Vegan Skiing

There are 2 reasons I am not a food blogger:

  1. I don’t have a camera phone, so if I wanted to take a photo of my food I’d have to pull out my full size SLR camera. This can be slightly awkward in restaurants, especially when you’re eating with other people.
  2. On the odd occasion I have managed to take a photo of my food, I’ve always forgotten to take the shot until I’m already halfway through eating it. So, the photos don’t do the food justice to say the least.

With that being said, as a gluten-free vegan who likes to travel, probably the most common question I get asked is ‘what are you going to eat?’ So, I try to include some posts on my blog about what I’ve eaten and where on my trips.

Ski trips in particular seem to confuse a lot of people. I guess they have assumptions about what there is to eat in ski resorts. And, if it’s all pasta, fondue and pastries then I will surely starve!

When I’m the one planning the trip, I tend to opt for self-catering accommodation unless I’m staying somewhere that is specifically aimed at vegans. That way, I have much better control over what I’m eating. Unless I’m staying miles away from the nearest supermarket, preparing my own food is the easiest way to go. On my recent ski trip to Les Arcs and La Plagne, however, I was travelling with omnivores who did all the booking. I made sure to check out our hotel’s website before we left, and I was pleased to discover that the L’Aiguille Rouge serves all buffet meals. This is the next best option for me after self-catering. L’Aiguille Rouge is part of the Belambra chain, and there was plenty of food for me to choose from on the buffet at every meal. Apart from checking the ingredients a couple of times, I didn’t have to make any special requests for my meals. I’m sure, though, that had I needed to ask the restaurant staff for suitable food they would have happily obliged. They were all super nice, and nothing was too much trouble for them. They even had soy milk on the breakfast buffet, so I was able to get my morning coffee!

Out on the slopes, I would recommend the vegetable stir-fry with rice noodles at Le Sanglier Qui Fume in Les Arcs 1600 and Le Chalets de l’Arc at Les Arcs 2000 for their quinoa salad.

 

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La Plagne

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When I go to ski a new area and the rep asks me if I want to upgrade my lift pass, it always seems like a rhetorical question to me. Of course I want to explore as many slopes as I possibly can!

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Thanks to the shiny, sparkly Vanoise Express (with 2 levels to choose from and a glass floor) the ski areas of Les Arcs and La Plagne are now connected to make one super snowy playground. I had been to La Plagne once before, but it was pre-season and for a training course. Unfortunately, that week had consisted mainly of sitting in boring workshops in the hotel and eating awful food (the catering team were on a training course somewhere else). So, I was interested in going back to La Plagne and seeing what it’s like when you’re actually allowed to enjoy it.

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I would recommend skiing from Les Ars to La Plagne, or vice versa, only for advanced skiers. For one, you have to give yourself enough time to get back otherwise you’re stuck on the wrong side of the mountain for the night. Also, it’s a bit of a bottle neck either side of the Vanoise Express. Even after all the snow we’d had the week I was there, these connecting areas were both very icy and full of bumps. I can only imagine how tricky it is in poorer conditions. Once you get into La Plagne proper, though, the skiing is as nice as it is in Les Arcs (although I have heard the higher elevation of Les Arcs is a more popular choice when there isn’t much snow).

I loved the limited time I had skiing in La Plagne, and I would definitely return there to explore more.

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Les Arcs

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As I sat on the 4 person chairlift, letting it carry me up the mountain, I seriously questioned my choice in hobbies. The wind and horizontal snow had the combined effect that I can only describe as like having someone throw popping candy at your face – repeatedly and for the entire time you are outdoors. The bad weather had resulted in the chairlifts, only one of which had bubble covers to protect you from the elements (guess which lift had the longest queue), operating extra slowly. Thus prolonging the torture and making a lie of the sign at the bottom which proudly announced they could get you up to the top of the mountain in only 4 minutes. I couldn’t even distract myself with the view. It turns out that, in this part of France, the fog and cloud zooms in quicker than it does in San Francisco, and I could barely see more than a metre in front of my face. The loud, and therefore very close, cannon blasts announcing controlled avalanches did nothing to comfort me. Also, I was in the middle of reading The Hunger Games trilogy, which I think only added to my paranoia.

