Reprising 1981’s James Bond epic For Your Eyes Only aboard a ski-racked Evora, Johnny Tipler goes off-piste in the Alps.
I’m in Geneva, gateway to the Alps, luxuriating in the Hotel d’Angleterre beside the lakeside promenade, on a Lotus Cars press trip. I’ve driven an Evora down from Hethel, crossing the channel Dover to Calais on board a P&O ferry, then the Autoroute payage, passing Reims and Dijon in the small hours. Mine’s the copper-brown car with gold coachlines that’s been got up at the factory to recall 007’s Esprit Turbo from the 1981 movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’, complete with ski-racks. It’s a cool idea for a retrospective promo video, linking historic Lotus with new. That Esprit in the Bond film was the one with skis on the top and lattice-spoke wheels, currently resident in the James Bond Museum at Keswick, complete with Sheena Easton soundtrack, in which 007 AKA Roger Moore dodges ski- and motocross bike-mounted baddies bent on taking him out over a disputed nuclear submarine tracking device.
No such dramas await us. Or maybe they do: the intrepid Lotus Club International editorial trio – Caroline, who’s driven a blue Evora down to Switzerland, snapper Jason in the Galaxy pursuit car and me, have been mysteriously routed to Geneva thanks to a unanimous decision on the part of three SatNavs via a twisting mountain pass. So what? Well, there’s a blizzard going on. And while the Evoras with their Yokohama winter tyres cope surprisingly easily, the Galaxy hire car has regular UK rubber, and Jason is in trouble, ice sliding every which way on the snowy downhill. We decide it’s not worth risking his camera equipment in a car wreck, so we buy a pair of ‘chausettes’ from a roadside garage, literally socks that straddle the Galaxy’s front tyre treads like snow chains. Thus shod, Jason can make the slippery descent.
My plan next day is to is to head round the southern, French, side of Lac Léman – Lake Geneva to us - and track up into the Alps on a circular route that will bring me back to the hotel in time for the glühwein. One slight problem: it’s snowing hard. Looking out across the lake at breakfast-time through the dining room’s picture windows, big waves are breaking on the opposite quay half-a-mile away as yacht masts sway. A few lonely water taxis ply, but rather them than me. For the trip, the tinkle of tiny hooves and sleigh bells spring to mind, rather than the earthy growl of the Evora’s Toyota six-pack. Right now it feels good to be in the warm bosom of the hotel. Bond would suave it out for sure with a mid-morning Martini. But that’s not how we Lotus-eaters operate, and as the weather clears and the sun burns through, it’s off to work. Well, someone’s got to do it.
Now, pay attention 007. My co-driver is Mish Moneypenny (as enunciated by Sean Connery), AKA journo Jenny Forsyth from City AM. She’s an ardent slipper and slider, so at least one of us will be all right if the SMERSH villains pounce. We pinpoint Morzine ski resort as the focus of our run. While Morzine is in France’s Haute-Savoie department and the Rhône-Alpes, Geneva – Genève - is in Switzerland. Just. The map shows a neat round trip that takes us out of Geneva on the meandering lakeside road towards Évian-les-Bains. These are roads for pottering along, which the Evora does well enough; evaluating its real prowess is something for faster A-class roads and of course they’re affected to a greater or lesser extent by the white stuff. A prod on the throttle to encourage the back to twitch is instantly controllable with a touch of opposite lock, and it’s so much fun that restraint is called for – thank you for that, Miss Moneypenny. To be fair, the copper Esprit in For Your Eyes Only has an easier time of it (unlike the white car featured earlier in the move which gets blown up) though Bond does find his aide terminated in the ski-Esprit’s passenger seat. Jenny had better watch out!
First port of call is the unspoiled medieval village of Yvoire. The sign says no cars, but as we hover, one emerges through the Romanesque archway of the village gatehouse, so we take the liberty. Rambling stone houses, pantile roofs, shuttered windows, some festooned with evergreen creeper, famed for their floral arrangements in season. There’s a turreted castle by the lake shore, plus café, hotel and an onion-dome church spire. Charming. The village is on a promontory and delineates the ‘grand lac’ from the tail-end ‘petit lac’. Geneva is at the western end of the banana-shaped lake - the largest body of natural freshwater by volume and area in Europe - and Montreux of jazz festival fame is at the other. There’s a view across the water to Lausanne on the Swiss north shore, reachable by ferry. This is bathing territory, or probably would be if it were summer. Preferably with a speedboat and a wet-suit, or maybe even a James Bond mini-submarine for an underwater view of, well, one can only dream, smoldering Bond girl Melina Havelock. Past Thonon-les-Bains and its giant hedgehog roundabout is Évian-les-Bains, where the bottled water comes from. The stones at the lake edge are covered in ice and there’s no aquatic activity here just now, though the town comes alive in summer when the waterborne spree and the belle époque casino come alive. For now the colourful street market stretching up the hillside will have to do: ‘Saucisse! Fromage! Venez goûter,’ shout the traders. Try before you buy! Some of each, please.
