by Ben Ross, The Telegraph, October 29, 2019
The largest, the fastest, the longest, the flashiest… ski resorts tend to go big on superlatives, and Val Thorens goes bigger than most.
You may already be aware of some of its vital statistics: the highest ski resort in Europe, lying near the head of the Belleville Valley at 2,300m, it has lorded it over the rest of the Alps since it was conjured into being in the early Seventies. Almost all the resort’s skiable terrain is above 2,000m and as a result it has a long season – mid-November until early May.
As part of Les Trois Vallées, the world’s largest ski area, Val Thorens claims access to 600km of ski runs, 120km of cross- country skiing, 2,100 snow cannons and lots and lots of ski instructors. You’re bored already, but I should also let you know that there are 183 lifts, 135 blue runs, 119 reds and 33 blacks across Les Trois Vallées as well as 19 Michelin stars shared by 11 restaurants.
Anyway, like me, you’re probably not a ski masochist. You won’t scrape up all those lifts, or careen down all those runs; you may not even indulge in every one of those star-rated menus (although I quite fancy a go). But it was as I stood at another statistically potent position (the region’s highest lift-accessed point, at 3,230m, just below the Pointe du Bouchet) that I realised just how unenlightening that numbers game really is.
Firstly, I was about to ski into Les Trois Vallées’ fourth valley, above Orelle. That’s just silly. And secondly, maths can never celebrate what really matters, which is the sheer joy of coming here for late-season skiing.
I’ve done plenty in France: Tignes, La Plagne, Les Arcs, Alpe d’Huez, Val d’Isère, Les Deux Alpes. All high up, all reliably white-clad at Easter (if sometimes cannon-assisted on the lower slopes). Everything about them is splendid, apart from the snow, which is often so wet that it freezes hard and coarse as sandpaper in the morning, then finally becomes pleasantly zippy just when you’d rather be eating lunch, before sliding into 50 shades of slush while the afternoon is still young.
Now, in mid April, urged on by no-nonsense Fabienne Pandier from the ESF (“Always come here to get your ski legs on the first day, as everyone else is trying to work out the ski map”), I was carving through perfect faux-midwinter powder, my skis swishing below me. Yes I know it’s all to do with altitude and orientation, with all those facts and figures, but a verse or two of poetry felt far more appropriate as I forged downwards to Plan Bouchet on virtually empty south-facing slopes, under a bluebird sky, the sun warm, the wind light. The snow was rather crispier on the colder, windier, busier, north side of the mountain above Val Thorens, ridged by the snowplough, but it was still gloriously sludge-free on the runs back into town.
Late-season skiing works well for British families priced out of the February half-term frenzy and reluctant to risk a Christmas no-snow debacle. We’d travelled with Crystal, which has properties throughout the town including Hotel Tango on Rue de la Boucle, a busy but not uproarious hub for après, with ski-in, ski-out access to the slopes.
It is owned by Langley Hotels and Resorts and the majority of the guests – and staff – are Swedish, which gave us an enjoyable sense of being doubly out of place. The rooms, too, are fun: a plaster stag’s head loomed above the bed, poking out from a monochrome winter scene; plaid wallpaper contrasted with the minimalist/Ikea stylings of a tiny desk with custard-yellow trim. Everything was very neat and compact, with balconies overlooking the town and beyond to whitewashed mountain peaks.
Val Thorens once had a reputation for being ugly, part of the spate of concrete-heavy resort building in the Sixties and early Seventies that included Les Menuires, just below at 1,850m. More diligent planning regulations have softened things, though, and much is indistinguishable from resorts that claim a far more elegant cachet. Out of the weather in indoor arcades you can eat out, swim in the municipal pool or buy overpriced ski wear. Nevertheless, this is primarily a resort for skiers, not show-offs (although there’s a branch of La Folie Douce at the top of the Plein Sud lift if you like that sort of thing).
At the end of the season, you can spend long, sunwashed mornings looping round that very lift before it all kicks off up there, or slipping over to Méribel, the prettiest of Les Trois Vallées resorts. We spent plenty of time on the other side, pottering up and down the Tougnète lifts on the Blaireau and Faon runs (slushier than Val Thorens, but with great, sweeping turns) and another afternoon exploring Courchevel’s way out east. Having all that spare terrain to play with means that when the weather gets a bit dicey in tree-free Val Thorens, which it is prone to do, there’s always somewhere to escape to.
What’s more, even without the joys of Michelin-star dining, you can eat well. Our finest stop came at La Ferme de la Choumette, low on the mountain above St Martin de Belleville, where entrecôte (€28.50/£24.50) and tangy cheese burgers (€19.50) were served in a peculiar shed that was half restaurant, half cow barn. Further up the mountain, at Le Chalet des Neiges off the Roc 2 lift above Les Menuires, even aiming low felt a bit steep: galettes savoyardes cost €13.90 a pop. But a glorious meal at Chalet de la Marine, off the Peclet lift above Val Thorens, showed that even extortionate pot au feu (€30) can be worth it when delivered well: rich, hearty and full of marrow.
In the evenings, our ski boots steaming gently in the locker room, Swedish Hedda looked after us in Hotel Tango’s candlelit restaurant area, where the half-board menu delivered courses such as chicken supreme with red wine sauce, or (yet more) fillet of beef. Elsewhere in the bar, well-turned-out Scandinavians gorged on à la carte pizzas and drank cocktails, while Val Thorens’s less couth habitués headed instead to the Frog and Beefsteak just down the road: the highest pub in Europe, stats fans, and hopefully a post-Brexit symbol of our nations’ forthcoming détente, or at least our joint desire to play dubious drinking games.
But it seems there’s always room for a few more superlatives. Val Thorens is no longer content with what it has, so is inventing new things to get excited about. Longest toboggan run in France? Check, and freshly revamped last season. The 6km-long Cosmojet (€16.50 per person) may sound space age, but it’s just a sledge run with a few pop-up aliens and some sound-effects. It also has a disconcerting habit of ejecting you on to busy ski runs here and there. Once was enough for me.
All right, then. What about an 1,800m-long zipwire built for two? Really? Do we have to? Oh, actually this is quite fun. La Bee (€35), new last season, runs from the top of the Moutière chairlift back into town and is a genuinely exhilarating way of getting down the mountain.
Next season Val Thorens becomes the first resort in the world with a free self-driving electric bus, which I suppose may lure fans of innovative transit opportunities. But really, truly. Forget the stats and the gimmicks, digest that pot au feu, fasten your skis and head up to the top of Funitel Peclet for a swoop down Christine, Val’s most pleasing red run. There’s magic to be found here, whether you leave it late or not.
Need to know
Ben Ross travelled as a guest of Crystal Ski Holidays (020 8610 3123; crystalski.co.uk), which offers a week half board in Val Thorens at the four-star Hotel Tango from £1,307 per person when booked online (based on two adults and two children sharing), including flights from Gatwick to Geneva and transfers. Price based on departure on April 4 2020 and subject to change. Direct flights are also available from all major UK airports. Ski hire was from Intersport (intersport-rent.fr/en), which offers award-winning 2020 skis, including touring skis, powder skis and the new Nitro Q Series retro snowboard shapes. For more information, see valthorens.com and les3vallees.com.