Skiing, off piste, apres ski, paraponting, heli-skiing, downhill racing - Val d'Isere has it all and more. Here's my guide to making the most of a winter sports break in the French resort
The only limit in Val d’Isere is your physical capability.
It’s one of the biggest resorts on the world and I’ve been visiting since the early 80s, so I’ve really watched it grow. If it’s not the best ski resort in the world, it’s certainly in the top five with places like Whistler, Aspen, St Anton and Zermatt.
You can almost ski yourself into the ground. Even a good skier will struggle to keep it going non-stop. When the snow was good in 2008 I was out skiing powder with a snowboarder friend of mine and we were so exhausted by the afternoon that we called it quits well before the lifts closed.
It’s a massive resort and is linked with Tignes; the whole area is known as Espace Killy. In Val d’Isere itself you have three different sections of mountain to ski: Le Fornet, Solaise and Bellevard. The different areas are serviced by a free bus, but it is just as easy to ski from one mountain to the other. The whole ski domain is immense and it’s all linked by a very good lift system, in which the lift company have invested millions over the years.
I took part in my first ever downhill race in Val d’Isere and first trained there, when I was about 15 years old. I’ve been back every year and watched the place change. It used to be the first downhill venue of the World Cup tour but these days they’ve already been racing for a few weeks in North America by the time of the Premiere Neiges (first snow) Race.
Val d’Isere boasts a really long season and you can find some bargain deals at the end of it. There is often good snow even until the end of April, and that’s also a great time for ski touring.
Val d’Isere for beginners
The received wisdom is that the resort is not suitable for beginners, though I taught my kids to ski in Val d’Isere. The nursery lifts are free and as a beginner you can spend your first two or three days in the resort without having to buy a lift pass. There is a bit of a jump in skill level then from being a third day beginner to going right up to the top of the mountain. It would be like taking up surfing and going to Maui with the massive waves crashing all around you. It’s too much too soon. If you are in a group and you have a beginner then they just might be better off riding down in the lift; as the runs into the resort are quite tough.
You have three main mountains that offer runs back into the resort: Le Fornet, Solaise and Bellevarde, and you will have an equally good day on each. If you want to ski over to the resort of Tignes, you’ll need a slightly more expensive lift pass. But you really can’t go wrong anywhere. Most of the skiing is wide open cruising red runs.
If you want a more challenging run you can ski on what was the Olympic downhill in 1992, which was also used for the World Championships in the 08/09 season. It’s a black run and it’s steep. The lift that services it is so fast that if you ski back to back, non-stop runs, you will probably only manage six before you collapse in a heap.
It’s the accessibility of the off-piste that makes Val d’Isere so good for the expert skier. The Tour du Charvet is not particularly challenging but the scenery is stunning. It takes you away from the lift area so I would recommend you take a guide. For more testing off-piste try the Banane on Bellevarde or the Col Pers off the back of Le Fornet.
The Vanoise National Park surrounds the resort and is a protected area without ski lifts, but with a guide it offers some incredible ski-touring.
There’s a good paraponting school in Val d’Isere and, once you’ve mastered that, you can try speed riding - it’s a new sport and combines paraponting and skiing. Ice-driving is also popular. Between Le Daille and the centre of town you can take cars out and race them around the ice track.
Heli-skiing is banned in France but there is a way you can do it in Val d’Isere. There’s a school called Mountain Masters (www.mountain-masters.com) who will pick you up in Italy, drop you on the border and then you ski back down into France.
Val d’Isere is the number one ski destination for Brits. It can be seen as a downside. I’d guess the visitors are about 50 per cent British. In the town there are British hotels, British bars; there’s always somewhere you can go and watch Premier League football. Being as British as it is has helped to push the prices up. It’s become very posh and very expensive. The lift system is better and the town has changed greatly, but the mountains are still the same.
