Best Holidays

It’s snowing through shafts of sunshine as I look for the ‘snowbow’ that often graces Villars in the Swiss Rhone Alps. I feel cheated. Last time it snowed through a thin cloud layer, with dazzling brightness above, a multicoloured arc cascaded into the valley dividing the Grand Muverans and Dents du Midi mountains. It’s undoubtedly scenic, but the Villars-Gryon ski area has plenty of detractors.

‘Not enough skiing for a week’, ‘nothing challenging’, ‘too low to guarantee snow down to resort’ are the common accusations, coming mostly from people who have never been to Villars.

Sloping off: Neil, his girlfriend Isabelle, left, and a group of friends during their stay in Villars

But already this snow season, I’ve enjoyed skiing in Villars to rival anywhere in the Three Valleys or Verbier.

And I am not even counting the spiritual, moonlit run I took down to Villars with my girlfriend at 1.30am on New Year’s Day after a gourmet dinner at Lac des Chavonnes, one of Villars’ finest mountain restaurants, run by the noted chef Medou Rebzani.

Expert view: The skiing in Villars this season easily rivals the popular Three Valleys, says Neil

Something’s going right because on one day between Christmas and New Year, a record-breaking 11,000 skiers purchased lift passes. Geneva is only 90 minutes’ drive away, which makes Villars highly weekendable.

One morning, I set out early with a group of friends, led by our guide Andreas, to the chairlift that transports you silently through a tranquil canyon to the Diablerets ski sector.

After another short skilift, there was a long and thrilling run from the Meilleret ridge down through Les Mazots, on the impeccably groomed piste that weaves through forest all the way to Diablerets village.

Leisurely breakfast? Artificial snow-makers and a new lift have cut queue times on Villars’ slopes

But fresh powder beckoned higher up. We kicked off our skis where the bus stops to take eager passengers on the ten-minute ride to Col du Pillon, where a two-stage cable-car system whisks skiers to the 10,000ft peak.

From here it’s possible for novices to ski on the very gentle, wide blue graded runs on top of the glacier – and for strong intermediates to ski on a mix of red and black pistes on a sevenmile descent, broken by just one short chairlift, all the way to Reusch.

But we were here for the untracked snow, off-piste on Combe d’Audon. You must take a qualified guide, best organised through villars-experience.ch. It was incredible to think that while thousands battled for space on the pistes, we saw perhaps 100 people all day. I felt as if I owned the mountain and the snow was soft and quiet under ski.

Mother nature has played a big part in Villars’ success, but it has been aided by a stream of innovations, including the Under Nines Ski For Free policy. A fast telecabine to Roc d’Orsay, and artificial snow-making, have cut queues and ensure all but novices can ski down at the end of the day.

Start at 9am and it is possible for a strong intermediate to ski ten laps from Roc d’Orsay to the bottom of the telecabine before 11am – by then the most hardened of critics will be wondering where they are going to find the energy to ski the rest of the day.

A planned chairlift from Bretaye to Chaux Ronde will take further stress off the Lac Noir chair, which is already benefiting from the faster six-seater Petit Chamossaire chair.

Snow-making guns on the La Rasse liaison to Alpes des Chaux make this a more rewarding run, while skiers enjoying the open pistes from Croix des Chaux now have a pit stop at the restaurant L’Etable (etable-gryon.ch).

A range of tailor-made trips are available from momentumski.com (020 7371 9111), including three nights’ BB in the five-star Chalet RoyAlp Hotel departing March 17, for £688pp based on two sharing, including Gatwick to Geneva flights and car hire.

A range of week-long, fully packaged holidays are available from main-stream operators skisafari.com, crystalski.co.uk and neilson.co.uk/ski. See villars.ch for more details and snow webcams.

 

Valentine’s Day

Stuck for something romantic to impress your loved one this Valentine’s Day? I was – until I discovered the patron saint of Welsh lovers, her folklore-rich domain in Anglesey and the wonderful appeal of an away-from-it-all, romantic break in North Wales.

The country celebrated St Dwynwen’s Day on January 25th and there’s plenty to learn from the quirky Welsh equivalent to February 14th.

The event in Wales is no commercial free-for-all; it taps into the poignancy and romance of the Celtic soul.

Remembered: Two crosses stand near Twr Mawr lighthouse, close to St Dwynwen’s church

Dwynwen was a 5th-century beauty, the daughter of the King of Powys. She fell for a dashing young prince called Maelon, but her father would not agree to the marriage. Maelon attacked Dwynwen in a fit of passion and was turned to ice by an angel.

