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Words: Will Squires
I’ve spent hours trying to cajole my girlfriend into a skiing holiday.
As a snow-maniac, I love the mountains, I love the piste, I love snowsports. However, as a novice, my partner was less convinced about the splendours of a skiing holiday than I. Her troubles centred around the usual issues, (‘I don’t want to slow you down’, ‘I’ll be worse than everyone’), but the key take away was that she ‘didn’t want to spend a ludicrous amount of money to just ski and drink’.
Ski towns can be desolate places. Beautiful, yet desolate. The North American cookie cutter resorts are worse for this, lacking some of the weathered charm of Europe, but many ski resorts fail to attract ‘gentler’ tourists by showcasing a broader range of activities. Most veteran skiers will speak in animated fashion about the quality of the snow (a classic office kitchen question), but very few will speak in detail about the splendour of the mountains, and the sheer pleasure fighting against that vastness brings.
To capture a piece of that elemental, winter beauty, and explore some of the delights that can surround and wrap a traditional skiing holiday, I’m in France, visiting the twin resorts of Val Thorens and Val d’Arlay to experience.
Val Thorens needs no introduction – big, boozy, powered by the speakers at the Folie Deux, it’s long been beloved of students, party animals, and those seeking world class snow. Nestled alongside the eponymous Trois Valeés, Val Thorens is one of the grand dames of European skiing, with unparalleled slopes.
I’m here to dig beneath the surface of this pristine image. Away from the lifts, away from the piste and the glamour, we trek into the snow on a touring trip to hidden Lac de Lou. The sky is perfectly clear, and as we hike through the wilderness, snow shoed foot after snow shoed foot breaking through the hard pack, I experience a serenity I rarely feel in a ski resort.
Touring is a beautiful experience. For skiers, it tends to mean strapping plastic ‘skins’ to your skis that allow you to walk up hill (a novel innovation). For the snowboarders, it means a gut-busting hike in snow shoes. Nevertheless, traipsing through the back-routes of Val Thorens, led by our intrepid guide, we see a different side to the glamor of the resort. Peaks tower above us, the sun beats down, and we’re soon stripped down to under layers. Touring is the work out that skiing never managed to be.
After an hour of brisk exercise, we crest a final rise to look down on the basin of Lac de Lou. Skiers rip past at frightening speed on the piste above, but we head to a small hut on an overlook, settling in for a lunch of charcuterie and cheese, accompanied by slightly burnt coffee. Assisted by our guide, we clamber into neoprene scuba suits, pull on goggles and tuck away every inch of exposed flesh, before donning a tank of air, and descending beneath the ice of the lake, accompanied one on one.
Beneath the surface, light refracts on mystifying patterns, suspended beneath six inches of frozen tundra. The lights shift and shimmer, and a single droplet of icy liquid provides evidence of the environment you find yourself wrapped in. This is a far cry from scuba diving in Thailand. Your heart beats, your ears throb, and singular days dance through the ice, cutting eldritch patterns in the frozen water.
The following day, revitalised from our brush with death (thanks to a deep, sumptuous bed at the lushly appointed Fahrenheit 7), we hit the mountains proper. An hour or two of steep, carving runs, fingertips brushing the fresh snow, before we pull up to the zip line. Having delved beneath the surface the prior day, as the break drops, we whip across a mountain chasm, 250 feet above the ground.
While Lac Du Lou was serene and crisp, the zip line is a blood pumping, adrenaline high wire, wind screaming past your face until I’m pulled in, roaring with laughter, cradled by the erudite touch of a smirking French ‘zip line technician’ (where can I get that job, I wonder). Good skier, bad skier, the feeling of soaring high above, watching people turn down crafted slopes below is hard to beat, embedding you in the vastness of sky that typifies the experience of the mountains.
As the night wraps around, we dine at Fahrenheit’s excellent veranda. A robust stew of local sausage and fresh Savoie herbs drives away the chill. Fragrant, punchy, exceedingly local, I can imagine myself sequestered in a hand carved chalet, a century ago, eating this same meal after a brisk evening.
Rising early, we take a short journey through the winding mountains to the lesser known Val d’Arly, nestled in the shadow of Mont Blanc. Less well known to the British public, Val d’Arly nevertheless boasts over 600km of piste, with Notre Dame du Bellecose showcasing some particularly steep runs.
We’re here for the inaugural ‘skiing with Eagles’ festival, as well as a sample of rural French mountain life in the winter. Part nature documentary, part conservation experience, the session takes place on low slopes, where the trainer, Jacque Olivier-Travers, eloquently pauses to share his experience from the ‘Freedom’ conservation project he curates, interspersed with watching the previously near-extinct white tailed sea eagle, Fletcher, carve down the mountain at frightening pace.
For more animal capers, we hitch up dog sleds, before haring through the woods on what can only be called a sledding motocross. The huskies pulling my companions sled are strong and steady, but the herd of mutts and whippets in my own traces are so enthusiastic I’m flung to the ground once (briefly making me an Instagram celebrity of the ‘epic fail’ variety). Jumping back to my feet and grabbing the sled, we roar back down the track, skirting the edge of a frozen river, before careening back into the stop yard.
There is a peculiar serenity in all of this, best captured from the majestic balcony of the ‘Entre Terre et Ciel’ Tree houses. Built by hand by master craftsman, these little slices of heaven are a woodsy dream. The larger, plusher treehouse is complete with sauna and hot tub, but is the beautiful delicacy of the ‘egg’, clad in interlocking branches, that truly catches the eye. Bookings are surprisingly reasonable, and for the couple who want to feel truly in nature, being lofted into the canopy is one of the most stunning places from which to do so.
To round out our rural expedition, we visit a local creamery, name, sampling their award-winning Reblochon (a cheese I still have dreams about to this day), as well as cutting through a vast swathe of excellent Tomme de Savoie, the fromagier taking us through the delicacies of flavour that change between their spring and autumn versions. Dinner is fittingly at L’Etable d’Alain, a classic French mountain restaurant, serving excellent gastronomique cuisine. The stellar differentiator, however, is the fact the restaurant backs onto a barn, and through large glass windows you can see looming bovines, happily snorting. The highlight was a pulled lamb pastis, enfolded in a delicate wrap of puff pastry, laid to rest in a lentil stew.
The French Alps offer more than just skiing. From dog sleds to creameries, the heights of the mountain tops to the depths of a frozen lake, try exploring outside the piste nest time you go abroad. If only I could convince my girlfriend…
Val Thorens and Val d’Arly are two of the finest examples of resorts that pull out all of the stops, offering a
plethora of opportunities to get away from it all, get back to nature and enjoy some wonderfully authentic
experiences in the mountains.