Val d’Isère will al­ways get the Gold from me

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

The So­laise ca­ble car, built in 1940, was still clunk­ing up the moun­tain, and the La Daille gon­dola may have looked like Six­ties chic, but it was a squeeze to fit four big down­hill rac­ers into a cabin.

In­vest­ment from the Eight­ies on has been phe­nom­e­nal. Since the Fu­ni­val un­der­ground fu­nic­u­lar opened in 1987, there has hardly been a new lift that’s not state-of-the-art, from a sleek 10-per­son gon­dola for So­laise to the on­go­ing £170mil­lion re­gen­er­a­tion that in­cludes un­der­ground mov­ing walk­ways in town and an Amer­i­canstyle day lodge on the moun­tain.

BBC com­men­ta­tor Matt Chilton, who first skied in Val d’Isère in 1985, is a fan of the 2002-built Olympique gon­dola, which ac­cesses Bell­e­varde’s slopes from near the town cen­tre. “I’m for­tu­nate to have skied all over the world and I’m con­vinced that the Olympique is the finest ski lift on the planet,” he says. “In terms of speed, ca­pac­ity and ver­ti­cal up­lift, noth­ing comes close.”

The Eight­ies saw a boom in the Bri­tish catered-chalet hol­i­day, with Val d’Isère a key des­ti­na­tion. When we met, my wife was work­ing in a chalet called Le Clos, one of the larger ones run by Mark Warner. There were 12 chalet girls (no boys), and din­ner was served in big dishes at 7.30pm prompt, with one guest be­ing “mother”. The fam­ily trip we took last Easter, stay­ing at Ing­hams’ Chalet Ho­tel & Spa Le Savoie, is a good ex­am­ple of how the roles of staff have changed. As Sarah noted: “Clean rooms and mixed staff in smart uni­forms – such a con­trast to the baggy tops, leg­gings and cow­boy boots we wore in the Eight­ies.”

My first ex­pe­ri­ence of the lux­ury end of the chalet mar­ket came in the late Nineties at Le Chardon Moun­tain Lodges, with cham­pagne and canapés, gourmet meals and an out­door pool. The 2000s saw open­ings such as the splen­did Ea­gle’s Nest, and Chalet Husky with its in­door climb­ing, archery and ri­fle shoot­ing, and the lux­ury sec­tor con­tin­ues apace, in­clud­ing a five-star bou­tique ho­tel, Le Refuge, un­der way on So­laise.

This high-end de­mand also ex­tends to the high street. Susan and Jock Dun set up a hire shop in Val d’Isère in 1991, and now run Snow­berry rental. “Our cus­tomers have be­come more de­mand­ing over the past 30 years,” says Susan. “Most re­alise the im­por­tance of de­cent equip­ment that’s prop­erly ser­viced and cor­rectly ad­justed, but they ex­pect top-qual­ity gear and ser­vice at a good-value price.” Val d’Isère opens first ho­tel – Au­berge Moris Le Ro­goney drag-lift opens on So­laise, the moun­tain di­rectly above town Col de l’Iseran, Europe’s high­est road pass opens, con­tin­u­ing from Val d’Isère into the neigh­bour­ing Mau­ri­enne val­ley So­laise ca­ble car built Hy­dro­elec­tric dam built be­low Val d’Isère, cov­er­ing the old vil­lage of Tignes and cre­at­ing the Lac du Chevril. The new ski re­sort of Tignes was built above First run­ning of the Critérium de la Première Neige ski races, which take place at the be­gin­ning of ev­ery ski sea­son, snow depend­ing and are now part of the World Cup cir­cuit Val d’Isère and Tignes area re­named the Es­pace Killy, af­ter ski racer Jean-Claude Killy, one of Val d’Isère’s founders. The area has since been re­named Val d’Isère/ Tignes Fu­ni­val opens in La Daille So­laise Ex­press chair­lift opens

John Yates-Smith, founder of YSE chalet hol­i­days, says his first job in the re­sort, in 1976, was wash­ing dishes at the Fjord ho­tel. “I was paid £5 a week, while my brother Dick was paid £12 as a rep. He had a room and I slept un­der the ping-pong ta­ble. Val d’Isère was a hairy-chested place then – ac­com­mo­da­tion was ba­sic and hot wa­ter a lux­ury. Après con­sisted of four sleazy night­clubs play­ing Johnny Hal­ly­day and fre­quented by Parisians in leather trousers.”

Dick Yates-Smith opened Dick’s Tea Bar in 1979. From very mod­est be­gin­nings it be­came the place on the World Cup tour for a post-race party.

Val d’Isère was a lot more punk back then. An old haunt of mine fea­tured a bub­blegum wall, with ev­ery inch cov­ered in used gum. One throw­back that has stood the test of time is the Moris Pub. Chilton was its man­ager for a sea­son in the Nineties. “It is pos­si­bly the last re­main­ing link to the Eight­ies,” he laughs.

On the moun­tain, La Folie Douce, at the top of the La Daille ca­ble car, hired Kely Starlight as artis­tic di­rec­tor in 1996. His re­fresh­ing take on en­ter­tain­ment led to Aus­tri­anstyle ski-boot danc­ing on ta­bles – après-ski with an Ibiza twist. The par­ty­ing has not stopped since.

In town, Dick Yates-Smith sold his bar in 1997 and it has had a num­ber of makeovers. But the re­gen­er­a­tion plan for the heart of the re­sort, called Le Coin de Val, will add 900 ex­tra guest beds and see Dick’s Tea Bar knocked down and re­lo­cated.

Jim Adling­ton first skied in Val d’Isère in 1992, work­ing his way up from pot-washer to pro­fes­sional freeskier, and set­ting up Planks Cloth­ing. “When I ar­rived there were loads of ski bums and snow­board­ers from all over the world liv­ing a hand-to-mouth ex­is­tence, just so they could ride ev­ery day. It’s im­pos­si­ble to be in Val d’Isère for the win­ter now and not work.”

An­other change is the in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple who come to Val d’Isère just for the après, but Jim’s not com­plain­ing: “We should thank places like Dick’s for par­ty­ing all night be­cause it means fewer peo­ple, es­pe­cially the sea­son­aires, go ski­ing off-piste. So it keeps all those clas­sic lines free on a pow­der day.”

Last sea­son saw an abun­dance of pow­der days in Val d’Isère, as good as any I can re­mem­ber. Yes, the re­sort may have changed, but the moun­tains re­main as chal­leng­ing and awe-in­spir­ing as ever. Ing­hams (01483 791114; ing­ of­fers seven nights at five-star Chalet Ho­tel & Spa Le Savoie in Val d’Isère from £1,079 per per­son half-board, in­clud­ing a choice of com­pli­men­tary wines with meals, re­turn flights and trans­fers.

Gra­ham Bell is a for­mer Olympic skier and now works as a TV pre­sen­ter and jour­nal­ist.

Skiers at Val d’Isère, right; Gra­ham Bell and his wife Sarah at the 1992 Win­ter Olympics, left; the French re­sort at night, be­low

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