Going on and off the piste at a French resort
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