WITH its prime location and wealth of new attractions, Val Thorens deserves its top ski resort accolade
I wake at 6.15am when my hotel shudders under the force of a nearby explosion – there’s a high avalanche risk and the ski patrol or “pisteurs” are out and about setting off explosions to release any unsafe snow. There’s a third boom and I’m wide awake.
I’m in Val Thorens in the French Alps, the highest ski resort in Europe and one that last year won the Best Ski Resort in the World and the Best French Ski Resort awards at the World Travel Awards.
The village of Val Thorens, located in the Massif de la Vanoise, in France’s Savoie region, sits at 2,300 metres and offers a strong chance of decent snow. As part of the massive skiable terrain known as Les Trois Vallées, there are over 600km of runs, ensuring you never have to ski the same run twice during a week’s ski holiday. Over the past five years, the resort has been transformed and continues to forge ahead with new facilities: a Club Med is opening, the five-star Koh-I Nor hotel offers gourmet afternoon snacks, there are new ski cross activities available and there are ski lessons on offer for children aged from two years old.
I’m staying at the five-star Altapura Hotel with its quirky and imaginative décor. Instead of traditional wallpaper, real birch tree branches cover the walls and fur throw rugs are flung over comfortable couches. After my early morning avalanche alarm call I rise and put on the television to follow an in-house stretching video featuring a member of the French mogul ski team.
It hasn’t stopped snowing for two days and skiing conditions are looking good. Rounding up my ski boots and skis, I head for the slopes (78 runs: 11 green, 29 blue, 29 red and 9 black) and spend the morning skiing in fresh powder until heavy cloud arrives and I can barely tell which way is up.
Since December 2010, Val Thorens has thoughtfully offered visitors free wi-fi access in some of its ski lift stations and today 18 lifts are equipped with wi-fi in an attempt to save overseas visitors from running up hefty mobile phone bills.
We retreat inside the legendary en piste La Laiterie, part of the La Folie Douce restaurant chain. Full-sized stainless steel milk churns are placed by the side of the tables for us to dump our wet hats and gloves into, and on the table are small, old-fashioned, chubby milk bottles filled to the top with fresh ginger-flavoured milk. Outside the wind drives the swirling snow against the window yet inside we are warm and dedicate our time to refuelling our bodies with delicious and traditional cheeses and meat, large salads and delicately cooked French fries – always a necessity during a ski lunch. The average meal price with wine is around ¤22–¤30. Other great restaurants for lunch and dinner in town include Les Enfants Terribles at the Altapura, Chalet de la Marine, L’Epicurien and L’Oxalys; although they’re not cheap, they all come highly recommended.
In the evening we are collected by a chauffeured skidoo, which transports us speedily through the freezing night air to a cosy and quaint traditional wooden chalet farmhouse called Chez Pépé Nicolas.
Our arrival alerts the owner’s three-month-old St Bernard puppy, Happy, and she bounds through deep snow to greet us. Inside the warm chalet we sit sipping wine and sampling delicious Savoie saucisse (local dried sausage) as Happy sleeps on my feet.
Val Thorens is always a step ahead of other competitive ski resorts in terms of technology and social media. Every weekend the tourist office sends out its friendly representatives to offer a hi-tech and personalised welcome. I spot hostesses and representatives of the French Ski School in the snowy streets welcoming tourists as soon as they arrive in the resort. With their iPads at the ready, they guide the weary visitors to their hotels or take them to the lift company to help them buy the right passes and tell them all about the resort’s activities, through spoken words and with images on their iPads.
The popular snowpark is situated in the Plateaux sector and it boasts an ultra-fun video zone for everyone to enjoy. As you jump, you’re on camera via videopark.fr. As we enter the snowpark turnstile my lift pass is automatically registered, connecting me to the cameras installed on two of the park’s ski jumps. We then try out a few basic jumps and shapes before heading back to the entrance to witness our amateur attempts on a big screen. Videos can be downloaded via videopark.fr to watch on smartphones and share on social media. If you are a keen cameraman or director, you can hire a Go-Pro camera in Val Thorens for ¤30 a day.
The following morning, we try our hand at ski touring, which is a growing trend in adventure skiing. The concept is that of a hike on skis in a natural environment far from the ski runs and lifts. You don’t need to be stunningly fit, just able to move at a comfortable pace along routes that require only minimal climbing effort, similar to that of a snowshoe hike. It provides the many joys of off-piste skiing on untouched snow.
Groups of three to six people with class 3 skiing level are required. A half day (from 1pm to 5pm) will cost ¤60 per person and is open to skiers, snowboarders (equipped with splitboards) and children (9-10 years old). It’s the best way to experience the beauty of the mountains with just a handful of people.
Other new attractions include Baby Skiers and Mini Riders. Every day between 3pm and 5pm, young children can enjoy discovering snow sports while parents watch. Younger children (two years old and above) have their first experience of skiing in the snow kindergarten and older children (over four years) can experience an introduction to snowboarding. Prices start from ¤15 per session, ¤40 for three sessions.
Before checking out of Val Thorens, try the resort’s new zip line which opened at the end of last season. From the top of the Bouchet chairlift in Orelle (3,230m), you can whizz 1,300m down the mountain to the Funitel de Thorens in Val Thorens (3,000m) – a thoroughly exciting way to end your ski trip.