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