Val Thorens, France: the highest ski resort in Europe
- Recommended for:
- Activity, Winter Sports, Nightlife, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
Val Thorens is part of Les Trois Vallées, the world's largest ski circuit. With more than 140km of piste above 3,000m – so plenty of snow – the resort makes a superb choice for a late-season ski break
Val Thorens lies in the Belleville valley, one of the famed Trois Vallées of the French Alps. At 2,300m, it the highest ski resort in Europe – but what it offers, in addition to altitude, is reach. There are 600km of Les Trois Vallées skiing right on its doorstep – including 140km of varied pistes high above Val Thorens itself, mostly at an altitude of more than 3,000m. If it's snow you are after, this is the place to go. Val Thorens opened for the 2009/2010 season on November 14, before this guide was published – evidence, for anyone who needed it, that the white stuff was already plentiful.
Check my 'Top 10 European ski resorts for guaranteed snow' guide right here on Simonseeks...
While its snow record may be enviable, Val Thorens can be cold and forbidding when the weather closes in. Indeed, there are underground walkways connecting the buildings and providing shelter. In harsh conditions, it can feel like another hostile planet. The upside, of course is the convenience of having such a vast and varied ski area at your disposal – as well as a vibrant nightlife.
Val Thorens enjoys a super-long season – from early November through to May – making it an excellent late-season choice (meaning after February). In the early season, the bleak weather is exacerbated by heavy dumps of snow – and the lack of trees at this height quickly leads to low (or no) visibility. In the late season, all this acts in your favour: you can ski in the same sunshine as neighbouring Méribel, but instead of slush in the afternoons, you have masses of perfect snow right on your doorstep. On a blue-sky day, Val Thorens is hard to fault: I have skied there in late March and had fantastic snow conditions and glorious T-shirt sunshine.
Val Thorens is a compact, traffic-free, purpose-built village – but not in the typical chalet-based style, having many apartments. While lacking the charm of Méribel (in the neighbouring valley), it is not particularly unpleasant in terms of architecture. It is modern, it suits its environment and it has a vitality appropriate to the young, energetic crowd that goes there. With 25,000 beds, it is the largest of the three resorts sharing the Belleville valley. The others are Les Menuires and smaller, picturesque St Martin. All offer excellent entry points to the vast Trois Vallées ski area.
If you want to experience the vast amount of skiing that Les Trois Vallées has to offer, Val Thorens is cheaper than Courchevel 1850, larger and livelier at night than Courchevel 1650 and much more cosmopolitan than Méribel – which, for some, is rather too British. In fact, Val Thorens is claimed to be the most international of all the resorts, with a good balanced mix of Brits, French, Scandanavians, Dutch and Russians.
In terms of skiing access, Val Thorens has a state-of-the-art lift system and links superbly to Les Menuires, further down the Belleville valley, and the wonderful La Masse area. It is perfectly easy to pop over to Val Thorens' sister valleys for a change of scene, by taking one of the wind-resistant (double cable) "Funitel" gondolas up to Col de la Chambre to explore Méribel and Courchevel. (For full details on skiing and dining options, see my other Simonseeks ski guides to Courchevel 1650 and 1850, and Méribel).
The skiing in the Belleville valley alone is suited to all standards of skier and snowboarder, making Val Thorens brilliant for mixed-ability groups. There is easily enough to explore in this area alone, without even venturing further a field.
With nursery slopes right on the doorstep, Val Thorens is perfect for beginners – and there is an excellent-value beginners lift pass for (lower-altitude) Les Menuires, covering half-day ski tuition and use of 16 lifts. This is also a great option when the weather is particularly harsh higher up the mountain at Val Thorens. There is an epic number of easy, wide blues to explore and progress towards as you improve.
Val Thorens has some of the best reds for good intermediates in the whole of the Three Valleys. Head up the Cime de Caron cable car for the awesome views and you will be spoilt for choice for long, thrilling reds such as the Col de l’Audzin running down towards the Boismint chair. The Boismint red is another wonderful descent – and, after that, pick any of the fast red cruises down towards Les Menuires or St Martin. You really can’t go wrong – and for improving beginners or timid intermediates, there is an indecent range of wide, confidence-building blue motorway pistes to choose from, allowing you to work on your technique.
