
Eva No, actually we have everything. We have from the little falcon to the big Andean condor, owls also, and we have the largest collection in Europe; we have 80 species in our park.
Felice That’s amazing. What do they feed on?
Eva Actually, we only have raptors, so they eat only meat and fish.
Felice That’s a lot of meat and fish you need.
Eva Yes, actually we have quite a lot. But because it’s only protein, they don’t eat so much actually. To give you an idea: for a bird of almost one kilo, she eats only 100/120 grams. So that’s all right. But she can eat everything from mouse to beef. Chicks also.
Peter How long does it take to train a bird?
Eva Actually, it can go quite quickly, but we count two years to have a completely trained bird.
Felice And what about safety?
Eva For the people you say? The people working with the birds? Right. So yes, we give them the glove, actually. So of course they have to have a glove and they have also a little rope to be sure that the bird doesn’t escape because it doesn’t know the people who are holding them. When it’s with us, they are so trained and so used to us so that’s all right. And after there are some rules: to be sure you can’t pet them, they don’t like it, therefore they bite. So you have to have a special position with your glove and don’t try to touch the bird in any case.
Peter Do they sometimes escape and not come back when you want them to?
Eva No. Hopefully they are trained. So at the beginning it’s like with a dog or with a horse, you really have to train them. So you go farther and farther and farther and it’s always with the same person. And after, when they are completely trained, of course they can fly away for a little while because it’s why it’s beautiful with our work. They can escape if they want. We don’t have any link physically with them, but they always come back, that’s why.
Peter So when you’re in the mountains or indeed down by the lake, do they feed naturally if they see a mouse or a rabbit or something? What happens?
Eva No, actually, they are so used to have food directly from the human that they prefer not to be, to be to be tired…to run after a rabbit or something. They prefer just for us to give them food. But actually we have a reintroduction program down to the lake with the white tailed sea eagle. You reintroduced them in the UK already, actually. And this year we have four of those little eaglets who came back to the wild and now we are sure that they know how to fish and how to hunt.
Felice What’s nice is that people can come here even without skis. They can come up on foot.
Eva Yes, exactly. We are lucky because we have a gondola. We came directly in the restaurant. Therefore they can come whenever they want. Every day there is good weather because they can see the birds just here in front of the restaurant.
Felice Do people have to book to see them?
Eva Actually, it’s completely free here to the mountain. If they want to eat at the restaurant, it’s better to book. But if they just want to come to see the bird, to try to hold them and everything, it’s completely free. If you want to hold them, you just have to ask the falconer or the tourism office. And they say, ‘Ok, we want to go this day.’ And normally we have three people that can do this every day.
Felice Can children hold the birds as well?
Eva We begin at 12 years old. We can try, but of course they are sometimes a little bit afraid or they are a bit tiny. So it’s a bit complicated. But we can always try.
Felice Now it’s time to go and hold the birds ourselves.
Peter You’ve got some special gloves?
Eva Yes, of course. I will give it to you.
Peter So, Michael, what’s it like to hold a bird like that?
Michael It’s actually very moving to have a wild creature just inches away from you. And it seemed to be terribly calm and just surveying the world. And you wonder what was going on inside that bird’s brain. It was extraordinary. A beautiful, beautiful thing.
Peter What kind of bird was it that you had in your hand?
Michael That’s a Siberian eagle owl.
Peter You have a name?
Michael Its name is Ezekiel, which is, I suppose, from the Bible.
Peter It’s quite heavy?
Michael Yes. You are asked to hold it with your arm up at chest level, and it’s quite tough to hold it there for any length of time. It weighs, I don’t know, maybe three or four kilos perhaps.
Peter We’ve now got what you might call blizzard conditions here.
Michael Yes, it’s quite surreal scene out here with three birds of prey – in a blizzard. We’re up to our knees in snow and we’re all smiling.
Peter It’s blowing horizontally.
Michael It’s blowing straight in my face as we speak, Peter.
Eva Does somebody wants the owl?
