What’s so special about Val d’Isère
If, after this season, you have any doubt about which is the world’s best ski resort, you obviously weren’t paying attention!
Admittedly, the idea of there being a ‘world’s best’ is extremely suspect. No-one would ever describe a seaside resort as the world’s best, be it St. Tropez, San Francisco or St. Ives. But we skiers are all looking for more or less the same things, and unless you actually hanker after a tiny village somewhere with one lift and a single bar full of yokels, Val d’Isère will tick most of your boxes. It has something for everyone, and more of most things for most skiers and boarders than anywhere else.
This high-altitude village probably gets more snow and keeps it longer than any other area in the Alps. Last season began with very little snow, but Val d’Isère’s glacier and 500+ snow cannons (with, equally importantly, two healthy rivers to supply them) gave us much of the best skiing in the Alps in December. When the snow did come, Val d’Isère had a lot of it, and then received a couple of the famous ‘retours d’est’, when winds from neighbouring Italy dumped up to a metre of powder on Val, and nowhere else. The snow will still be amazing when the lifts close on 3 May, and desperate skiers skin up to extend the season a few days…
Can pistes be better in one place than another? Well, Val d’Isère’s convex mountains just happen to give fantastic long, easy green and blue runs high in the mountain sunshine, for beginners and intermediates, and a range of seriously challenging reds and blacks back down the steep valley sides to the village, where a good skier can really get those quads burning. The pistes are longer and wider than usual, are beautifully groomed every night, and are nearly all on the north sides of the mountains, so they are among the last in Europe to be affected by the spring sun. They are hugely varied, criss-cross less than in most resorts, and radiate outwards from the mountain tops, so for much of the time one is unaware of other pistes. Snowboarders find an extraordinary range of slopes with deep snow without the mandatory sack-race shuffle to reach it. There is also a huge nursery slope at the foot of the mountain with free lifts for beginners' first days on skis. Finally, there's a brilliant snow park with
everything from little ramps for one’s first six inches of big air to
huge jumps where the dudes have time for multiple spins, flips and
Many respected back-country experts say that Val d’Isère and Tignes have the best off-piste skiing in the world. There are other contenders - Chamonix or the Rockies, for instance - but it’s certain that nowhere else has as much lift-served high-altitude off-piste, or as many schools and individual guides helping people get the best of it. And of course Val d’Isère’s exceptional snow record helps.
Everyone agrees that the Espace Killy has one of the world’s best lift systems, its lifts carrying up to 161,000 people per hour. There are two underground funiculars, and we are told that the Funival is still the world’s fastest ski lift. More important than mere statistics, and much harder to quantify, is the ratio of skiing to waiting or travelling. The sheer number of uphill rides for the maximum number of customers explains why queues are so short and move so quickly. But it is the length and steepness of the lifts which mean that a five-minute lift ride can give a twenty-minute ski back down. In so many places it is the other way around. The lifts mesh really cleverly together, so that there are almost no bottlenecks, and there are always alternatives.
Val d’Isère's first and biggest ski school, the ESF, is the oldest in France, while Top Ski was the first ski school to challenge the ESF’s monopoly. So Val d’Isère is used to innovating, improving and perfecting the noble art of ski instruction. Among the ESF’s 380 instructors are some of the best in France, while smaller ski schools (Evolution 2 or Oxygène) offer similar courses with more supervision, others specialise in off-piste guiding (Alpine Experience, Top Ski, iSki, the Compagnie des Guides, le Grand Ski) and still others give intensive instruction in English to small groups (Mountain Masters, the development centre, Progression, New Generation, BASS etc). Most of Britain’s young ski instructors train in Val d’Isère, and their coaches and examiners work for these schools.
France may specialise in huge ski areas around ugly 1960s villages, but Val d’Isère is an exception: the church dates back to the eleventh century, the village centre is picturesque, the 1960s monstrosities are not too obvious and are slowly disappearing, and the architecture of the last twenty years has led the field in the use of granite, wood and traditional forms for modern chalets. Trees have replaced parked cars on the main street, and wooden signs have replaced neon. The village has an unexpected buzz to it - warm, welcoming and rather un-French! We think it has something to do with the fact that everyone who lives in Val d’Isère or comes here loves skiing. It is not a shopping resort, selecting its customers by the number of credit cards they have; it is not a bargain-basement development attracting people purely by its cheapness; it is not the municipal park for some big town; it is not a place where rich skiers with poor technique can strut their designer stuff and impress the impressionable!
As with most other things, the range and choice of places to eat in Val d’Isère is extraordinary. A restaurant with two Michelin stars where the tasting menu lasts four hours, but which also does three-course lunches for 25€. Hotels whose largely Parisian clientèle demand world-class food at surprisingly reasonable prices. Traditional local fondues and raclettes. Meat on braziers or hot stones. Tajines and falafels. Restaurants in cow sheds. Burger joints. Crêperies. Takeaway pizzas. Sandwicheries! And the same applies on the slopes. There are several mountain restaurants considered among the best in Europe - the Signal and Fruitière, for example, and others in Tignes and Les Brevières - yet there are places where you’d pay less for lunch than at King’s Cross Station!
It comes as a surprise to keen skiers, but many people come to Val d’Isère more for its nightlife than its slopes! Après starts in ski boots at the throbbing Folie Douce or Cocorico, with live music, gogos and table-dancing. Then it moves to a series of after-dinner clubs and bars, and ends up in a selection of night clubs which close as we are eating breakfast before heading off skiing! Val d’Isère is quite a young resort on the whole, so the nightlife is relatively inexpensive.
If, after reading all that, you have any doubt about which is the world’s best ski resort, you still weren’t paying attention!!