A family friendly affordable ski resort in the Savoie, Valloire is a firm favourite with French families. Nathalie discovers what to do whether you enjoy skiing or not
"Never heard of it!" said my husband reaching for the laptop, worried we'd end up in a ski resort with no snow. "That's why I want to go there" I replied. The year before we'd gone to Les Gets only to hear on my return I'd gone to "Fulham in the Alps". That would be why I heard more English than French spoken there. Not this time. I used to work for a French self catering tour operator - Lagrange Vacances - so I asked them for a resort where French people take their families on holidays and where prices won't break the bank.
Family friendly and affordable
They suggested Valloire in the Savoie. I liked the idea of a traditional mountain village and the 150km of ski runs should keep the whole family happy. Husband loves skiing so he needs a few black runs; the kids still need a ski school and I need humouring because skiing just ain't my thing. So let me tell you what rocked our respective boats.
The ski bum - or husband - was quite content finding new routes every day, going further up into both Valloire and its neighbour Valmeinier. He even managed to convince me to join him and the children at Le Crey du Quart where the view is amazing. I liked the idea of skiing en famille for the first time despite a suspicion he was making it sound easier than it would be. Sure enough, I ended up nose first in the mushy grey snow at the top of the last chair lift. Oh how I ploughed my way down ungraciously until I finally reached a chalet in the middle of nowhere, Château Ripaille, with a terrace and a few tables, pretty much empty (thanks to our holidaying at Easter and skiers' only access). My children were half way through making a snow man, husband was smirking and offered a hot chocolate (with Génépi, a wonderful alcohol made with local herbs).
Aching but curious I looked up and around. This is what it's all about, isn't? Silence, serenity and this panoramic soft white carpet dotted with a few spikes of green. I don't think it was the Génépi going to my head that made me think that the panoramic view - and the sense of achievement - was worth the aching thighs. Now don't think that made me a convert. Oh no, I was intent on finding other ways of discovering the area that did not involve squeezing in a chair lift or the whoosh of snowboard ringing in my ears.
If you don't ski you can still enjoy winter sports in Valloire. Take the Brive cable car and you will find two signposted snowshoe trails and - new for 2009 - an igloo village with activities organised by the tourist office so you can enjoy discovering the area without long planks on your feet. As for me, I did end up sliding on my bum, far more enjoyable than diving nose first. I blame Thierry, my guide for that. Recommended by the tourist office and he was full of stories about the area and if you go off into the forest you should always have a local guide with you. Mountains and snow can be pretty unforgiving. On our fun 'walk' we went to La Ferme du Pré Clos, a cheese farm in the hamlet of Le Borgé where they make a cheese so local that you can only buy it there. So I did. It's a cross between a tomme de Savoie and a Reblochon and it is delectable. If you speak French, farmer Gilles will explain how he makes his cheese, if you don't, just taste it and enjoy.
From cheese to donkey
Cheese is always on the menu in the Alps. Fondues, raclettes… so cows are animals that the Alpins would struggle without. Donkeys though do not spring to mind. But Valloire has an asinerie - a donkey farm - and the whole family absolutely loved that place. You know when you meet people who are totally passionate about what they do? That's Jean-Paul and Dom. Their enthusiasm shines through and they are the type of people that make a trip memorable for me. I now look at donkeys in a totally different light; stubborn they may be but stupid they are not. The kids loved the riding and the grooming, parents enjoyed a chat and a drink.
Sightseeing is not top of the list when on a ski holiday but do go and see inside the church in the centre of Valloire. Don't be fooled by the austere and rather stocky exterior. If you like bling and gold, you're in for a treat. Baroque has become fashionable of late and this is a fine example of Catholicism at its eccentric best where church goers blatantly paid as much as they could afford to embellish the church, so that God would look kindly upon them. And the mountain folks did not stop there, this church is the largest but by no means the only one. There are 15 chapels in the 17 hamlets that make up Valloire so if you're really keen, there's plenty to keep you busy.
One of these chapels was overlooking our apartment at Moulin Benjamin, on the other side of the chair lifts. Just outside of town, minutes on a shuttle bus, the Residence du Galibier was a good location as we had the chair lift and shuttle stop across the road from the apartment. The queues for both were nothing like in town and dropping the kids off in the morning for their lessons was really easy. Our car went into the underground car park and stayed there, which was a joy. As we were self catering we did not spend a fortune on restaurants although there is a large choice of eateries in the town centre and the surrounding hamlets (note there is less choice in low season). Despite not being near Brittany, there seemed to be a rather large number of crêperies but we enjoyed Le Plancher des Alpes (as we could all draw on the tables!) and La Grange de Thelcide, both in the centre. If you don't want to cook but still eat at home, you can order ready made meals through Lagrange or from the butcher in town. There is a mini supermarket and a small shop in Moulin Benjamin with basic stuff; not forgetting the farms selling local cheeses. If you're driving you may want to take basics with you as although prices were more reasonable than other resorts, it's still a ski resort and with the exchange rate it all adds up.
As for the children, they enjoyed their morning lessons from the Ecole du Ski Français and proudly received their badges at the end. Talking of proud, there is a name you will notice everywhere in Valloire: Grange. It's one of those mountain families that were there before tourism was the main income but the son Jean-Baptiste won the Gold Medal for Slalom at the World Cup in 2008. So he is 'un fils du pays' (local son) and Valloire is rightly proud. If you're lucky, he may teach you a slalom trick or two as he coaches with the ESF when he's not busy elsewhere. There is also an International Ski School and there are always lessons in English from ESF, so don't worry about the language barrier. I chatted to many French folks on ski lifts and cafe terraces who told me that they'd been coming here for years because prices are reasonable, everybody is friendly and I would agree. You will find people who speak English in shops and restaurants, as always, but unlike other French or Swiss resorts, it is still their second language. And a good thing it is too.
The Chalets du Galibier residence has lockers for skis and boots, a small indoor heated swimming pool, a sauna and steam room (one free session then eight euros/session), a pool table, wifi access in reception and a laundry room. A two-bedroomed apartment for up to six people with Lagrange Holidays costs from £495 for a week.
Local tax is extra. Cleaning on departure and beds made on arrival if required (55-103 euros). You can also book food hampers and ski passes as well as the Channel Crossing through Lagrange if you wish. Garage costs £51 (there is limited parking outside the residence).
There is also more choice of accommodation directly from Valloire Tourist Office: www.valloire.net
Ski lessons and passes: You can book through Lagrange or directly. 6 morning classes plus a 6 day ski pass start at 208 euros for children and 246 for adults in low season (238 and 274 at Christmas and February) with ESF. You can book your package in advance (up to 10 days prior)
Access: TGV Train from Paris to St Michel-Valloire (17 kilometres); Chambéry airport (100 kilometres), Grenoble (130 kilometres)
We drove to Valloire from South West England, stopping for a night in Northern France.
For more information on Valloire and webcams: www.valloire.net