Peter Well, Harry, I should imagine I should explain that Ezekiel is, in fact, a first cousin., indeed a very close relation of Hedwig, of Harry Potter fame. Rosie takes up the challenge. Is it heavy, Rosie?
Rosie Pretty heavy. It’s got bright orange eyes, which are absolutely beautiful and…oh, oh, no. All good, my glove is still intact.
Peter So now we’re in the basement of the mountain restaurant. It’s really just too windy and too snowy outside. So we’re going to see if we can fly the birds indoors. So Eva, what kind of bird is this?
Eva So this one is the Harris’s hawk. It comes from Latin America.
Peter Just explain what we’re going to do.
Eva Actually, we propose an animation where people can fly the bird. So it has a little bit of food. And the bird, goes on the glove of the people and after go back to his falconer. And you can do it one or three times.
Peter Ok, that’s good. So, Michael, do you think it’s worth doing this bird safari when you come here?
Michael It’s absolutely wonderful. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s just a life affirming experience, really, to be so close to those extraordinary creatures.
Peter I have to say the one thing…if you come to Morzine…then the one thing you must do is have the bird experience. It’s completely free.
Michael And I’m a committed skier, and I very rarely would give up a half a morning skiing, but I would give up a day’s skiing to come and see this.You must do it.
Felice Of course, skiing is what Morzine is all about. Back in 1960, a local from here went to the Winter Olympics in California to what was then called Squaw Valley…it’s now called Palisades Tahoe. His name was Jean Vuarnet, and he won the downhill gold. As a result, the town hall of Morzine gave him the job of building the futuristic resort of Avoriaz high above his hometown.
Peter Rather more than a decade later, I was lucky enough to ski here with Jean, relishing in the extraordinarily varied terrain that the region offers. It’s truly ideal for all standards. I remember his clipped leather boots were hurting him, and before descending the steep Swiss Wall above Avoriaz that takes you down towards Champéry in Switzerland, we stopped at a hut and he carved a chunk out of the boot liner with appropriately, a Swiss penknife. Then, of course, he virtually straight-lined the wall. What a skier.
It’s a tribute to him that Avoriaz among the rocks on the mountaintop, looks every bit as avant garde today as it did over 60 years ago when Jean first conceived it. To me, it’s a shame that most people remember John Vuarnet for his sunglasses rather than his Olympic gold…and the rest of his career as seven times French champion.
We’re staying in Morzine with a chalet company called Alikats. We met up with owner Alistair Judge, who lives in the resort, and we started by asking him how the company got its strange name.
Al I’m Al, my wife’s Kat, and it was my dad’s idea. When we were thinking through names of companies, we wanted to avoid the kind of standard mountain chalet company names that involved the word alpine or mountain or active or adventure or things like that. So we thought something that would be distinctive, and my dad came up with the idea and it stuck.
Peter Tell us about Alikats…
Al We started in 2011. I think it’s going to be our 12th winter, and we started with just one chalet – as a catered chalet – and we are now, we now have four catered chalets and eight self-catered chalets in the winter.
Peter And I think I’m right in saying that you are the first sustainable chalet company, which is fascinating because in this day and age, chalet companies need to change their direction and explain exactly what that means?
Al This year we’re going to be we are carbon neutral, which means we have offset all of the emissions, carbon emissions, associated with our business. We are waste neutral, so we have offset all the waste generated by our business. We are also zero food waste, which means that we don’t put any food in the bin, which for a catered chalet company means it’s quite a big operation to be able to manage all that waste.
Peter How do you manage to do that?
Al With a lot of effort and a team that is committed to achieving results. It can’t be done just by one person. So everyone who works for us, one of the reasons that they do work for us is because they are also committed to sustainability.
Peter You grow your own vegetables?
Al We do, I mean, it’s not enough to be able to use for the winter, but we grow our own veg and we use wherever we can in the menus throughout the year.
Felice And what made you choose Morzine in the first place?
Al We wanted to be somewhere that was a year round working town, not just a ski resort. We wanted to be somewhere that was going to be easy for us to get back home. Yes, that’s less of an issue these days, but that was definitely part of our thinking is we wanted it to be relatively easy to be able to get back. You know, a lot of the ski resorts in the Tarentaise are three, three and a half hours each way. So for us, it’s an hour and a half to Geneva, so it makes it easy to get home.