Again, take the Cime de Caron cable car to the summit at 3,200m – the highest in the Three Valleys, with breathtaking panoramic views. Expert skiers will be spoilt for choice with lots of off-piste powder and the famous Combe du Caron mogulled black run. Pointe de la Masse (further down at Les Menuires) also provides steep, testing mogul fields and there are endless off-piste opportunities with more than 1,000m of steep, vertical powder in which to escape the crowds. There is also an exhilarating 12km off-piste descent down Vallon du Lou. Still more off-piste powder is available on the Chevière and Peclet, keeping advanced skiers and snowboarders very happy.
There is an abundance of good-quality snow and off-piste powder for snowboarders, as well as some superb purpose-built facilities. Les Menuires has an excellent snow park with the jumps graded by difficulty, and a half pipe situated at Reberty. The Val Thorens park is at Maurienne where there are two table tops, four jumbo jumps and an assortment of rails and slides, plus a separate bordercross course. There is also a thrilling and addictive 6km-long toboggan run which you really have to try.
Three favourite runs
Either the Cime de Caron cable car or the Grand Fond lift will take you up to the ridge where you can ski the Fourth Valley with its fast descent down to the village of Orelle. There are enough blues, red and blacks here to suit everyone, and a pleasing sense of avoiding the crowds. At Les Menuires, skiing the Vallon du Lou down from Point de la Masseis a wonderful off-piste powder experience, involving a 1,000m vertical drop away from the madding crowd. A good option for improving beginners, or early intermediates who want to stretch their legs, is to take the Plein Sud chair. From the top, there are plenty of wide blue runs on which to gain confidence. The Cascades chair leads to some longer blue runs for the same ability level.
VAL THORENS AT A GLANCE
Number of lifts (Val Thorens) 30
Funitels 3 (Bouquetin, Péclet and Grand Fond)
Télégraphique (cable car) 1
Télécabines (bubbles) 3
Chair lifts 15
Drag lifts 4
Moving walkways 4
Lift capacity per hour 57,230
Snow parks 2
Snow cannon 90km coverage
Number of lifts (Les Trois Vallées) 200
Resort altitude 2,300m
Ski terrain altitude 1,400-3,250m
Number of pistes (Val Thorens) 68
(8 green, 27 blue, 25 red, 8 black)
Number of pistes (Les Trois Vallées) 336
(53 green, 131 blue, 118 red, 34 black)
Total length of of piste (Val Thorens) 330km
Total length of piste (Les Trois Vallees) 600km
Longest run 8km
Pros and cons
High-altitude and snow-sure
Part of Les Trois Vallées – the largest linked ski area in the world
Ski to door virtually everywhere – great for mixed-ability groups
Traffic-free (you are allowed one hour to unload bags)
Young and vibrant resort, energetic après-ski
Purpose-built and modern, but with lots of character
Cold and bleak in harsh weather
Poor visibility in flat light – and no trees
Not a traditional "chocolate box" village
Eating out in Val Thorens reflects the resort's cosmopolitan nature. There is something for everyone, from simple bar food, Mexican cuisine and pizzas to Michelin-starred restaurants of the highest quality. Because everywhere is ski-to-door, village restaurants are viable lunchtime options. Higher up the mountain, or on your travels, good self-service restaurants predominate. However, there are some cosy little piste-stops along the way. Heading over to St Martin is a good option; being at a lower altitude, it has some really fantastic places with sunny terraces and stunning valley views.
If dialling from the UK, prefix all number below with 00 33 and omit the first zero.
Le Montagnard – The Mountaineer (04 79 01 08 40) This, in my opinion, is the best mountain restaurant in the Belleville valley. It is just off the Biolley piste, before you reach the church in St Martin. This cute converted old barn serves surprisingly refined and beautifully presented modern French food. You would expect to pay twice as much, making it incredible value. A typical plat du jour costs about €12. Book ahead.
Chalet les Sonnailles (04 79 00 74 28) A super choice for a lunchtime stop-off, this place serves lovely homely food and is also terrific value: two plats du jours and a bottle of wine cost €30. It's just off the relaxed red Boulevard Cumin run to Les Menuires. Keep an eye out to your left, just before Reberty.
