Travel: Starting from scratch in Val d’isere

Demonstrating that it’s never too late to tackle the slopes, Diana Pilkington embarks on a beginners’ ski course in one of the most famous Alpine resorts.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 10th December 2013, 6:00 am
Skiing paradise in Val d'Isere, France. Picture: PA Photo/Diana Pilkington.
Skiing paradise in Val d'Isere, France. Picture: PA Photo/Diana Pilkington.

Like learning to cartwheel or play the guitar, I’d always thought I’d missed the boat with skiing.

As packs of friends returned from the slopes each year, brimming with tales of crazy black runs and even crazier apres ski, I’d listen with a twinge of envy for what might have been.

So when I was offered beginner classes in Val d’Isere for actual grown-ups, I jumped at the chance.

For decades, seasoned Brits have flocked to this pretty resort in the French Alps to enjoy the superb snow, picture postcard-style chalets and lively nightlife, but I’m assured there is plenty of room for first-timers in this experts’ paradise.

Faced with the unexpected agony of squeezing into ski boots, balancing slabs of metal over my shoulder and trudging over to my starting point, I’m relieved to discover the nursery slopes are right by the centre of town and only a short walk from my accommodation, Mark Warner’s Chalet Hotel Le Val d’Isere.

On day one, looking up at the notorious La Face piste - used in the 1992 Winter Olympics - I feel slightly nervous. But my cheery Italian instructor, Andrea, does his best to keep me calm.

I’d heard horror stories about bored tutors who, with an evil grin, deposit beginners at the top of a treacherous mountain, but fortunately Andrea, from Oxygene Ski School, is the opposite of that kind of guy.

“Promise me you won’t try anything we haven’t practised together,” he pleads with our small group of five beginners.

We nod in agreement, and set about learning the basics: stepping in and out of the skis, walking uphill with them on, and then attempting our first tiny glide along the nursery slope.

It’s not too challenging, but that’s just the way I like it, and I find my confidence building with each baby step.

Soon we’re ready to move on to the most trusty of ski manoeuvres - the humble snowplough, where you point your skis into a V-shape, bend your knees and bring your weight forwards. It is to skiing what stabilisers are to cycling.

I won’t win the prize for slinkiest skier on the piste with this technique, but at least I can stop whenever I feel out of control.

I’ll admit, I’m not a complete novice, but it’s 16 years since my school trip to Austria and I feel very out of practice.

And, as Andrea tells me, much of what I learnt back then will be irrelevant now.

“Equipment has changed a lot since then,” he explains. “Skis used to be long and thin, but now they’re short and fat.

“The new skis make it very easy, but I think skiing is less safe than back in the day. You used to have to use your chest and bottom more. Now people just tend to lean back.”

Illustrating his point, he gestures up at the line of graceful bodies zigzagging down La Face, leaving a cloud of powder in their wake. “Wrong technique, all of them,” he declares, with a solemn shake of his head.

Indeed, Andrea is intent on teaching us to shift our weight exactly the right way, and our ski poles get put to extensive use. If he’s not scrawling complicated diagrams in the snow, he’s making us hold the poles at our knees and pass them over our heads as we turn left and right.

It’s a painstaking process - especially when schools of tiny toddlers zip past us without a care in the world - but it helps to drum in the technique, and it’s not long before we can progress up the lifts to the green slopes.

L’Espace Killy - which covers the resorts of Val d’Isere and nearby Tignes - boasts 300km of piste, two glaciers and a 1,900m vertical drop and is served by some 79 lifts. Of the 155 slopes available, 22 are classed as green, which means plenty of areas for beginners to find their feet.

I am particularly taken with the Madeleine run on Solaise, a designated “slow skiing zone” where time (not to mention hordes of daredevil skiers) seems to slip away as I glide past the cordon and practise my snowplough to my heart’s content.

After a few more lessons, Andrea says I’m ready for a blue run, and he coaxes me down the slightly steeper incline like a proud dad. I even find my marked snowplough transforming into what resembles a parallel turn.

But there’s more to a ski trip than brushing up on technique, and I’m keen to get the full breadth of experience from my week in the Alps.

For post-dinner drinks, we head to Cafe Face and Dick’s Tea Bar, two popular haunts that regularly bring in the crowds.

Apres ski, I revive my weary limbs with an alcoholic hot chocolate at the ‘chalet’ half of venue Doudoune before, several hours and a change of clothes later, heading to the smart nightclub section. On our night, we’re inexplicably jostling for space on the dancefloor with dozens of students dressed as Super Mario, but it’s a great way to shake out those ski-worn muscles.

There are more fun and games back in the cosy surrounds of the hotel, where staff lay on quizzes, paper aeroplane competitions and Blind Date-style contests in the evenings for those guests who don’t fancy hitting the town.

Of course, no skiing holiday is complete without vast amounts of food to fuel the daily workout, and I gorge myself silly on the hearty hotel fare (tartiflette, a potato and cheese-laden dish from the Haute Savoie region, is a personal highlight).

We also sup on raclette and steak tartare at Le Bistrot des Cimes, a restaurant that oozes so much rustic French charm it almost drowns out the chorus of English voices I hear at every turn.

It’s hard not to be charmed by Val d’Isere. With twinkling fairy lights strewn across the chalets, huge snow sculptures in the street and eye-catching boutiques and designer outlets (whose hefty price tags make them ideal for window shopping), the resort has a magical - if still rather exclusive - feel.

But the real magic happens up in the mountains: after a week of expert tuition I am skiing with confidence - and enjoying it. I’m not quite ready to take on a black run, but I’ll be sure to tell my friends to reserve me a space on their next snowy adventure.

Travel facts

Diana Pilkington was a guest of Mark Warner Holidays (www.markwarner.co.uk; 0844 273 6796) which offers seven nights half board at Chalet Hotel Le Val d’Isere from £680 per person, including return flights from London Gatwick or Heathrow, resort transfers and ski hosting. Price is based on two sharing.

A six-day Val D’Isere lift pass costs from £169 per person when booked through Mark Warner. An Espace Killy lift pass (priced from £176 per person when booked through Mark Warner) is valid for all lifts in Val D’Isere and Tignes, plus one day’s skiing in La Plagne, the Three Valleys and Les Arcs. There are seven free nursery lifts in Val D’Isere.

Ski lessons can be pre-booked by Mark Warner and are with Oxygene Ski School. Adult beginners’ lessons are priced from £190 per person for five half-days of lessons.