Felice And of course, you’d be travelling in an electric car.
Al Yes. In fact, we hardly ever fly now we try and do all of our journeys, either in a car or occasionally train, But with three kids, that’s more of a challenge.
Peter So you were telling me that you’ve actually given up some chalets because of the heating system?
Al Yes. So we’ve given up any chalets or as many chalets as we could that use oil or gas. We have just one chalet left in our portfolio that’s heated with oil, and we are talking to the owners about replacing that. And also, I think importantly, we have also been approached in the last few couple of years with really lovely chalets by owners who want us to run them. We look around and they look very nice, and then we get to the boiler room and we realise it’s being heated with gas or oil and we say, ‘I’m very sorry, but we can’t proceed.’ And that’s been an important part of our shaping of our portfolio as well.
Felice What do you use instead of oil and gas?
Al So most of the chalets are either air source heat pump or they’re just pure electric. And we do have one boiler in, in fact, in our home that’s wood pellets. So that’s a good alternative. But most of the chalets are air source heat pump or electric.
Felice And do you have open fires in any of the chalets? There isn’t one in this chalet.
Al No, there’s only one of the chalet. But most of the other chalets do have them, yes. We tend to prefer ones where you can close the door, just for safety reasons. So we try to incentivise our guests to make environmentally sustainable choices wherever possible. This year we launched an offer that gave people 20% off for mid-January if they did three things: one – travel by train, two – opt for a meat-free menu, and three – forego the hot tub…obviously heating water to 37 and a half degrees outdoors in the winter requires a lot of energy and a lot of water. So we wanted to reward anyone who was prepared to choose a low-impact holiday.
Peter Certainly 20% off is a really good deal.
Al It is, yes. It’s not 20% the whole season, but for these mid-January it should be a good incentive.
Felice And who would provide the meat free food?
Al So we do in our self-catered chalets we do meal deliveries so people can order from our kitchen, and then each day our team arrives at about four or five in the afternoon with the meal for the evening, plus reheating instructions and takes the guests about half an hour or so to heat it up and plate it up, ready to go for the evening.
Felice And what’s a typical plant dinner?
Al Oh, now you’re putting me on the spot. So actually thinking about last night’s dinner, I think you guys had halloumi wrapped in courgette on a spelt risotto for the main. I can’t remember what the starter was.
Felice It was an onion tart with fennel. It was delicious.
Al Did you enjoy it?
Felice Yes. Really good.
Al There’s plenty of options for people to eat. One of the menus that we do that really goes down well as an arancini scotch egg. So it’s eggs laid by our chickens and it’s arancini, so it’s a risotto rice which is then deep fried. And that is absolutely delicious, people love that.
Peter Explain the food waste. We live in Frome, in Somerset, where we have some pretty serious recycling. It’s a very green town. But you go even further here, don’t you?
Al Yes, well, we do. Although communally we don’t. There is no food waste processing or there’s no way of processing food waste communally at this stage. So we took it on ourselves to create our own solution. We compost all our vegetables and fruit, and then we have another system for animal-based products. So meat, fish, cheese, butter, eggs, any of the waste from those parts of the menu. It’s called a Bokashi system, which allows us to anaerobically decompose the waste down for a few weeks, at which point it then becomes safe. It’s no longer interesting to vermin, and we can then add it to the main compost pile, which means we can basically compost all of our food waste, and then that goes back into the beds to then provide nutrition for the next growing season.
Felice That sounds interesting. I haven’t heard of that process before.
Al Yes, the way it works is you add this active yeast ingredient which helps decompose it. And amazingly, it doesn’t smell. When you open the lid of these bins, you’d think, you know, a load of rotting meat and fish in there would stink, but it doesn’t at all, because with the lid closed this active yeast ingredient almost smells sweet and it’s incredibly effective. I’m not entirely sure why it’s not better known.
Peter Your passion for the chalet and environment goes even further, doesn’t it? Because you’ve started your own local charity?
