LET IT SNOW

Skiers flock to Val d’Isere and en­joy off-piste at­trac­tions

Business Traveller (Middle East) - - Contents -

Step­ping out of La Fruitière restau­rant at 2,290m on the slopes above Val d’Isère af­ter a long and de­li­cious lunch, we could fi­nally see where all the noise was com­ing from. The next door bar – La Folie Douce – had gone from host­ing a few peo­ple hav­ing early lunchtime drinks into a full-on out­door night­club. Loud mu­sic, peo­ple danc­ing with hands in the air (not easy in ski boots, slightly eas­ier with snow­board boots) and a DJ stand­ing on a bal­cony. There were even pro­fes­sional ta­ble dancers (I as­sume they’re paid to dress like that). This wasn’t the Val d’Isère I had been ex­pect­ing.

Each re­sort in the Alps has a rep­u­ta­tion that pre­cedes it. To take just a few ex­am­ples: Courchevel has pose value; Klosters and Lech are for up­per-class wannabes and roy­alty; and Val d’Isère? Well, it makes no con­ces­sions for be­gin­ners and has lots of in­ter­me­di­ate and ad­vanced slopes. In other words, it’s a skier’s ski re­sort.

Whether fair or not, rep­u­ta­tions such as these per­sist and in­flu­ence fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of skiers. While there are those who like to try a dif­fer­ent re­sort each year, there are also plenty who stick to what they know and like, re­turn­ing each win­ter, con­fi­dent that im­prove­ments will have been made, but that the fun­da­men­tals re­main. Val d’Isère at­tracts a high pro­por­tion of re­turn guests, but that is both a strength and weak­ness. For in­stance, if its slopes have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dif­fi­cult, how does it go about at­tract­ing new skiers?

One way, as I found out on my own re­turn to the re­sort af­ter a gap of some 12 years, is by mak­ing sure there are more at­trac­tions for non-skiers in town. Val d’Isère is al­most unique in be­ing at such a high al­ti­tude

– 1,800m – and also be­ing a real vil­lage. It dates back to the 11th cen­tury, and it still has build­ings from the 17th cen­tury, in­clud­ing a much-ren­o­vated church in the old town and a vil­lage mu­seum. The first ski lift – the Ro­goney sur­face lift – opened in 1936.

It’s fair to say, how­ever, that it isn’t overly at­trac­tive. It doesn’t have the moon­scape of nearby Tignes, but nor does it have the choco­late-box looks of Megève, Cour­mayeur or Alp­bach. It’s also fair to say it’s get­ting bet­ter. There are now strict con­trols on de­vel­op­ment, such as en­sur­ing new car parks are lo­cated un­der­ground and that tra­di­tional con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als are used. The re­stric­tions are such that new de­vel­op­ments of­ten in­volve tear­ing down 1960s build­ings and re­plac­ing them with much more ex­pen­sive but authen­tic-look­ing new­com­ers.

Im­prove­ments will con­tinue. Le Coin de Val is the name of a huge five-year £170 mil­lion de­vel­op­ment – the largest in the French Alps in 20 years – in the cen­tre of the vil­lage, with an ex­ten­sion of the piste to­wards the main road and an un­der­ground mov­ing walk­way back to the main moun­tain-ac­cess lifts. In ad­di­tion, there will be 900 new beds in two ho­tels, apart­ment blocks and pri­vate chalets.

Part of Val d’Isère’s ap­peal for reg­u­lars, the ma­jor­ity of whom are British (55 per cent of vis­i­tors come from the UK, with Scan­di­navia a dis­tant se­cond at 15 per cent), comes from the sense of be­ing a real com­mu­nity, and there are many fam­ily-run busi­nesses in the vil­lage. But it’s a long way to travel for that. Re­ally what at­tracts is the near-guar­an­teed ski­ing. In an age of un­cer­tain snow, most re­sorts have snow can­nons to help main­tain the pistes, but Val d’Isère’s al­ti­tude min­imises the need for this, while the Isère river en­sures there has been no need to con­struct dams for the 900 can­nons in the same way other re­sorts have.

Some 60 per cent of the 154 pistes are lo­cated above 2,200m, up to 3,450m, with the low­est slopes at 1,550m. There are two glaciers and, from the high­est lift on the Pis­sail­las above the ham­let of Le For­net, you can ski 1,400 ver­ti­cal me­tres. The canons cover 40 per cent of these slopes to sup­ple­ment the nat­u­ral snow, of which there was plenty in the 2017-18 sea­son although, as skiers know, plen­ti­ful snow one year isn’t a guar­an­tee of the same the fol­low­ing.

The re­sort is also build­ing lifts and cre­at­ing slopes for be­gin­ners. As well as the nurs­ery slope close to the vil­lage, there is also the Sunny Ride at the top of the So­laise gon­dola, a fun run for novices that opened in 2016. Here, too, is a new area for chil­dren to learn and have fun and, open­ing this sea­son, a 40-room bou­tique ho­tel, the high­est in France.

The range of ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions means you can stay in a lux­ury ho­tel, or some­thing far more ba­sic; cook for your­self, or be cooked for ev­ery night. Hav­ing reached an age where a day’s ski­ing and a cou­ple of après-ski drinks ne­ces­si­tates at least an hour sit­ting down drink­ing tea and eat­ing a good meal be­fore I can go out again, catered chalets are a pref­er­ence, and ones where the food is some­thing more than spaghetti bolog­naise. On this visit, we stayed at the con­fus­ingly named Club As­pen, a chalet in the

cen­tre of town run by VIP Ski. Un­less you are a reg­u­lar to Val, it’s also a good idea to take some ski lessons, not least since you then have a guide to the ex­ten­sive ski area, which also in­cludes Tignes. Ski schools, such as Oxygène, and in­no­va­tion in teach­ing mean lessons are more be­spoke, with a greater fo­cus on en­sur­ing you en­joy your­self, so you’ll re­turn the fol­low­ing year. They can also help you quickly re­gain lost con­fi­dence and ac­tu­ally im­prove dur­ing the course of a trip.

Peo­ple choose a re­sort for a mix­ture of ski­ing, après-ski, restau­rants, night­clubs, price, ease of ac­cess, ac­com­mo­da­tion and the pre­vi­ous visit’s mem­o­ries. The at­trac­tion of Val is a com­bi­na­tion of deep snow, ex­cel­lent restau­rants and peo­ple of all ages danc­ing to mu­sic at three in the af­ter­noon. Per­haps next year I might join in.

In­no­va­tion in teach­ing means ski lessons are more be­spoke, with a greater fo­cus on en­joy­ment

FAR LEFT: The new La Daille gon­dolaLEFT: Val d’Isère has been recog­nised as a ski­ing des­ti­na­tion since the 1930sRIGHT AND BELOW: VIP Ski’s catered Club As­pen chalet in the heart of Val d’Isère

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