Boasting one of the most reliable snow records in Europe, pistes to suit all standards and a partying scene, Val d’Isère is, in my opinion, a contender for the best ski resort in the world
Val d’Isère is not necessarily the best ski resort in the world and most certainly it’s not the prettiest, straggling as it does for more than a mile along the valley from La Daille, through the town itself, and on to the remote hamlet of Le Fornet. But after 25 years of diligent research both on - and off - piste it remains, in my book, a front-runner for the title.
During that quarter century my job has taken me to an average of 40 resorts each winter. Often visits are repeat ones, but with a total of 500 resorts under my belt, my field of comparison is not insignificant.
So what’s so special about the place that remains the single most popular destination for British skiers? Very simply, it’s got one of the most reliable snow records in Europe along with the four Ps: pistes, powder, party, and that all-important pizzazz.
Together with Tignes, the statistics tell you it has a ski area of 300km of piste served by some 90 lifts. Surely, this has to be enough terrain and uphill transport for anyone. The pistes suit all standards, although they’re geared towards confident skiers and snowboarders. Consequently, grading is stiff: a ‘blue’ in Val is a ‘red’ in many other resorts.
The quality of tuition is superb with the choice of a dozen ski schools and I particularly recommend Oxygène (www.oxygene-ski.com) for children and adult beginners. Progression Ski (www.progressionski.com), The Development Centre (www.tdcski.com) and New Generation (www.skinewgen.com) also offer cutting edge technique.
But Val’s significant advantage over other comparable world class destinations is its variety of mountain access. You can work your way into the entire lift system from no less than nine different points along the valley. This means that even on peak weekends queues of more than five minutes are rare and, if they exist at all, you can always easily avoid them. The Train Rouge ski bus system is the most regular and efficient I’ve ever encountered.
Runs like the infamous Face de Bellevarde and the OK downhill course are classics, although my favourites are Germain Mattis and Piste L which both bring you down to the hamlet of Le Laisinant. Both can be superb when freshly groomed and ski at their best with 5cm of overnight powder dusting the corduroy.
But the real joy is the off-piste – most of it easily reached from lifts without the necessity of climbing with ‘skins’. To get the best out of the area you need a guide and Top Ski (www.topskival.com) are the off-piste experts.
Try the Face du Charvet, reached from the Grand Pré chair. Experts will find a quite number of challengingly steep couloirs to explore in such as the Couloirs des Pisteurs in Val and Couloir Deux in Tignes.
By the way, where is the best ski resort in the whole world? It’s no single destination. It’s where you are on that day when you stand at the top of a mountain.
The sky is blue overhead, ice crystals are dancing in the air, and there’s 50cm of fresh untracked powder beneath your skis. You’re in the company of people you love…and lunch in a wayside hut looks promising.
For me, on a delicious number occasions that that confluence of circumstance has been on the slopes above Val.
Where to eat
On the mountain La Folie Douce (www.lafoliedouce.com) is arguably the finest self-service in the Alps and the setting for the start of daily après-ski with regular live bands and a party on the terrace that gets underway long before the lifts close.
If you need a tablecloth and waiter –service, you can eat next door at La Fruitière – they share the same kitchen, but not the same prices.
My favourites are Le Signal (www.lesignalvaldisere.com) at the top of the Le Fornet cable-car, Bananas at the foot of Bellevarde, and the upstairs restaurant of Hotel L’Arbina (www.hotel-arbina.com) in Tignes- Le-Lac.
By night, for a resort of this international standing, Val is short on decent places to eat. Michelin-starred Le Table de l’Ours at Les Barmes de l'Ours leads the field, but has prices that make you growl.
La Grande Ourse (www.grande-ourse.com) - they’re big on bears here – has some of the better cuisine in town. Le Blizzard in the hotel of the same name (www.hotelblizzard.com) is warmly recommended. La Taverne d’Alsace in the Hotel Kandahar (www.hotel-kandahar.com) caters for saucisse and choucroute hungry visitors as well as the disproportionate number of émigrés from the Strasbourg region, Jean-Claude Killy amongst them, who call Val their home.
Where to stay
Val is essentially a chalet town with four main bed centres: Central Val, Le Chatelard, Le Laisinant, Le Fornet, and La Daille. Look carefully at the town map before you book.
Four-star deluxe Hotel Les Barmes de l'Ours has considerable style, a position on the edge of the piste, and a wonderful spa and gourmet restaurant.
Le Savoie is a luxurious rival that opened two years ago.
Hotel Avenue Lodge, on the main street, is a contemporary boutique hotel that opened last winter after years of stalled planning applications. It is yet to get its proper star rating but joins Barmes de l’Ours and Le Savoie in a class apart from the rest of the resort’s hotel accommodation.
Hotel Le Blizzard has a great position on the main street, fine food, and a pleasant bar, but some of the rooms are small.
Mountain Rooms & Chalets specialises in finding the right apartment or private chalet for you.
UCPA is an all-inclusive hostel that provides very French but bargain weeks.
Hotel le Relais du Ski is basic, but a couple can stay here B&B for as little as euros 90 per day. The low-cost restaurant is where you’ll find the local workers at lunchtime both in and out of season.