Time to slope off: downhill in Tignes and Tahoe
What makes a great ski area? As we head into an Olympic year, we compare two popular ski destinations with big Olympic connections on different continents: France in Europe and California in USA.
There is plenty of snow but Tignes is not as picturesque as Tahoe
Espace Killy, Tignes/Val D'Isere
L'Espace Killy, located in the Savoy region south west of Geneva, is named after the eponymous French ski racer, offers two different main resorts, but one fantastic ski area.
In these uncertain climatic times, one of the most important considerations is booking with the confidence that you are going to have snow to ski on. Espace Killy is reassuringly consistent - both Tignes and Val d'Isere are high enough to pretty much guarantee skiing throughout the season and the variety of skiing caters for everyone from beginner to seasoned expert, as does the variety (and cost) of accommodation.
Both resorts played major roles in the 1992 Winter games - Val d'Isere hosting most of the men's alpine skiing events while Tignes was the site for all of the freestyle skiing events.
"Val" is one of the most British of all French resorts. It's got a reputation for being posh and prices certainly commands a premium, but nowadays there is a wide spread of accommodation ranging from the hostel end through to some of the most luxurious hotels and chalets around. The nightlife is excellent and some of Val's haunts are legendary - Dick's Tea Bar, for example - and the skiing… well, it has both a World Cup and an Olympic Downhill course as well as some beautiful and somewhat easier pistes further from the resort centres.
Both Val d'Isere and Tignes are served by a variety of ski schools. The ubiquitous ESF (Ecole de Ski Francais) is well represented, but so too are an increasingly large number of smaller, more international ski schools where English is usually the mainlanguage. Be sure to book in advance, however, as at busy times it can be really hardto find spaces otherwise.
Tignes is more family-oriented and less "chocolate box-y" than Val, but it offers an awesome selection of chalets and apartments at its various resorts. The central meeting points at both Le Lac and Val Claret make the skiing accessible for dropping off the kids at Ski School and setting off yourself. There are some great places for lunch by the lifts, but be sure to get a place early as they get busy quickly. Tignes also has a great sports centre, with a superb wave and slide swimming pool – and, in fact, lots to do for non-skiers.
The Grand Motte Glacier in Tignes has snow all the year round so it's already open for business. However, if you are considering a summer holiday in the mountains, Tignes really has it all, especially when the Lac de Tignes is ice-free – so you can combine walking, sailing, tennis and skiing in a truly great holiday destination.
Best time to go
The best snow conditions in either France or California are from February to March. December heralds the start of the ski season but conditions may be cold.
Three hours drive from San Francisco and forty five minutes from Reno, Nevada, lies Lake Tahoe. It borders California and Nevads in western USA. The region has several ski resorts situated around the Lake. When I last counted there were 14 (not including the cross country ski areas) and they range from the large by American Standards - such as Heavenly and Squaw Valleys to the small by anyone's standards like, Soda Springs Boreal.
The downside is that they aren't really connected though the drive between one resort main lift and the next may be only a few minutes and, if you base yourself in Tahoe City or South Lake Tahoe you will always be well placed for several. The upside is that there is something for everyone and they all offer a view of the Lake, which is a view worth having.
Tahoe caters for everyone. There is a resort for cruising and a resort for really bruising, punishing skiing and everything in between.
You don't pay a premium for meals or drinks in the resort or on the mountain (a refreshing change from Europe) and there is a fair variety.
Tahoe can also offer two extremes of holiday because half of it is in Nevada, where gambling, if not compulsory, is certainly the central pastime and the other half is in California, where things are much more "laid back". This makes South Lake Tahoe - the base town for Heavenly Valley - a fascinating place because the Nevada half is brash, neon-lit 24/7 party central, while the California half, is not.
Other Lake Tahoe resorts have less of a split personality. Squaw Valley, home to the 1960 Winter Olympics has some really challenging skiing and much more of a European feel.
Accommodation comprises hotels, motels, self-catering apartments and there are few catered chalets – but you will find the facilities are generally more spacious and more highly spec'd than their French equivalents.
Lift queues are incredibly well ordered - no pushing - every twenty feet or so there are tissue stops and when you get to your chair lift, someone will wipe your seat and greet you with "have a nice day!" Ski Patrols "police" the mountain and can remove ski passes from people who behave like idiots on or by the slopes.
Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long and almost 1900 metres above sea level - higher than most European resorts, so the snow comes early and stays late. If you ski in Spring you can sometimes sunbathe on the shores of the Lake and ski in the mountains surrounding it, all on the same day.
Tahoe doesn't have a glacier which means that there's no snow skiing once the season has ended, but, like Tignes, it has tennis, golf, watersports and mountain-type activities and, it too, makes a great place for a summer holiday.