First there was Covid, then lack of snow, but ski holidays are back – and back with a bang.
Hidden beneath the high peaks of the French Alps near the Italian border lies the mountain resort of Val-d’Isère. With its breathtaking views and 150 km of marked slopes, it is a skier’s dream.
The last time I was in the “Val” was over 15 years ago as a fearless 20-year-old. My memories are a little hazy (I blame the après ski) but what I mostly remember is that it was a fairly quiet place, with a main thoroughfare with all the hotels right on the main road. But things are different now, Val-d’Isère has evolved into a world-class resort, bustling with life and with exceptional bars and restaurants (especially Matsuhisa, which offers Japanese cuisine with a Peruvian twist by world-renowned chef Nobu).
But it offers a number of other attractions, including classical music concerts and a large leisure complex offering “5000 m2 of fun, invigoration and relaxation in a friendly, relaxed environment”.
Christophe Lavaut, Managing Director of Val d’Isère Tourism, says: “This season is the symbol of a new beginning for the entire ski industry and Val d’Isère is at the forefront for all avid skiers. Open until May 6th, the ski area offers its usual snow conditions at high altitude and we can feel how happy our visitors are to (re)discover the ski area, its extensive slopes and the hospitality of the village.”
Fears that there might be a lack of snow after reports of a “snow drought” in Europe were quickly dispelled. Just a few days before my arrival, Val-d’Isère received a large quantity of the white stuff. It was time to put on my boots, strap on my skis and tackle the iconic face of Bellevarde – which offers great views of the Alps and the village below.
Where to sleep
I holed up in Chalet Jupiter, a luxury rental built in 2013 and located just off the main street. It’s subtle from the outside. but step inside and it’s an alpine Aladdin cave. It has four bedrooms, all with ensuite bathrooms, although you’ll have to draw straws for the master bedroom as it’s spectacular. With the lounge’s main window framing the view of the snow-capped mountains, it’s worth taking a moment each morning to enjoy the sunrise. The chalet also offers the option of a contactless catering service, which includes all food and drinks for the week.
Staff come during the week to give it a full clean and change towels and sheets, but this is done during the day while you’re on the slopes. For a quiet night’s sleep, kick off your boots, warm up by the log fire, then dine – before soaking up the moonlight in the outdoor hot tub or relaxing on the huge leather sofas. For a five-star meal or the best raclette the French Alps has to offer, that’s another story.
Restaurant on the slopes
The Gigi Val d’Isère mountain restaurant, housed in the former Solaise cable car station, serves Italian cuisine against the backdrop of the majestic Vanoise National Park. Living at 8,000 feet (2,551 meters) you will be forgiven for taking time over lunch to enjoy the surroundings, either indoors or on the alfresco veranda.
Menu items include linguine al manzo (meat linguine), lasagne do gigi or, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous before your afternoon ski lesson, there’s always spezzatino di polpo (braised squid in red wine sauce). You pay a little more for the view, but it’s reasonable and each dish is beautifully presented – you’ll be satisfied, full of carbs and ready for the next trip.
Restaurant in town
If you’re looking for the coolest restaurant in town, look no further than Matsuhisa. Chef Nobu’s brainchild and the first and only Matsuhisa restaurant in the French Alps. Typical favorites like Yellowtail Jalapeño, Black Cod Miso, and Suntory Whiskey Cappuccino dishes are all welcome appearances. Japanese cuisine with Peruvian influences is handcrafted and presented in a manner that is emblematic of Mr. Matsuhisa.
The staff goes the extra mile to accommodate any dietary requirements and make sure you are comfortable while an ultra-cool DJ quietly contributes to this incredible and cathartic dining experience. The restaurant is set in an elegant Japanese-style alpine wonderland with a dark color palette, black marble tables and velvet throughout.
After whizzing down the slopes that morning, I decided to try a little “ice swimming” – bobbing up and down in an artificial hole in the frozen Lac de l’Oulliette. I was concerned at first, imagining I had Stahl myself and my inner Wim Hoff, but it turned out I didn’t need to worry. After a short walk from the instructor’s “office” – an igloo – I made my way to the ten foot indentation in the middle of the lake.
I donned a huge bright orange dry suit and soon I was in it, floating in a frozen lake, up a mountain with a warm herbal tea in hand. As I lolled about in total silence with my “Floater” peers, I felt complete serenity. A surreal experience – and not a drop of sea water broke through my suit.
If you want to explore a different side of Val d’Isère, fat biking is a great way to do it. With oversized, chunky tires, these electric bikes are a great way to relax and require very little effort. Wattsup Fatbikes in the heart of Val d’Isère is the brainchild of former downhill racer Frederik Van Buynde, along with his parents who love to guide you through the snow and mountains at every turn. They also offer bespoke tours with their incredible Wattsup team.
Your knowledge of the area and surrounding wildlife is second to none, but be warned – dress warmly so you don’t get caught when the sun goes down.
A seven-night stay with no-contact catering at Chalet Jupiter for eight people costs £800 per person at Ski France; skifrance.co.uk
Ski passes cost €63 per day for adults for the entire Tignes and Val d’Isère area and are free for children under 8 years old. When you buy a 6-day ski pass, you get the seventh day for free.