The origin of Évian’s natural spring proves to be the pagoda-shaped La Source Cachet, where the beneficial waters gush with alarming velocity. And here you can actually replenish your empties for free. In the town centre is L'Éspace Thermal where sufferers of gout and digestive ailments seek Le Cure, endorsed by the French Ministry of Health. Shaken not stirred. The waters are also harnessed commercially at the clinical Spa where if it takes your fancy you can be subjected to aquatic massage via powerful jets and a dip in pure Évian. You could probably bathe in asses’ milk for the same price.
From Évian a winding lane flanked by four-feet high snow banks takes us south, going ever higher, though I feel totally secure with the Evora’s traction on the difficult surface – power overlaying ice. But it’s still a bit of a relief to join the salted D902 that follows the cascading course of the River Dranse de Morzine, running between conifers heavy with snow and rock walls festooned with icicles and frozen waterfalls. Welcome to chaletville. Every building, whether house, shop, church or hotel, is timber-built, plain pine, in a concoction of low-pitch roof, shuttered windows, with elaborately coloured, carved balcony and log-store beneath. One thing they all have in common is their own personal ski slope on top. A couple of feet of snow is marvelous insulation.
For Jenny, Morzine is nirvana, and for me, armchair Ski Sunday enthusiast, the lure of 80mph in the raw, without any protective bodywork, is crazy but thrilling. Morzine is at the heart of one of the most extensive ski regions in the Alps, known as Les Portes du Soleil. It’s one of the bigger resorts and there’s a good vibe here with lots of families in action on the runs. Even at half-term Morzine is not overcrowded, with more than 400 miles of tended trails and slopes, unlimited off-piste terrain and 207 lifts. Half the slopes are beginner or intermediate level, and today’s fresh snow means deep powder so it’s not so fast. Apart from one of the best snowboard parks in the French Alps, and that means big jumps, there’s a range of slopes for all levels of skiing skills and experience, with several firms busy offering tuition. You can also do skidoos, sledging, snow treks, cross country skiing, and paragliding – a couple of which come close to landing on our cheese-and-onion tarts as we snack outside the Action Sports Café just below the ski-lifts on Avenue de Joux Plane. Croque Monsieur? That’ll be me!
There’s plenty of snow at the top of the first lifts, and higher up they say it’s perfect. The Winter Olympics are just getting under way on Whistler’s Cypress Mountain and I’m anxious to impress any roving talent scouts looking to recruit last minute subs for the British team, say, as a sweeper in the curling competition… But Jenny can’t resist the call of the slopes, so we offload the Evora’s James Bond ski kit and she heads for the new six-seater chairlift; there’s a new high-speed one and a magic carpet too, so there’s no hanging about. You can do this at Morzine (2277m top) and higher up at adjacent treeless Avoriaz (2460m top) reachable from Morzine by cable car, gondola and high-speed chairlift – arrive and slide just like Bond does in For Your Eyes Only along with delectable Olympic skater Bibi Dahl (say it quickly) - provided you’ve got waterproofs and boots, just turn up and ski. “Ah, Mr Bond! We’ve been expecting you.” Every other shop seems to sell or rent ski wear and those in between are patisseries or café-bars, like La Buddha Bar and Café Chaud near the Pleney lift. We round off the Morzine experience at the après-ski Dixie Bar with a Jägerbomb: Jägermeister meets Red Bull. Depth-charged!
