Val d'Isere: Skiing and partying at their peak
Sharron Livingston learns to relax on and off the slopes at Val d’Isère
The large terrace of Le Folie Douce is packed with revellers throughout the afternoon
On the way up, all I could see were the clouds.They were blurring the view of the peak, but as we edged closer the scene began to look a little spooky as the silhouette of the mountain-top restaurant, Tête de Solaise, began to emerge through the misty white.
Lost in thoughts of apres-ski tipples, I became aware of the voice of Max, our ski instructor. “Look over there,” he said, jabbing his ski pole into the cold air.
From this vantage point — dangling some some 2,000 feet-high on a ski lift — I could see the full expanse of the Solaise run and the steep Face de Bellevarde slope that had been a venue for the 1992 Winter Olympics.
Today this black run was the scene of the men’s World Cup slalom — an annual event that marks the opening of the ski season at Val d’Isère. It was the 21-year-old Frenchman Alexis Pinturault who won the race in just one minute 35.5 seconds — most mortals take around 10 minutes to get down the slope.
The vibe over the competition weekend was exhilerating. DJ’s were playing high-octane music, cheering crowds were forming, kids were waving French flags in support of their own skiing countrymen and pop-up bars were selling beer and coffee.
Edina and Patsy would find the apres ski absolutely fabulous
Just one thing blighted the event, but not for long. The overnight snowfall was so heavy that the morning race had to be postponed to the late afternoon. But for holiday-makers the conditions held the promise of a great ski experience in soft, pleasingly thick, powdery snow.
As a nervous skier, I was reassured to know that should I fall, the impact would be cushioned. I had spent my time on the nursery slope (where no ski pass is required and drag lifts are free) with Max, whose coaching mantra of “control your thoughts, relax your body”, worked well.
Soon I was traversing, ploughing and doing parallel turns down the wide, open spaces of the Solaise run.
It was even more gratifying to know that the runs here are cheekily under-classed which, when translated, means that some blues and greens are so steep that in other resorts they would be deemed as reds.
I didn’t venture away from the central runs but elsewhere proficient skiers were getting their kicks on a huge range of beautiful off-piste options. There is also the vast Espace Killy (the ski area in the Tarentaise Valley that includes Val d’Isère and Tignes) where you can explore some of the bumpier Solaise runs and the wide pistes of the glacier at nearby Fornet. At the last count there were 61 blues, 46 reds and 25 blacks. And, for a change, there are 44km of cross-country skiing.
But, whatever their classification, the grooming of these runs is top quality. And the resort has one of the best snow records around, making it a good ski-getaway the entire season — which itself is longer than most resorts, lasting up to six months.
But for now, just beyond the clouds, Max and I jumped off the chair at the mountain’s peak to meet the others in my group, who had spent the day on the reds and blacks.
Val d’Isère (which means valley of the Isère river) is dotted with chalet-style accommodation, most of which has popped up in the last decade or so. Mine, Le Chardon Mountain Lodge, was a few minutes away in a secluded area of La Legettaz, just walking distance from the village.
The village centre, ostensibly one long parade of shops, cafes, ski hire shops and a tourist office with a radio station, has the newly created Aqua Sportif which houses a swimming pool a climbing wall and is the venue for various other indoor sports.
It’s a pretty town, but something was missing — the usual designer shops — just one, Prada, stood out among the bustle of little-known boutiques. Perhaps this is why Val d’Isère has remained less expensive than comparable resorts.
I hopped on the free bus service to La Daille (where incidentally, violinist Vannessa Mae’s mother has a chalet). From there, a bubble lift leads to what is probably the most hedonistic party venue in the area — Le Folie Douce. What goes on here is a high-altitude version of a beach party that takes place on a sprawling terrace. Singers, musicians, dancers and fire eaters strutt their stuff at nearly 10,000 feet up a mountain, half-way up the Diabold blue run.
Getting into the vibe, I remembered that the characters Edina and Patsy, from the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, holidayed in Val d’Isère. And I have no doubt that they would have loved the atmosphere, the music, the cabaret culture, beer drinking and champagne-spraying frolics that go on throughout the afternoon (it all stops at 5.30).
But I was there for something a little less raucous: a cheese- and wine-tasting at the fine dining restaurant, La Fruitiere, next door.
I got to spend a civilised afternoon tasting a selection of French red wines from what must be the highest wine cellar in Europe, before skiing may way back down, slowly.
Back at Le Chardon, I put away the skis and boots and went straight to the spa for a massage that concentrated on my aching calves.The heady mix of the wine, the warming of my chilled face and hands and the gentle pressure of the masseuse’s hands on my muscles sent me back up into the clouds — number 9, to be precise.
I began to plan my next day’s manouevres, both on and off the piste, wondering if I could get down the blues and blacks without actually turning black and blue.
FLY: Swiss fly direct to Geneva from, Heathrow for around £120 return.www.swiss.com
STAY: Chardon Mountain Lodges.Five-star chalet accommodation close to slopes, can cater for groups from eight to 20 people. Room rates from £1,250 per person based on two sharing for seven nights. Includes breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. Concierge service.Transfers from Geneva airport can be arranged. www.lechardonvaldisere.com