It’s at times like these that I make a vow to myself to learn a sport associated with warmer climates. Like surfing, for example. Yes, I decided, I definitely need a beach vacation this year. However, for some reason skiing is one of the sports I have had relative success in, and so I found myself fighting the cold, wind and heavy snow in January in the French ski resort of Les Arcs. Back when I used to work whole winter seasons, I had the luxury of being a fair weather skier most of the time. If the weather was bad and I didn’t have to be up the mountain, I didn’t go. When you only get one week skiing a year like I do now, though, you feel obliged to be on the mountain as much as possible.

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To be fair to Les Arcs, when the wind isn’t against you and there are no avalanche blasts sending tremors through your skis, the skiing is very good.

Les Arcs is split into different levels, the main ‘villages’ named after their elevations. I expect this is to save the embarrassment of people such as myself who struggle to pronounce French names. We stayed at Les Arcs 2000, the highest point with accommodation, although the ski areas do go above 3000m. There are pros and cons to basing yourself so high on the mountain. When the skiing is good, you literally have the mountain on your doorstep. However when things go wrong, you’re stuck. On the third day of our trip, for example, the bad weather led to most of the lifts at Arcs 2000 being closed and an avalanche closed the main road, preventing the ski buses from operating. There was little more I could do than sit in the hotel and watch the windows vibrate with every avalanche blast.

Les Arcs 1950, as the name suggests, is a mere 50 metres below Les Arcs 2000. Don’t expect this to mean a casual stroll up a path between the two, though. Although there is only 50 metres between them, it’s 50 metres of near vertical mountain. You’re not allowed to walk on the road (as if you’d want to), and the regular ski buses take a good 10 minutes to transport you between the two. There’s also the option of taking the Cabriolet, the shortest gondola ride I have ever seen. This genius little piece of engineering runs from early morning to 11.30pm, apart from a 30 minute break they take every evening. So it’s also good if you want to hit the apres ski or head to 1950 for a few drinks after dinner.

I’ve not skied in France a huge amount, but my general impression of French ski resorts is that they are purpose  built. Huge concrete tower blocks of hotels tend to dominate the landscape, and you get the impression that enjoying the view was the last thing on the architects’ minds. Most of the Les Arcs area reinforced this opinion. Les Arcs 1950, however, is a pleasant surprise. Skiing into this quaint little village, with it’s carved wooden house fronts and Christmas decorations, reminded me of many Austrian alpine villages that I have visited. When the temperature dropped well below zero and the wind was so strong I could barely stand up on my skis, I retreated to the Wood Bear Café and warmed up with a coffee.

When bad weather closes the lifts at 2000/1950, and the road is open, it’s advisable to catch the ski bus down to Les Arcs 1600. Even when most of the links are closed elsewhere in the area, you can usually ski 1800 from this point as well. Beware, though, the weather might be better at this elevation but it still comes in quick. It was clear and sunny when I first got on the lift at the bottom, but I could barely see more than a metre in front of me and had lost all feeling in my face by the time I got to the top.

Les Arcs has lots of great terrain to explore, but if you’re going there (especially in January) be prepared for all weather types – possibly even all in one day!

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Nausicaa

I couldn’t visit Boulogne without spending some time at the National Sealife Centre. Unfortunately, it’s not until I enter these places and encounter the ‘underwater viewing areas’ that I remember I have a phobia of fish. To make matters worse, this sealife centre is laid out in a very orderly fashion. You have to pass through each exhibit to reach the next one. Luckily, I didn’t encounter too many scary big fish.

Impressively, Nausicaa is home to 32,000 living creatures. 1000 different species are housed in 36 aquariums which are filled with 4.5 million litres of water. At €18.30 it is by far the most expensive attraction in Boulogne, but well worth setting aside a few hours to visit. Right from the moment you step through the front doors at Nausicaa, the clear message is that they want to help preserve the Earth’s seas and oceans and teach people how to live more sustainable lives. All of us are connected to the sea, and just like every other species on the planet, we need it to survive. I still find it sad to see the loggerhead turtles and sharks swimming back and forth endlessly in their little tanks, but I believe Nausicaa when they say they care about preserving sea life.

The main attraction at Nausicaa, a fairly new addition, are the sea lions.

