A French outdoor sports organisation runs all-in-one ski resorts for schools. Sarah Shenker slopes off to investigate.
Beef: it's a sensitive issue. And so it was for one pupil from Corsham school, near Bath, on a skiing trip to La Plagne, in the Savoie region of south-eastern France. Faced with an unfamiliar and distressingly pink piece of beef at dinner, the teenager refused to continue his meal. "We're all going to die of food poisoning," he warned.
Culture shock can manifest itself in many ways but, except for the beef incident, the change in provender was welcomed by the 80 15 to 19-year-olds from Wiltshire. They had bowls of coffee, cereal, bread and jam tartines for breakfast, and three-course meals with salads and cheese for lunch and dinner. No one headed for the slopes on an empty stomach during their two-week trip.
The centre they stayed in is run by the Union National des Centres Sportifs de Plein Air (national organisation of outdoor sport centres). It's a non-profit outfit that has special status under French law and aims to offer sporting opportunities to young people at a reasonable price and in the best locations. It offers a complete ski package: accommodation, meals, instruction, lift passes and equipment. And while skiing is never cheap, the UCPA keeps its prices low by bulk-buying food and equipment.
Staff costs are low too: there are no cleaners, the canteens are self-service and visitors must clean up after themselves in the dining room, and in the bedrooms. It's all part of the UCPA's ethos, explains Jean-Yves Dubois, director of the La Plagne centre.
"We have a special spirit and a special relationship with our clients - who we don't call clients but stagiaires (students in training), because what we are doing is essentially a pedagogical project. We're not a hotel. We help young people develop their sporting skills in a secure environment."
It is an unusual environment, "but once people learn how things work here," says Jean-Yves with a smile, "they all want to return."
La Plagne is a large ski resort that is a favourite with families as its 212km of runs, considered some of the best in Europe, cater for all abilities. A five-minute free minibus ride from the UCPA centre is the hub of the resort, La Plagne Centre, where most of the resort's shops, restaurants and ski lifts are located.
Ian Holden, head of PE at the Corsham school, has a lot of experience organising skiing trips. He has visited UCPA centres in other parts of France and in Austria. "It's great having everything under one roof," he says. "It's a very good package for our age group. Unlike a hotel, there's no nice decor to worry about, and everything is very much focused on outdoor pursuits."
The rooms are basic but comfortable - bunkbeds, lockers and a sink. There were some problems with the hot water in the rooms during their stay, but they found working showers in other parts of the centre, whch sleeps over 300.
The skiing starts at 9am. At the beginning of their stay, the instructors divide the students into groups according to level of ability and whether they want to ski or snowboard. The centre employs 37 qualified instructors - all with a basic grasp of English - who make up a five-hours-a-day programme for their group. They take into account abilities as well as the ambitions, such as preparing for ski exams or tackling a slope covered in moguls.
This is part of the appeal of a UCPA holiday, says Mr Holden. "The instructors really push their groups, which means the kids make good progress with their skiing in a very short amount of time."
Maths teacher Steve Taylor-Beasley, who used to ski for five months a year in the army, approves of both the centre and the resort. "The equipment and the instruction is good," he says. "The resort is huge and the skiing conditions have been very good." He also enjoyed the stunning landscape, where the white Alps stretch as far as the eye can see.
It may look beautiful but the landscape can be a perilous one. Injuries are common in skiing, and two teenagers from Corsham broke their wrists on the first day. There were another three torn ligaments and one case of "minor whiplash" by the end of the trip. Mr Holden took it all in his stride. "The hospitals here are good and fast," he says, "and used to these kinds of injuries. What was especially helpful was that Jean-Yves helped us out by driving us to the pharmacy in town, and letting us use the centre's fax machine for the paperwork."
At night, the older children took the minibus to La Plagne Centre for some shopping and loitering. The centre employs an entertainment co-ordinator, and while the British students were quick to sneer at the organised disco, they were slow to leave and had to be kicked out when it finished at midnight.
Otherwise, they spent their evenings playing pool, watching videos on the giant television screen, chatting in front of the fire and playing cards. And while they didn't mix with the French students staying at the centre, the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed.
Back in Corsham, Mr Holden says he and his pupils were delighted by how well the trip went. "We all enjoyed it and would like to go again," he says. "Even the injured ones. In fact, if I could, I'd be off like a shot tomorrow."
* Actions Vacances, 7 Greenside Close, Dunnington, York. Tel: 01904 489248.
www.btinternet.com Actions Vacances acts for the UCPA in Britain, organising activity holidays in France.
The UCPA caters for seven to 40-year-olds in centres across Europe and the world. If you fancy taking your school diving in Guadeloupe or bicycling in Vietnam, check out their French language website: www.ucpa.com SkiBound, the largest school ski tour operator, is part of the First Choice holiday company.
Tel: 01273 677777 for details of trips to Les Deux Alpes and elsewhere.