Al That’s right, yes. So we have started an association called Montagne Verte – an association is the equivalent of a British charity. And Kat I took are two of the founding members. We now employ three people, one of whom runs a second-hand shop in Morzine, one of whom is our director of sustainability, who is in charge of planning the bigger infrastructure projects. Then we have a general manager to oversee and administrate the association as a whole.
Peter So what’s in the shop?
Al So it’s a full of second-hand ski gear and clothing that people have donated to us, and then we either repair or we sell on directly, and the proceeds go towards the charity.
Felice That’s great. And in summer, do you sell cycling gear?
Al Yes, walking gear. Anything that people give us, pretty much we manage to generally find a new home.
Felice That sounds good, all ski resorts should do that. There must be so much waste of ski clothing.
Al Yes, there is. One of the things that we do is we partner with ski schools who are getting rid of their instructor jackets for the next year. We then de-brand them, our seamstresses then apply patches over the old branding and then that can get sold on to anyone who wants a jacket to give it a second life.
Felice That’s great, because in some places, people will wear a ski outfit for a week, and that’s it.
Peter There’s a huge trend across the Alps now towards pre-loved clothing. It must make sense because it’s expensive anyway, isn’t it?
Al] It certainly is, yes. And if you can spend a little bit of time in advance of trying to find these pre-loved items, then there are options for sure.
Peter Do you ever get time to ski yourself?
Al I do, mostly with the kids, so it tends to be what I was going to say…it tends to be a bit slower, but these days my kids are starting to outpace me.
Peter We know the feeling.
Al Well, it’s kind of a moment of great pride, but also great sadness.
Felice Yes, I remember that happening. The cooking: most of your chalets are self catered. Is that right?
Al Yes. So we have four catered and eight self-catered. And then all of the self-catered chalets can then order from our meal delivery menu so people can recompose a catered chalet holiday if they want to.
Felice Do they need to book that before they leave?
Al Ideally, yes. But there are some dishes on our menu we can do with 24 hours’ notice. So if they leave it to the last minute, then we’ll find a way of feeding them.
Felice And all of those are cooked in one place?
Al Yes. So we have a central prep kitchen just next to our home, and we do all of the prep for the catered chalets and the self-catered chalets there.
Peter It’s Kat in charge of all that?
Al She oversees it. We have a we have a head chef, sous chef, a couple of sous chefs to support her as well.
Peter So Felice what do you think of Morzine so far?
Felice Well, we haven’t seen much of it because it was dark last night, and today it’s snowy and a whiteout. But our chalet is lovely. We’re staying in Chalet Alpaga One, and it’s very woody – wooden floor, wooden walls, high ceilings, wood beams, concrete staircases, wood and stone, basically.
Peter And I think we were right in saying we’re the first guests in here.
Felice We’re the third lot of guests. We’re the first guests to have eaten in here, but we’re the third guests ever.
Peter It’s really nice. The wonderful thing is when you build a chalet like this, it’s completely sustainable and built with a heat pump. And the temperature is great, isn’t it?
Felice Yes, it’s lovely and warm.
Peter We’ve got great views out across the town. Well we would have if we could see through the snow.
Felice At night we could see all the twinkling lights of Morzine.
Peter I mean one of the limousines problems is it is very low altitude. It’s only 1000 meters and it was pretty limited skiing over Christmas. But that, in my experience, is often the case here and now here we are later on and the snow is absolutely perfect. So let’s take a walk around the town.
Felice This is a resort that’s really trying to embrace sustainability. They have a skating rink made out of Teflon. It looks exactly like ice, and you can skate on it – like ice and go curling, but you don’t have all that frozen water so it’s much more environmentally friendly.
Peter To find out more about what makes Morzine tick, we looked up an old skiing friend of ours, Chrigl Luthy, who’s been living and working here for a while now with his family. So Chrigl, you have this amazing bar in Morzine, the Bec Jaune Brewery. How did that all come about for you? Because you’re an American-Swiss-Brit and you ended up in Morzine. Tell us about?
