Go­ing on and off the piste at a French re­sort

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - CAMILLA SWIFT THE SPEC­TA­TOR THE SPEC­TA­TOR

FIRST things first. Yes, France’s Val d’Isere does have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing ex­pen­sive and it is, es­pe­cially if you’re plan­ning on eat­ing out and em­brac­ing the apres-ski scene ev­ery night.

But no mat­ter what any­one says, you can’t ar­gue with the fact the ski­ing is fan­tas­tic.

Com­bined with its neigh­bour, Tignes, there’s a to­tal of 330km of piste to ex­plore, with plenty of steep red and blue runs that are per­fect for in­ter­me­di­ate and ad­vanced skiers.

One of the most fre­quent com­plaints about ski­ing in ‘‘Val’’ is get­ting home at the end of the day. Al­most ev­ery route down to the main town is a chal­lenge, even if you are fairly com­pe­tent at de­scend­ing moun­tains with a cou­ple of planks strapped to your feet. For be­gin­ners, the thought of de­scend­ing the no­to­ri­ously icy La Face at the end of a full day’s ski­ing, on legs ex­hausted from tack­ling moguls (and per­haps wob­bling a bit from the vin chaud at lunch), is enough to strike fear into the bravest heart. But you can just take the lift back into town. You cer­tainly won’t be the only one. More ad­vanced skiers should bear in mind that not all the fun is to be had within the mark­ers. In ad­di­tion to the huge pisted area, there’s also an in­cred­i­ble amount of off-piste. Stay­ing in one of the most snow-sure re­sorts in the Alps does have its down­sides, though. If you’re se­ri­ous about go­ing off-piste, make sure you get your­self a guide who knows the slopes. There are nu­mer­ous avalanches ev­ery year be­cause of the sheer amount of snow, and some­times deaths. Still keen to find some vir­gin pow­der? Just make sure you get out early. That ex­tra half hour in bed af­ter a night in Dick’s Tea Bar may seem ap­peal­ing, but you can be sure that another alpine ex­plorer will have beaten you to it.

And it’s not just the ski­ing that will get the adrenalin pump­ing — even some of the lifts are an at­trac­tion to thrillseekers. No trip would be com­plete with­out a ride on the Leissieres Ex­press, an up-and-over chair­lift with a steep rise as you ap­proach the top of the pin­na­cle ridge, and a stom­ach-churn­ing drop on the down­ward sec­tion.

There’s also good food aplenty, in the town and on the moun­tain. Ev­ery Mon­day the mar­ket sells de­li­cious lo­cal cheeses and meats, while regulars sing the praises of the patis­serie at Mai­son Che­val­lot.

In town, you can find a huge se­lec­tion of places to dine, from Miche­lin-starred restau­rants (L’Ate­lier d’Ed­mond, La Becca, and La Ta­ble de l’Ours) to more rea­son­ably priced lo­cal favourites.

vald­is­ere.com start singing Sad-Eyed Lady of the Low­lands, belt­ing out with gusto the verse about sur­viv­ing even if your deck of cards is miss­ing the jack and the ace.

Ski­ing is the per­fect fam­ily out­ing, but noth­ing would in­duce me to take it up as an adult. Many re­sorts in the French Alps are hideous, and the peo­ple are pretty aw­ful, too. Along the way you have to deal with snow­board­ers in baggy ano­raks and in­dif­fer­ent spaghetti bolog­nese cost­ing about $50 in posh places like Zer­matt.

It’s all such a per­for­mance. But that’s what I love about it. Have I got the right gloves? Per­haps I should change my boots this evening for a more com­fort­able pair. Not sure my skis are quite up to scratch. Maybe my par­al­lel turns will im­prove if I in­vest in a more fetch­ing bob­ble hat.

The chalet hol­i­day is a uniquely Bri­tish in­ven­tion pi­o­neered in 1959 by Colin Muri­son Small in Grindel­wald. In those days, his Muribirds would melt some cheese and call it fon­due, and plonk a cou­ple of bot­tles of vine­gary red wine on the ta­ble. To­day, the smarter ski com­pa­nies talk about lodges rather than chalets.

Even in the 1980s it was hit and miss. We once joined a chalet party in Megeve and ev­ery­thing was go­ing splen­didly un­til the sec­ond morn­ing when I got up and no­ticed there was no sign of break­fast. Then, sud­denly, a man ap­peared from the base­ment where our two chalet girls were bil­leted. He was wear­ing white Y-fronts and car­ry­ing a pair of track­suit bot­toms. ‘‘Sorry, mate, nearly for­got th­ese,’’ he said, mak­ing for the door.

We never got break­fast that morn­ing and then the girl not en­ter­tain­ing Mr Y-fronts was dumped by her French boyfriend and needed a con­stant shoul­der to cry on. By the end of the week we were cook­ing our own din­ners and had con­sid­ered draw­ing up a dish­wash­ing ros­ter.

I learnt to ski in the 60s at Zurs in Aus­tria. To make it clear that lux­ury was vul­gar, we had to wear our heavy leather boots all the way, tied so tight that the blood stopped just above the an­kles.

‘‘Wear them in and make sure they mould to your feet,’’ my mother would tell us. ‘‘And, any­way, it’s much lighter wear­ing them than car­ry­ing them all that way.’’ And far bet­ter, I would have thought, to have rented them once we got there, but I imag­ine my par­ents didn’t trust the Aus­tri­ans to pro­duce proper boots — af­ter all, what did they know about win­ter sports?

I used to be paired with my fa­ther on the T-bar lifts. It was a good time to talk, just as chair­lifts are a good time to talk to­day. Per­haps it’s all that fresh air and height­ened el­e­va­tion, but no topic is off-piste on the moun­tain.

Zurs used to have one of the long­est lifts in the world. Once, the vis­i­bil­ity was so bad that you couldn’t see the top of the stan­chions and then, just to top things off, thick snow and an arc­tic wind blew in. I lost all feel­ing in myfeet and hands, fol­lowed by a light-head­ed­ness.

My fa­ther kept talk­ing, hop­ing the sound of his voice would keep me alive, but the only com­fort came from the cer­tainty that I would be dead by the time we reached the top.

My chil­dren will have their own sto­ries to tell their chil­dren. I know this be­cause the last time we could af­ford a proper week of spring ski­ing in the Three Val­leys I asked my daugh­ter what she was lis­ten­ing to on her iPod as we pre­pared to stop for lunch at my favourite moun­tain restau­rant, Les Cretes, be­tween Meri­bel and Sain­tMartin-de-Belleville.

‘‘ Sad-Eyed Lady of the Low­lands,’’ good about that.

she said. And I felt

The fash­ion­able Val d’Isere

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