THE top is as good a place to start as any. With Mont Blanc on one side, and the white vistas of Italy, Switzerland and France at every turn, you can see why when they started designing ski resorts, they chose Val d’Isere. The worlds’ first ski lift was built here in 1934, and ever since then they have that confident French pride in their reputation for early snow.
If you want the best skiing, follow the French, and Val d’Isere has been their favourite for seventy years. It helps that this was home to their most famous Olympic skier, a descendant from the Wild Geese Kelly family, Jean Claude Killy.
Celebrity visitors come second nature around here. Last February, in a fortnight, Bono and Gerard Depardieu were among those who stopped by to taste the skiing, and they were following a longstanding tradition of a-list celebs which goes back to Hannibal and Napoleon, bringing their armies across one of the main roads into Italy.
Today’s army come with skies and poles and you can see them waiting for the free bus service that brings holidaymakers to an array of lifts, gondolas and funiculars along the resort. During the French midterm (definitely to be avoided) they can put 50,000 skiers on the mountain here, so effortlessly you would wonder whether Irish local authorities know the meaning of the word infrastructure.
There is even an Irish ski instructor, one of only two on the Alps. Aidan Cassells (no relation of Joe) comes from Lurgan and learned on artificial slopes. He is part of a long standing teaching tradition that brings skiers of all levels to Val d’Isere to brush up their skiing on the acres of slopes.
Topflight has a full time rep based here for the growing Irish traffic to the resort, Alan Dagg from a famous Irish sporting family.
Everyone can still find a silent place to ski somewhere along the 360km of piste between Val d’Isere and the nearby Tignes. The Glacier at is open 365 days a year.
It might be the snow, but some the piste graders got colour blind when they came up this far. Some of the green and blue and red slopes are not the same in Val d’Isere as elsewhere. But for red skiers there is a run called the Matisse, a heavenly descent to lift the heart to Alpine heights. Veteran skiers can try out steep pistes, such as the Face de Bellevarde, the glorious, long, black descent to Les Brevieres, l’epaule de Charvet and the unrelenting bumps keep the good skier on the tips of his boots.
History hangs as heavy as the snow stacked on the lodge roofs. Every inch of the road from Toulouse airport is full of history from when Savoy was one of the most famous regal names in Europe.
At any altitude this would be a fashionable and atmospheric shopping town. The apartments, bars, restaurants and hotels full of revellers
extend the length of a street which always feels wider because of the mounds of snow. But throw in the fir trees and fairy lights give that extended Christmassy feel to everything, and you have a magical otherworld feel to the entire village.
At night revellers stroll the streets while the lights of the piste grooming equipment flicker in the mountains above and the distant boom of avalanche-detonators clears the off-piste regions.
The tiny original Val d’Isere village still slumbers behind a 14th century church. Here, a cluster of narrow streets give a small sense of what life must have been like for the goat’s cheese farmers before the first ski lift was built in 1932. The road came to a stop here, the highest road into the Alps, but it now weaves 60km further to the Italian border.
The small houses and farmers cottages are still there, intact and left well alone and the cheapest restaurants are at this end of the village. The cuisine includes the famous local fondue, freshwater fish, crayfish, mushrooms, potatoes, gratins prepared with potatoes, eggs, and bouillon. Also worth trying is genepy, the local version of the edelweiss flower which is fermented and drunk in post-piste sessions.
Check out Crepe Vals, particularly if you have a family in tow. It boasts 200 crepes and Breton galettes, super fondues and 20 salads, all for less than the cost of a meal out closer to the Boyne than the Isere. There is even a rugby theme pub is owned by former French player Pierre Mattis.
The resort is ideally geared for families. The children will find excellent instruction from highly rated schools such as Snow Fun and lots to do in the evenings. Accommodation ranges from premium rates at the classy hotels to self catering apartments ideal for young families or singles.
- Topflight have a full time rep in Val d’Isere, their 2003 ski brochure is available at your local ITAA travel agent, telephone 2401700 for details. Val d’Isere also has its own dedicated ski brochure available from specialist ski operators.
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