Snowy ski runs leading down to the resort town of Courchevel
Photo by Ian Gratton  –  Link

Val d'Isere

France

Sandwiched between mountains on either side, dotted with plush trees and drenched in soft glowing lights, the village of Val d'Isere exudes all of the Alpine charm that you'd expect from a 'proper' European ski town. Just three miles from the Italian border, it's got snow-coated luxury hotels galore, excellent restaurants and a warm, vibrant nightlife. Up in the mountains above, there's 300km of pistes to choose from, numerous off-piste routes, and a strong lift system. Add in its long-earned reputation for being snow-sure and the fact that it's produced some of France's greatest skiers, and it's not hard to see why this has become one of Europe's most celebrated world-class ski and snowboard destinations.

A little history

Having spent many years as a small hunting village, it was in the 1920s that skiing first caught on in Val d'Isere, with the first cable car being erected during WW2 for the benefit of German troops, who used the area for R&R. Tourists first started journeying to the town during the 1970s, but it was after the Albertville Olympics that the resort really caught the public imagination. Since then, it's been growing year on year.

Skiing and snowboarding

One of the big bonuses of Val d'Isere is the huge Espace Killy ski area that it shares with the neighbouring resort of Tignes. Named after Olympic champion Jean Claude Killy, who grew up locally, the area offers around 300km of pistes covered by some 900 snow cannons, although the high altitude of both of these resorts means they're rarely short on the white stuff. The season tends to run from November to April, or even early May, so there's plenty of time to go exploring.

So, who does Val d'Isere suit? Well, at first glance it would be easy to think that the slopes around here are best suited to beginners or improvers, with well over half of the runs being blue or green, and a further 27% being reds. But in fact, these same runs actually have more to offer to intermediates than those just getting to grips with staying on two feet; a good number of the blues would easily be classed as reds in any other resort, with a number of the reds actually closer to blacks. Skiers or boarders wishing to do some free riding won't leave empty handed, as the area has many off-piste areas made accessible by lifts.

Back in town

For a village that seems like it could get away with selling itself on being pretty, Val d'Isere is also surprisingly practical. Aside from the wealth of hotels to choose from - many of which are ski-to-door - the semi-pedestrianised streets make wandering between the village's many restaurants, bars and boutique shops as easy as can be. Meanwhile, a whole host of additional activities - including an ice rink, ice driving circuit and an aqua sports centre - will keep even the fussiest of individuals occupied.

Cheese-loving foodies will be glad to hear that the local specialities in this area are fondue and raclette. That said, the braserade at Restaurant Le Barillon also comes highly recommended by diners, although probably not by doctors - it's essentially a table top BBQ, served with lots of meats, sauces and cheese-covered carbs. For the cosiest lunch you'll ever eat on the slopes check out La Peau de Vache; to describe it all would be to spoil the magic, but expect amazing burgers served by candlelight in a very quirky setting.

And once the sun goes down, Val d'Isere's lively apres ski scene springs into life, with everything from sports bars to live sax players to be found inside the town's many bars. For an evening of cocktails, throwback tunes, table football and friendly bar staff, head to The Fall Line Bar.

Getting there

Val d'Isere is two hours from Grenoble international airport and just under three hours from Geneva. If you're coming from London, you can hop on the Eurostar to Paris and get the TGV from there to Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

The all-important details:

  • Base height: 1850m
  • Summit height: 3450m
  • Ski area: 300km
  • Longest run: 6km