Dwynwen pledged that if the angel were to bring Maelon back to life, she would devote herself to God alone. She then crossed the mountains of Snowdonia on horseback to find a site to establish her simple church and begin a life of spiritual devotion.

She settled on Llanddwyn Island, a remote tidal islet off the west coast of Anglesey. Young lovers from across Wales would seek out Dwynwen for saintly blessings for their forthcoming marriage until she died in 497AD.

Isolated: Llanddwyn Island is a tidal isle cut off from the mainland at high tide

The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’

Even today, Welsh lovers will exchange gifts of love spoons or jewellery engraved with love poetry on St Dwynwen’s Day. Some may even take their sweetheart to the beach, close to the ruins of Dywnwen’s church, to pop the question.

I decided to follow her trail, strolling a seven-mile walking route through the Newborough Warren National Nature Reserve.

I made my base in Beaumaris, the visitor-hub town of Anglesey. It was a cosy spot to soak up some great Welsh hospitality with a clutch of brightly painted hotels, cosy pubs and funky shops strung out along Castle Street, the main thoroughfare.

Tranquil: Beaumaris is the town most visitors head for on Anglesey

On the boat-bobbing quayside, I drank in panoramic views across the Menai Strait to Snowdonia.

After a comfortable night at The Townhouse, the contemporary-styled sister hotel to Beaumaris stalwart Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn, and a slap-up breakfast of local delicacies that included cockles and lava bread, I was ready for my day’s walking.

The walk lead me through Forestry Commission land, where red squirrels frolicked with early-spring fervour amongst the Corsican pine and silver birch trees. There was a chill in the air but my heart was warmed by the closeness to nature and a delicious sense of tranquility.

Dropping down to Newborough Beach from the sand dunes, the wind engulfed me in a fine veil of salty sea-spray and gritty sand. But I pushed on. After all, Dwynwen didn’t shirk from her saintly duty, nor bow down to the elements. Neither should I.

Legacy: There are few remains of St Dwynwen’s church but her story lives on

My reward as the beach opened up
before me was a glorious yomp across the tide-washed pebbles, the sea
crashing on the beach beside me with a throaty roar. Further ahead, a
weathered sign marked the perimeter of Llanddwyn Island, the headland
stretching out into the Irish Sea, and weathered stone steps led
through a series of elaborately carved gates to the saint’s inner
sanctum.

Dwynwen’s ancient, moss-covered church may have long since fallen into ruins, but the stone altar still stands proud, while a stoic Celtic cross dominates the eerie landscape. As a testament to the church as a place of pilgrimage even today, I noticed a faded bouquet of blood-red roses atop the ancient altar.

The Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William have been living just a short distance from here while he serves as a search and rescue helicopter pilot. I wondered if they sometimes strolled this stretch of sand. It seemed a perfect spot for some time together away from the public gaze.

Dreamy: A view through the dunes of Newborough Beach towards the Llyn Peninsula

Along the headland, there is a small exhibition about Dwynwen and the geology of her remote outpost in a series of stone-built pilots’ cottages. Inside, it is stark but cosy, a wood-carved effigy of Dwynwen, depicting the saint with flowing robes and cascading blond ringlets, standing guard by the door.

The afternoon sun was fading and the elements gathering force for another Biblical storm. It was definitely time to head back to Beaumaris.

I was looking forward to a pint of local ale in the snug at Ye Old Bulls Head Inn, a browse through the seaside-inspired prints at the Janet Bell Gallery and dinner that evening at Cennin (which means ‘leeks’), a smart new restaurant offering signature Welsh black beef and lamb dishes.

But first I cast a wish into the wave-washed cove below, evoking the spirit of Dwynwen to watch over me and my loved one from her holy resting place.

So, you can keep your flowers and chocolates this Valentine’s Day. I’ll be whisking my cariad (sweetheart) away to North Wales. When it comes to romantic gestures, I’ve got a bone-fide Welsh saint on my side.

The Townhouse, Beaumaris (01248 810329; www.bullsheadinn.co.uk) has doubles from £120 BB.
Cennin, Beaumaris (01248 811230; www.restaurantcennin.com) has mains from £17.95. For more about romantic breaks in Wales see www.visitwales.co.uk/romantic-breaks.