La Ferme de la Choumette (04 79 40 00 42) Situated just before the bridge, off the main Biolley piste as you ski into St Martin, this excellent-value little restaurant is also a working farm. You can look out through a full-length glass partition on the farm animals. Very popular with the ski instructors, the restaurant has a sunny terrace with fabulous views. Mains cost less than €15; expect tasty, homely but refined cooking using the farm's own produce.
Val Thorens has begun to shed its utilitarian image, and has some splendid top-class venues. My first choice here is no exception; the presiding chef, Jean Sulpice, recently won a prestigious best young chef of the year award.
L'Oxalys (04 79 00 12 00, www.restaurant-loxalys.fr), Entree station. Val Thorens' only Michelin-starred restaurant is run by young master chef Jean Sulpice. So good is his cooking, lots of people come over from Courchevel 1850 to sample it. I'd recommend the La Lauze set menu (€48 per head without drinks), though there is a cheaper one (€30) and they go all the way up to €110. It's an expensive treat, but this place is as good as it gets. There is also a lovely terrace.
Hotel Le Fitz Roy (04 79 00 04 78), place de l'Eglise. La Table du Roy is a lovely, sophisticated gastronomic restaurant is in the four-star Hotel Le Fitz Roy. It serves creative modern cuisine of a very high standard, while another more traditional restaurant in the hotel serves Savoyard-style cooking. Expect to pay more than €50 per person, with wine, for the gourmet menu and €25-€35 for the Savoyard menu,
La Chaumiere (04 79 00 01 13, www.valthorens-lachaumiere.com), galerie Caron. Just past the tourist office, in the centre of the village, is this charming little restaurant which is very popular with locals. It does a good steak and chips for less than €15, while plats du jours start at €11.50. Great value.
Restaurant des Trois Vallées (04 79 00 01 86), Grande rue. This restaurant, in the Hôtel des Trois Vallées, serves excellent French cuisine. A full meal from the fixed menu costs about €30 per person.
Le Vieux Chalet (04 79 00 07 93, www.levieuxchalet.com), rue du Soleil. This glorious rustic cabin (see photographs) presents upscale Savoyard specialties, from omelettes to raclette and fondue. A beautifully atmospheric place to dine, it does a great-value lunch special for €19. You will almost certainly want to return, at some point, for dinner. That will work out at about €60 per person with wine, for three delicious courses.
Le Choucas (04 79 00 04 98, www.le-choucas.com), rue de Caron. Serves an eclectic menu ranging from French modern cuisine to typical local Savoyard food. Tartiflette will cost €17 and their delicious breast of duck is around the same.
Les Trois Pachas (04 79 00 05 84), galerie Caron. This place does some very good-value lunch specials for just €12. It can get packed at peak times. Since the French tend to eat lunch at 1pm, a good tip is to book earlier for quicker service and less of a queue at the lift after lunch.
La Paillotte (04 79 00 01 02), Centre Commercial Caron. Renowned for its crêpes and fresh trout, this is a rustic family place. The plat du jour is normally about €12 and a decent house wine will cost €13.
Le Scapin (04 79 00 05 94), in Le Zénith building. This restaurant is popular with locals – which is always a good sign. It serves local cuisine as well as really good pizzas. Eat well for less than €15 per person.
La Belle en Cuisse (04 79 00 04 30), Arcelle 1. This is not a restaurant – but a visit is essential, especially if you are staying in apartments. It's an exceptional Savoyard gourmet épicerie selling really appetising cured mountain meats and sausages, as well as regional jams, honey and pâtés. There is also a wonderful selection of fine local wines.
In Val Thorens, this is energetic and varied. The most popular bars and restaurants are all close to the centre of the resort, and there are two late-night clubs. There is also a sports centre featuring a swimming pool and squash courts – a different kind of après-ski. Evening skidoo rides are ever popular and highly recommended if you want to do something different.
The Frog and Roastbeef (04 79 00 07 17) This is a typical Britsh pub – except that, by skiing down (blue) Plein Sud, you can ski straight to the front door and join in the happy hour (5.30pm-7.30pm). Nightly dancing on tables seems to be a pre-requisite here. Perks include decent pub grub, live bands and a big-screen TV for live sports. It's an extremely popular venue, and a great place to start the night.
O’Connell’s (04 79 01 05 05) For proof that Val Thorens is truly cosmopolitan, look no further. This is a French-owned Irish pub, with a truly mixed bag of united nations all drinking like Irishmen. It's a good place to stop for a Guinness after sampling the super-charged shots of the nearby Frog and Roastbeef.