Happily, the town hasn’t lost any of its stone-clad, alpine style charm. Val d’Isere, unlike Tignes, which was built from scratch in modern times, has existed since medieval times when it was a stop off for traders. It has an old church and a quaint old town and a really distinct style of architecture. It looks old and rustic. The first place you see on your way into Val d’Isere however is La Daille. Most of it was built in the 60s and it features massive apartment blocks with metal cladding on the rooftops – supposedly to mimic the peaks of the mountains. In reality, it’s a monstrosity.
Val d’Isere is a massive party town with lots of bars, restaurants and a couple of nightclubs. Dick’s Tea Bar (Les Cretes Blanches; www.dicksteabar.com/valdisere) is a cool place to hang out, though it’s no longer run by Dick. It’s been open since I first started going there. The Mayor doesn’t want his town to become too rowdy so he’s very wary of opening new nightclubs. Generally, after two in the morning, you won’t have a lot of options in this town. But at two in the morning, do you really want many other options than going to get some well-deserved rest?
You’ll often find large university groups in the resort and groups of very drunk people late at night. Check how close your accommodation is to the town centre; if you’re right in the heart of town, you’re going to hear occasional shouting and revelry.
Where to stay
Hotel Grand Paradis is one of the nicest hotels with luxurious, yet typically ski resort-style rooms. It’s right at the bottom of the lifts and adjacent to the beginners’ area. It’s really well run and you’ll find food in there of a very decent standard. Even if you don’t stay there you can enjoy lovely views if you call in for a hot chocolate or a mid afternoon drink. When the sun is out they take deckchairs out and put them at the bottom of the slope.
The Hotel Bellier is very reasonable and sits right in the heart of the resort. The rooms are cosy and comfortable.
Generally, I find hotels in Austria to be of a higher standard than here, but one thing Val d’Isere does do well is the chalet. The top-end of the market has gone in that direction as opposed to hotels.
Le Chardon Mountain Lodges has a wonderful range of chalets in simply great locations on the outskirts of town. Many have swimming pools and Jacuzzis and the company runs a taxi service that will take you into town.
The Eagle's Nest is richly furnished but it has a price tag to boot. It’s right off La Face and the staff will come and serve champagne in the evening. Bono and The Edge from U2 have stayed here before.
Where to eat
There are a few really good restaurants. One of my favourites is Le Grand Ourse (0479 0600 19; www.grande-ourse.com). It’s at the bottom of the nursery slopes and offers delicious French-International cuisine in cosy surroundings.
Le Lodge (0479 0602 01) just down from Dick's Tea Bar in the centre of town is more affordable. There’s a great atmosphere here and they do wonderful basics like steak and pizza.
Perdrix Blanche (0479 0612 09) is pricey but offers a simply enormous seafood platter alongside steaks and huge legs of lamb. They’ve also just brought in a sushi chef. Matt Chilton, my co-presenter on Ski Sunday, met his wife in Val d’Isere and they had their wedding reception here.
A mountain restaurant called La Folie Douce (www.lafoliedouce.com) is one of the best self-service eateries and they have bands playing to keep diners entertained.
Edelweiss (0479 0626 34) in Le Fornet is one of those restaurants you could miss – but you shouldn’t! You have to take a little tour off the slope but it’s worth it. Just don’t let members of your group shoot past; they’ll be late for lunch.
Where to drink
The bars are split between three nationalities – the Brits, the Scandinavians and, of course, the French. For the Brits you’ve got the British Moris Pub (on the main road; www.morispub.mountainpub.com) and the Pacific Bar (near the tourist office – follow the Union Jack shark signs; www.pacificbar.co.uk). The Scandinavian selection runs to Le Petit Danois (50m from the bus station; www.lepetitdanois-valdisere.com) and Victors. If you are in a French bar and order in English, don’t be surprised if you wait a little longer to be served.
The V spot bar (www.valdisere-spot.com) is an interesting place in the centre of town. It’s quite a good place to go and people watch. They have a shop at the back of the bar selling ski gear and at night they shut the shop and the place gets rowdier. A lot of the free riders hang out here and if you’re looking for someone to go off-piste with, this is the spot.