Yooning is the trendy sport for 2013
Take a ride on a yooner for a taste of the coolest new winter sport on the slopes, writesAlf Alderson
One thing is for sure about a yooner - it's way faster than public transport. But before I explain further, perhaps I should first enlighten you as to what a yooner actually is. If you grew up in a cold climate, the chances are you had a sledge or toboggan as a kid. Well, a yooner is simply a hi-tech French version of the same.
Based on a form of wooden sledge called a "paret", which was used by children in the mountain valleys of France's Savoy region at the turn of the 19th century, a yooner consists of a single ski-like runner that's about a quarter of the length of a ski, with a bucket seat on top. There's a coiled-spring suspension, a control stick that thrusts up between your legs like a joystick, and a brake positioned at the rear of the runner.
There's also a strap similar to a surfboard leash, so that when the inevitable happens and you and your yooner part company, it doesn't hurtle off down the mountainside of its own accord. The design is remarkably similar to that of the old paret, except that it utilises hi-tech materials instead of wood, the steel runner improves handling, and the sprung seat improves comfort.
So, here I am, about to try yooning for the first time on the slopes of Meribel, one of France's premier winter sports resorts. Alongside me is expert yooner Guillaume Crousaz, a native of Meribel who will be giving me a few riding tips.
We start off on a gentle beginner's ski slope, as we've had to wait until evening when the ski lifts are closed and the skiers are off the mountain - yooner riders are not allowed on the pistes during the daytime.
I plonk my behind nervously on the seat as snow falls increasingly heavily out of a bruised grey sky, and with my legs out in front of me, dig my heels into the snow and pull forward as if doing a horizontal squat, until I start to slide of my own and gravity's accord. "Use your feet and hands to steer," shouts Guillaume, who is riding beside me. As I pick up speed, I'm surprised at how effective and easy this is.
Speed is your friend when riding a yooner - up to a point. The faster you go, the easier it is to balance on the single runner. If you dig your right heel in, or drag your right hand in the snow (which has a tendency to result in a glove full of the white stuff), you turn right. It's vice versa for left.
It takes three or four runs before I have the basics wired, after which there's a sensation of smooth, flowing speed as I scoot down the piste just a few centimetres above the snow. We rapidly hurtle towards the centre of Meribel, passing a few skiers straggling home late in the day.
Most of them have been enjoying the pleasures of the Rond Point bar, one of France's most notorious après-ski venues. We glide past them with broad grins, and they're bemused by what they're seeing - and probably wondering whether it has anything to do with their early trip to the bar.
Our first descent takes far less time than it took to get to our start point at the Altiport ski area on Meribel's free ski bus. As I said, yooners are faster than public transport, and combining the two is the secret to getting in lots of downhill without the hassle of walking back up afterwards.
Guillaume's local knowledge comes to the fore on our next run. We hop on another free ski bus, this time to the Mottaret ski area. It takes 10 minutes to get up the 300 vertical metres to Meribel, and five minutes to get back down.
By this time, I'm getting a little cocky, and riding with my feet perched on the runner while trying to glide along using just bodyweight adjustments to steer. It all goes well for a while, before the inevitable wipeout, with snow finding its way into lots of places I'd rather it didn't.
But by the end of my descent from Mottaret, I'm feeling pretty adept at this new sport. If you're looking for a cheap and cheerful way to have some snowy fun with friends or family in a ski resort, a couple of hours on a yooner is the perfect answer, particularly for those who don't ski, or want a break from skiing.
Virtually anyone can pick up yooning in half an hour, although experienced skiers and snowboarders do have a head start. If it doesn't make you whoop and laugh as you're tearing downhill, I really don't know what will.
My accommodation for the evening was only a two-minute walk away, in Meribel's newest and only five-star hotel, Le Kaila, which opened at the start of this winter season.
This is a hotel that has mastered the art of doing little things to make one overall big thing that is as good as it gets. For example, it has a lift from the hotel ski locker/ski shop which gives you direct access to and from the slopes. This is a real boon for ski-booted skiers.
The lift has a bouncy, padded floor, as does the room from which you access the snow. This enables you to enjoy a good grip with your boots, and means that they don't disturb other guests with their clatter.
But big things are also a part of Le Kaila. My room size was more North American than French Alpine - high timber ceilings, a bed the size of a small ocean-going yacht, and a spa bath almost the size of a swimming pool. Other details, such as the subtle lighting and the balcony overlooking Meribel's ski slopes, made me reluctant to leave the room. But there are plenty of reasons to do so, not least of which is the hotel's Spa Nuxe, where you can enjoy a four-hand massage.
At the hotel's L'Ekrin Restaurant, chef Mickael Mibord focuses on simple dishes featuring the best local produce - mouth-watering Charolais beef medallions with delicious gingerbread croutons and crispy vegetables, and a cheese board consisting of the best that the local Savoy region has to offer, including Beaufort and goat cheeses.
Double glazing keeps out the sound of skiers partying the night away in Meribel's not always silent nighttime streets, and a sensational breakfast buffet prepares you for a hard day on the slopes.
What's more, brand new rental gear to use on the slopes is also available. The hotel will also sort out your lift pass for you, and do other such dreary stuff.
I didn't notice any yooners in Le Kaila's shop - but I expect that, like everyone else, they haven't yet realised that this is going to be 2013's trendiest new winter sport.