I have skied Val d’Isere loads of times over the years, but I really can’t remember conditions quite like it... howling wind, driving snow and pretty much zero visibility – in short, the kind of day when you peek out of the window of your chalet and either decide to stay in bed or, at best, trudge round the resort doing a little window shopping (unless you have very deep pockets, window shopping is definitely the best option in Val d’Isere).
But this was a press trip, and us journos are made of sterner stuff – and we only had three days on the slopes and a busy itinerary - so we went up the Olympique cable car which takes you up the mountain alongside the fearsome Face men’s downhill Olympic run and stepped out into conditions I imagine Sir Ranulph Fiennes would expect on his way to the North Pole.
There we met our ski hosts from the Evolution 2 ski school (more on this later), who proceeded to guide us expertly through the whiteout to slightly lower and less exposed pistes where the trees provided a little visibility and something approximating skiing was possible.
Please don’t let this put you off, though – every ski resort gets days like this at some time during the season, and the upside is that the next day, when hopefully the weather clears, you’ll get clear blue skies and fabulous powder snow. The good news for us was that this was exactly what happened – and a powder day doesn’t get much better than ones in Val d’Isere and Tignes.
The Espace Killy, as the linked Val-Tignes ski area is known – named in honour of Sixties French Olympic ski hero Jean-Claude Killy – is a vast, high altitude linked ski area with two glaciers and enough pistes of all persuasions to keep just about any level of skier happy, and that’s before you look at the off-piste possibilities. In fact there’s some 300 kilometres of pisted skiing available, from green (beginners) to black (expert), with most of them aimed at the bulk of skiers who fall somewhere in-between.
An in-betweener (or intermediate) is exactly what I am, and fresh powder – provided there’s not too much of it – makes the huge variety of blue, red and occasional black pistes of Val and Tignes a joy to tackle. It’s hard work, but hugely rewarding. It can be even more rewarding if you have an expert guide to show you the best bits to ski (obviously according to your ability), how to avoid the lift queues, where the best places are to stop for a chocolat chaud, and perhaps even more importantly, where to stop for lunch – and this is where the Evolution 2 folk come in.
About 18 months ago, the French authorities decided in their wisdom to ban what the UK tour operators used to call ski hosting or ski guiding – basically, a member of the tour operating team early in the week would take skiers and boarders round the resorts, showing them the best bits to ski (obviously according to your ability), how to avoid the lift queues, where the best places are to stop for a chocolat chaud, and perhaps even more importantly, where to stop for lunch... does this sound familiar? It was a much appreciated ‘extra’ by many Brit skiers and boarders and really helped you make the most of your all-too-short week in the mountains.
‘Non!’ said the French – for safety reasons the person doing the guiding must be a fully qualified ski instructor, they decreed... thus ensuring the task would in all likelihood be delegated to the Ecole du Ski Francais (ESF). There would be significant cost involved in this, which could end up added to your overall holiday bill, so the UK tour operators have been contesting the decision in the French courts. Unsurprisingly said French courts have so far found in favour of the French ban, although the whole affair may ultimately end up in the European Court of Justice. In the meantime, no ski hosting by the tour operators – so Crystal and linked companies including Thomson Ski have come up with an elegant solution... get the suitably qualified Evolution 2 ski school to step in to do the ski hosting instead.
And it appears to be a win-win solution so far, with Crystal and co, plus their holidaymakers, delighted with the service from Evolution 2, who themselves must be equally pleased with a deal that presumably also gives them fantastic access to sell their mainstream ski school services to a large contingent of British skiers and boarders. The ESF, it seems, have not said anything much about it so far....
I can vouch for the great job the Evolution 2 crew can do, in fair weather and foul – and you can benefit from their services for Crystal in a variety of French resorts, not just Val d’Isere and Tignes.
While the ski hosting is a great bonus, it’s just one of many reasons why Val d’Isere is such a fantastic all-round ski and snowboard destination. It’s one of the biggest and most snow-sure ski areas in the world, Val itself is renowned as one of the most glamorous resorts around – you could spend a fortune in the designer shops and gourmet restaurants, but you will be relieved to know there are plenty of cheaper alternatives available, although there is no such thing as a really cheap ski holiday anywhere these days – and of course if you after plenty of the après ski and party scene you are in the right place! You can start at the famously loud La Folie Douce on the slopes high above La Daille even before the pistes close, while in town itself there are plenty of places to party until the early hours if you have the cash and the stamina.
For non-skiers there are plenty of options – apart from some fabulous walks, for the more adventurous there is ice climbing, ice diving in the lake at Tignes or paragliding if the weather is kind. In the evenings you could try dinner in a yurt (Mongolian tent – fascinating, if a bit chilly, so wrap up warm), tobogganing or skidoo driving, or the quieter alternative of snowshoe walking (just fabulous if you get a clear night). To be honest, after a hard day’s skiing, followed by a lavish chalet meal with plenty of wine, I’m usually ready for bed – but it is good to know that, if you are made of sterner stuff, Val d’Isere offers plenty of options!
Jan Henderson travelled to Val d’Isere with Crystal Ski Holidays in January 2014. For more information about all Crystal ski holidays visit www.crystalski.co.uk