El Gringo (04 79 00 01 61) This is a fun, relaxed and informal place to dine out and dance until late. Laid out over three floors, it has something for everyone: good Tex-Mex food, killer margaritas, DJs and regular themed music nights.
Rhum Box (04 79 01 02 36) Tucked away behind El Gringo's Tex-Mex, this is a good place to meet locals and sample the famously powerful shots. Attracts a good mixed crowd.
Red Fox Pub (04 79 00 85 33) Another popular and lively option to the Frog, with a similar vibe going on and happy hours to match.
Tango (0479 00 02 70) The bar of the Swedish hotel Corotel is (naturally) a big hit with the Swede. It serves excellent cocktails and has a 70s night every Tuesday.
The Viking (04 79 00 25 44) Despite its name, this is a typical British pub like the Frog. It has an internet café, is frequented by loads of Brits and Dutch – and does a roaring trade with its dangerous toffee vodkas.
Dick's Tea Bar (04 79 06 48 22) Formerly the Underground nightclub, the famous Dick's brand continues to spread its wings. Nightclub devotees come here from Val d'Isère – and are now equally at home in both Méribel and Val Thorens.
Le Malaysia (04 79 00 05 25) This is an upmarket Euro-disco, catering for the more well-heeled but less discerning type of clubbing buff.
Val Thorens has accommodation to suit everyone, though there are far more apartments here than hotels; the ratio is something like five beds to one. Virtually all choices offer easy piste access and ski-to-door convenience. There are a couple of especially noteworthy, stand-out venues here: one is the superb L’Oxalys complex; the other is the only four-star hotel in the village – the ultra-smart Fitz Roy.
L'Oxalys 4* This new boutique apartment/chalet/hotel complex gets my vote for the best accommodation in town. It has 25 spacious, refined apartments each sleeping two to eight people, all with fireplaces. There is also a luxury spa and the hotel restaurant (see The Dining, above) has one well-deserved Michelin star. Regardless of whether you stay here, it is a treat to have lunch or dinner. The restaurant is very popular with the Courchevel crowd who ski over for lunch.
Fitz Roy Hôtel 4* A wonderful, stylish luxury hotel, the Fitz Roy is extremely convenient for the lifts. Some rooms are split-level, others are traditional – and many have fireplaces. Check out the beautiful spa area, too. The restaurant and terrace is a culinary tour de force. If you can afford it, this is a great choice.
Hôtel Le Val Thorens 3* Popular with British tour operators (who tend to rate it as four-star), this hotel offers superb access to the lifts and the ski school, just 100m away. It has a nice relaxing piano bar and ambience, and is a good family choice.
Hôtel Le Sherpa 3* This family-run chalet-style hotel has a traditional and very appealing rustic decor. Suites on the top floor have a mezzanine level. The restaurant is known for its refined cooking, there are sauna/steam room facilities and cosy sitting areas with open fires. Convenient for all amenities.
Hôtel Les Trois Vallées 3* With its cosy, traditional Savoyard decor, this is another popular choice. It has an excellent restaurant and, like Le Sherpa, is convenient for all amenities.
Hôtel Le Portillo 3* Recently upgraded, this hotel has individually styled rooms and a warm, rustic feel. Its lovely, atmospheric Savoyard-style restaurant serves modern French cuisine. Excellent central location.
Les Montagnettes du Soleil 3* These very comfortable chalet apartments offer hotel services. Part of the same group as L'Oxalys, the property has large suites for up to four people, making it a good choice for small groups. All chalets have open fires, and some have their own saunas.
For more Apartment/chalet options, see www.tumbl.it/500271.
The nearest airports are Geneva (159km), Lyon (180km) and Chambéry (110km). Journey times by road from the airports are between 2hr and 2hr 45 minutes.
Geneva airport – buses depart daily, costing about €70 one-way or €115 for a round trip. Lyon airport - a weekend bus service connects the region with Lyon for about €86. Chambéry airport - the Chambéry bus with Transavoie Transport costs about €70 return.
Trains go as far as Moutiers, 37km away (a 40-minute drive). Buses to the resort cost approximately €15 and taxis about €75.
Follow the signs to Chambéry and Albertville, then take the four-lane road to Moutiers and up to the Les Trois Vallées.