Wednesday, 22 January 2014

First time Val d'Isere

It seems to go like clockwork each week.

Every Saturday, most of the population of the ski town of Val d'Isere, France, just leaves, replaced by a new batch of snow seekers.

There's the packs of Brits, the Irish lads, French couples and a potpourri of other Europeans - not to mention the odd Aussie or two like me.

As most of the hotels and units only offer seven night stays with a Saturday changeover, literally everyone seems to arrive and depart on the same day.  It's organised chaos on ice.

There's a frantic energy as the new arrivals raid the supermarket, rent their ski gear, secure their lift pass and check out what else the town has to offer.   There's bars, cafes, patisseries, restaurants, shops and even a cinema.

Despite it's international stature, Val d'Isere is relatively compact.  It is literally a one-street town, with all the shops, hotels and unit blocks radiating from the main road that snakes its way along the narrow valley floor.

High on the mountains above the town, hidden out of view, is 300km of ski slopes.  That's what everyone has come for.

This week was my first time at Val d'Isere.  It's also my first time skiing in Europe so I was keen to see how it compared to its counterparts in Japan, Canada and the US.

Here's seven things about Val d'Isere that are good for first-timers like me to know.

1.  Espace Killy's the ticket
You've got a choice of ski lift passes at Val d'Isere.  You can ski just the Val d'Isere area, or the full Espace Killy ski area that takes in Val d'Isere and the nearby Tignes ski resort.  I opted for the Espace Killy pass and found it just the ticket for discovering all the area has to offer.  It's also pretty easy to "accidentally" end up in Tignes because of the way the runs and lifts fall so it's worth having a ticket for this area.

2.  The early-ish bird catches the worm
As with many ski resorts, those who rise for the day's first lifts are rewarded with uncrowded slopes and maybe untouched powder stashes.  In Val d'Isere this is also true, but thankfully lifts don't open until around 9am.  Even so, many skiers and boarders are busy nursing hangovers for the night before or feel it would be unfashionable to make an appearance before 10.30am, so it's worth making the early effort.

3.  Go high to get out of the clouds
You can be down in the village looking up at cloudy skies, but up another 1000m you're basking in sunshine.   Espace Killy's two highest peaks, La Grande Motte (3656m) and Pointe du Montet (3488m), are the places to be when the clouds hug the lower valley.  The snow is also often in better condition up here (apparently they also offer summer skiing here too).

4.  Tres cher?
I had expected Val d'Isere to be expensive.  Not just because I'm travelling on the "Pacific Peso" (Australian Dollar), but also because it's Europe, it's a ski resort and, hey, it's Val d'Isere.  Interestingly I've found options for all budgets - something that can't be said for all ski resorts.  As an indication, you can score a hot chocolate for anywhere between two and six Euros, depending where you are.  And for a bit of fun, you can check out the price tags on some of the ski gear, some of which goes for the same price as a second-hand car!

5.  Piste potluck
Just in case you temporarily forget where you are, a pitstop at one of the many restaurants or cafes on the mountain or in the village brings you back to reality.  From pain au chocolat and gateaux, to brioche suisse, there's no shortage of French treats for a morning snack.  Lunch and dinners are also a feast with some of the most diverse and tastiest food I've ever had at a ski resort.

6.  It's all about the Alps
One thing that surprised me the most about Val d'Isere is that there are no trees on the slopes.  It's truly alpine, high above the natural tree line.  The advantage of this is that you have expansive peak and valley views as you ski wide runs.  The only downside is during cloudy weather, snowy conditions or flat light when you might normally hunt out tree-lined runs to enhance slope definition and visibility.

7.  Getting home in one piece
One thing about having the slopes several hundred metres above the town is that everyone has to eventually come down.  At Val d'Isere, there's only a handful of runs (mostly intermediate or difficult) that run back to the village and, as you can imagine, these are pretty packed at the end of the day.  If you don't want to take part in the equivalent of the grand prix on skis, take one of the ski lifts or gondolas back down.

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