Thank Pod: Bargain Ski Apartments

Susan Greenwood, The Guardian, January 28, 2012

I was talking to the gendarmes when the second tree fell, landing on the roof of a small car not 10ft behind me. The night was thick with snow, headlights from stranded cars picking out great fists of snowflakes as the wind hurled wthem through the air. Those vehicles without snow chains lay blinking in ditches or squealing out of control as they skidded back down the icy mountain road. I glanced up at the snow-laden trees creaking ominously in the wind, then back at the two hitchhikers I'd picked up earlier in Sainte-Foy who were smoking nervously by the side of my as yet unscathed car. We were three kilometres from Tignes, but with two fir trees now blocking our path we weren't going anywhere fast. Breathe.

"Can I send a taxi?" chirped Yvonne Russill when I called to tell her I would be a tad delayed for our rendezvous in Tignes Val Claret. "Or arrange for you to stay the night in Bourg-Saint-Maurice? Tomorrow is going to be an amazing powder day, so whatever it takes we'll get you here." I wanted to hug her. If the sign of a great host is someone who can think clearly and remain optimistic in a crisis, Snowpod already had a gold star from me, and I hadn't even arrived. When I did finally make it – three hours later, complete with a large dent in the left wing from a sliding BMW – Yvonne guided me into my apartment and inserted a glass of rose into my frozen hands.

Made up of five villages, with Val Claret sitting at 2,300m, Tignes resembles an abandoned trading outpost from science fiction, great apartment blocks giving it a rather industrial air and no trees to break up great swathes of white powder fields.

In this environment Snowpod, with its futuristic take on ski accommodation, seems totally at home, the two design-led apartments residing in a vast apartment block which wouldn't look out of place in George Orwell's 1984.

"Traditionally, French ski apartments have been tiny," says Yvonne. "Six snowboarders crammed into a one-bed space. My idea was to veer more towards the Japanese capsule hotel style. I wanted something a little bit cheeky, a little bit quirky." Spend a penny in the toilet painted to look like a vintage red phone booth and it's fair to say she's succeeded.

An interior designer by trade, Yvonne spent time in the Alps as a ski instructor and chalet host before using Snowpod as an opportunity to marry up design with her life in the mountains. The apartments, of which there are two with a third opening next year, sleep four in a spacious dorm room, walls covered with photographs of Alpine landscapes, circular brushed steel rails operating as wardrobes, big fluffy bright blue rugs thrown on the floor. So yes, the living quarters are close, but it doesn't feel like a one‑bedroom flat, more like a gathering at a funky friend's house.

I flopped on to the colourful sofa clutching the rest of the bottle of rose. It took a while for me to realise the fireplace was actually a pile of bright orange logs, lit with a glowing light. Above it hung a huge flatscreen TV, but I eschewed the DVDs and Xbox games to first try and work out how some books were being suspended on the opposite wall (the shelves, created by Cardiff product designers Mode, act like Stickle Bricks, grabbing the pages), and then to work up enthusiasm for the next day's skiing by thumbing through magazine after magazine on the fairy-lit shelving unit. I knocked over a Darth Vader model. "It's theatre," said Yvonne when I asked how she would describe her style. "It's all smoke and mirrors. My style is for design to unravel. The longer you stay, the more you discover."

The apartments have a fully equipped kitchen and can be booked on a B&B basis or with dinner delivered to your door five days a week – you simply ring and arrange a convenient time. Two menus are provided – Asian fusion or traditional comfort food. I supped on Thai green curry followed by banana, raisin and coconut soup, no less delicious for sitting in a warm oven after its prompt arrival and my delayed one.

The booming of avalanche cannons woke me the next morning. I walked bleary eyed around the flat and realised it had pretty much 360-degree views of the entire ski area, the sky pale pink, the mountains thick with snow. Tea in hand, I sat at the dining table and mused how cool I would be if this was my home. Half an hour later I was heading out into the powder with Yvonne.

All the lifts were shut. "This calls for Grizzly's,' she declared and in so far as knee deep powder would allow, waded off into the centre of town. Pretty much everything in Grizzly's Bar is carved out of wood, the entire place a physical demonstration of its owner's embracement of Native American culture. Sitting on a tree stump stool sipping coffee is not a great substitute for fresh tracks, but if it has to be done there's not many places more atmospheric than Grizzly's.

Back in the pod, I discovered a fruit bowl made like a silicone crate and graffiti on the ceiling. My weekend in the Alps may have been unravelling from the start, but at least with Snowpod I was discovering style along with dents in my left wing.

Snowpod (07881 725062, has seven nights B&B from £199pp and seven nights half-board from £299. Fly or take the train to Geneva