Sea lions love nothing more than playing and frolicking around together in the water, so giving them an audience only encourages them more. If you want to see how talented these intelligent creatures really are, the trainers host demonstrations at set times during the day. This is where they really get to show off (the animals and the trainers). The sea lions are trained to jump, somersault, lay down, wave, blow a kiss and pick out shapes and letters. And all for their ultimate reward – fish.

There was also a smaller exhibition when I visited Nausicaa, which housed some penguins. Although these cute little creatures aren’t trained like the sea lions, they are still very entertaining to watch.

Whenever a penguin looks at me, I always think they look a bit impatient, like they’ve been waiting for me to do something. A bit like the penguin equivalent of a raised eyebrow.

Our history that almost was

Whilst exploring Boulogne, I learnt that much of the town’s legacy is based upon a plot by Napoleon to attack the British Isles that never actually happened. From the information I gathered, Napoleon used Boulogne as a military base to assemble thousands of soldiers and build ships with which he could attack his enemy (ie us). It took him so long to get his act together that the British army heard of his plans and attacked France first. When he tried to sail the new ships that his plan was based upon, they pretty much fell apart in the water. If Napoleon had been better organised, or known more than us about building boats, our history could have been very different.

Even though the plan essentially failed, there are nods to Napoleon all over Boulogne.

Even without Napoleon’s contribution, Boulogne has a heritage of seafaring activities. A short, but steep, walk up the cliffs above the beach brings you to the Gunpowder Magazine and the Seaman’s Calvary, a sanctuary dedicated to the memory of sailors lost at sea. Unfortunately the Calvary was closed whilst I was there. The chapel is adorned with commemorative plaques and buoys – coloured for the boats still at sea and black and white for the vessels that never came home.

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Boulogne’s Castle and Old Town

Although a lot smaller than other walled cities that I have visited (400m x 300m), Boulogne’s old town still has that romantic aura about it. The first thing I liked about the old town was a small cafe I found that served good coffee. When I asked for a black decaf coffee, I actually got a black decaf coffee. Not a black coffee with a jug of cow’s milk next to it. As I’d been unable to secure self-catering accommodation in France, I decided that little cafe would be my first stop every day for my morning coffee fix.

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The architecture in the old town is as quaint and photogenic as you would expect it to be. I found it to be like a ghost town until 10am, and then all of a sudden it seemed to come alive with people, both locals and tourists. Although there is a tourist presence, mainly British and French from what I could hear, there isn’t a huge amount of souvenir shops selling the usual tourist wares. Instead, the odd one is dotted amongst regular shops and restaurants. Interestingly, the Rue de Lille was filled with workshops making candles during the Middle Ages. These were then sold to pilgrims. The candles were probably the equivalent of today’s friendship bracelets and postcards.

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Boulogne’s old town was built at the beginning of the 13th century by the Count of Boulogne on the foundations of the Gallo-Roman walls. The current walls, or ramparts, were built between 1227 and 1231 by Count Philippe Hurepel. There are four gates into the walled city, and a footpath runs around the top of the walls.

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The jewel of the old town is the castle, which was constructed at the same time as the ramparts and was the first castle to be built without a keep in the history of military architecture. The museum which is attached to the castle is ecclectic to say the least. I was surprised to find that the artifacts within it had very little to do with the castle or Boulogne.

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The museum was created in 1825 after Boulogne acquired the cabinet of curiosities created by the Viscount Isidore Leroy do Barde. It takes you on a journey through cultures from all over the world, from Alaskan fishing implements to ancient Greek pottery. It’s like the museum is one big cabinet of curiosities itself, and I really liked that idea. Probably my favourite exhibit from the whole collection was some Haida masks. I studied this culture as part of my Bachelors degree, and it was a pleasant surprise to find such fine examples in a small castle in France.

The museum also houses a temporary exhibition. Whilst I was there, it was Egyptian artifacts on show.

Out in the courtyard, there was a fascinating installation art piece. All I was able to find out is that it’s untitled and by an artist called Michel Dhalenne. If anyone knows anymore, please pass the info on.

The aesthetics of the piece blew me away, although I did wonder what problems they must encounter when it rains. Surely there is a danger they could end up with a huge, sticky mess of paper pulp?