Leaving Morzine we rejoin the D902 at Les Gets and track off to the spectacular D907 at Taninges, winding through pristine meadows, woods and more chalet villages, the Evora tucking its nose in obligingly through the corners, so competent you feel you could do anything with it. Not long after Taninges I spot a huge mountain goat climbing the steep roadside, sporting the biggest pair of horns you ever saw, and I slam on the anchors in order to snap his portrait. Uh-oh. He turns and heads back down the hill. Poor hungry chap, I think, and toss him an uneaten baguette sandwich. A bit later I reflect that this is his gig – he’s an opportunist, a roadside rustler. No wonder he looked so well fed!
We arrive back on the outskirts of Geneva at Annemasse. The urban border crossing into Switzerland is unmanned and the SatNav routes us through the suburbs and into downtown Geneva, where every watchmaker you ever heard of has their name discretely emblazoned on elderly building fronts – including 007’s favourite, Omega. Around the end of the petit lac there’s the homecoming façade of the Hotel D’Angleterre. It’s been a really great day, a fabulous drive in a brilliant car and a few healthy slides on the white stuff to boot. I congratulate Miss Jenny Penny on her downhill prowess. ‘Flattery will get you nowhere, but don't stop trying,’ she says. Pure Moneypenny.
So far so good. We check out Mont Blanc, Chamonix and charming ski resorts like Argentière for the forthcoming video action, less than an hour southeast of Geneva, where the views are breathtakingly spectacular against a blue sky, so jagged and pointed and, simply, high. The hot chocolate’s pretty good too. But that’s not the end of the story. The hotel concierge has been tasked with hand-washing the Lotuses each day to remove the coating of salt and grime, and for a couple of days that works just fine. Then a new guy comes on duty and he’s either not briefed properly or prefers taking a short cut and so runs the Bond Evora through a carwash. Big mistake. The flails make short work of the neat ski-rack installation, ripping it off and damaging the car’s rear window. So Lotus have to fly out Kieran who created the racks specially for the Evora so he can mend it. Not only are we doing the ice driving at Serre Chevalier ice racing stadium tomorrow, but our Bond car is to be involved in a major promo action that’s planned the following week involving 007-style stunt skiing over at Chamonix, so that, and a fashion show in Geneva also based around the car, hangs precariously in the balance. Happily, in a matter of hours it’s mended and Kieran’s on his way home to Hethel.
There is a postscript, and it’s not good for our lensman, Jason. The following day the Lotus entourage heads three-and-a-half hours southwest from Geneva to Serre Chevalier (see separate story, Dancing on Ice). Jason’s up on the snow bank that lines the track, photographing the Evoras circulating the stadium. One second he’s upright, the next he’s on the deck writhing in agony. He’s slipped off the bank and fallen badly while trying to save his camera. The fire brigade and an ambulance arrive to cart him off to the local fracture clinic – they know about such things only too well in these parts. Turns out he’s got three fractures, one in his leg, two in his ankle. The snapper snapped. Plastered up, Lotus will fly him home the following day.
For the rest of us, meanwhile, there’s the long haul back to Geneva through the interminable Fréjus Tunnel between Modane and Bardonècchia – 8 miles (13kms), 10 minutes and 43 euros long. More gloomy tunnels follow, where the Evora’s V6 bark echoing off the barrel vault ceilings provides consolation. The transition from dark to light on exit is blinding. The fantastic hairpin road up from Briançon to Montgenèvra is made for the Evora, and as we scream up the helter-skelter, powering hard out of each turn, I’m half expecting a Citroën 2CV to career overhead as 007 makes good his mad escape with moody Melina as he did in For Your Eyes Only. All too soon an artic timber truck brings proceedings to a crawl, but later on, straightlining the sweeping curves at speed on the Autoroute, it’s back to fun time. At around 100mph the suspension firms up and the car takes on a much more purposeful attitude, as if to say, “OK, let’s get on with it then.” In the process we manage to hit three countries in the day – Switzerland, France and Italy. Apart from in the tunnel the outside temperature never climbs above zero, even in the city. The roads are salty and grimy, and fortunately we’ve topped up the Evora’s screenwash reservoir with undiluted fluid otherwise the jets would be frozen up.
I travel with Lotus suspension guru Matt Becker and we savour the prospect of that beer and the resident soul trio back at our hotel’s cozy Leopard bar. To access Geneva from the Autoroute means driving through a formidable customs checkpoint. Normally it’s not manned, but tonight on our way back in we’re singled out and quizzed about our business there. “Work or pleasure?” Hard to say. Bond would probably have taken out the guards and made a run for it, but we settle for the easy life. “Pleasure,” I tell them, what else!