Chrigl The only passport I don’t have is the French one, and that’s where I’ve ended up. And it’s wonderful. I’ve always liked France. We holidayed here a lot as a family, as kids, and we love the Alps…and the stars aligned. It was just the right place to come.
I might have pushed for a La Grave or somewhere a little more extreme, shall we say, and high altitude. But my spouse, Nicky, found that this would be…and she’s right…this is a far more…how can I phrase this? It’s so good for raising a family. It’s more active year round.
Peter It’s a town which has a life beyond skiing, doesn’t it?
Felice Yes, because people come and do mountain biking and hiking and things in summer. So does your bar open all year round?
Chrigl We try. You’re faced with definite inter-season periods, May-ish and then October-ish. But we try and remain open as long as we can.
Peter And of course, you’re much more than just a bar, you’re a brewery, a microbrewery. How did that come about? You went off and learn to brew, I gather?
Chrigl I suppose you could say I have ended up in the restaurant business almost, in a way unintentionally really. Beer was in the front of my mind, I guess. I don’t know when it happened. I think it was in a bar in Val d’Isere. I realised I wanted to be in the mountains, but I didn’t want to be drinking what I was drinking. There was this moment where I just realised there wasn’t what I needed to be happy where I wanted to be. It seemed so simple, but I think a lot of people do that. A lot of people say, ‘I like good coffee.’ There’s no good coffee here. I will make coffee. The market sort of presents itself based on your habits that you’ve learned.
Felice And how did you publicise it to start with?
Chrigl We’ve never really marketed much at all. I think we just we didn’t really know what we were doing. We just knew how to make food and knew how to make beer.
Peter Skiing has been a driving force in your life, hasn’t you? I mean, Chrigl you are the most fantastic skier. I remember we skied together in Russia, the three of us just before the Sochi Olympics. That was fun. You’ve skied all over the world. What’s so special about Morzine?
Chrigl I love it, personally, because it’s accessible in a way that a lot of some of these higher-altitude or bigger resorts, the glaciated resorts, aren’t. I feel like I can go out with some friends and find some interesting things to do without touring for hours or without crevasse rescue knowledge. Not to say it shouldn’t be treated with respect, but there’s just a lot of interesting little lines you can find. I’m speaking personally, obviously there’s other things, there’s plenty of family-friendly pistes, so it’s great in that respect, too.
But for me, coming at it through the lens of someone who’s been to a lot of different resorts, I never get bored here. It’s vast, yes it’s low, but I feel like the precipitation is so regular that it turns over dodgy layers within the snowpack pretty regularly. It replenishes what melts pretty regularly. And there’s just features like trees and boulders and little chutes and that’s all very exciting to me. I prefer that to the vast open fields where you just waft along.
Peter It’s a very big area. Do you get out to Avoriaz and out beyond there?
Chrigl Absolutely. I think that’s part of the part of the challenge is really deciding where to go. That goes to say I’m very lucky. The way we’ve made it work, we don’t make a lot of money but it’s a lifestyle choice – I cannot complain about how much time I get on the mountain, and I love it. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, goodness knows, but I’m enjoying it now.
Peter Well, I think it’s time to sample a beer or two. So much choice and I really don’t where to start.
Chrigl We like to do a Pilsner. It’s just something clean and crisp with a noble hop. Who doesn’t like a lager. Everyone likes the flavour of beer, just pure and simple. I like one of those, but I also like the new malty one we’ve done. We’ve gone for a rye ESB type.
Peter Let’s begin with the Pilsner and see where it takes us. Cheers, Felice!
Peter This could be the start of a very long evening…and so it was. Felice, final thoughts on Morzine? Is this a place you’d come back to again?
Felice As a town, it’s attractive. Lots of shops, lots of restaurants – we’ve been to several while we’re here. I particularly like La Chamade, which has a great wine list. Le Colibri is another popular place we went to. Morzine is somewhere we’ve been coming back to again and again over the years, and I’ll definitely come here again in the future.
A seven-night self-catered stay at Alikats Chalet Alpaga 1 is priced from €7,600 / £6,690 for 12 people or €633 / £557pp.
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