My ski career began as a ski guide in Val Thorens for a chalet specialist company called Bladon Lines. For the training, I found myself in Val d’Isere being taken under the wing of a guy called Leon Emperor who coached ESF instructors. As Leon oversaw my training, my long and passionate affair with Val d’Isère began.
To him I owe everything. And to Val d’Isère? Well, we’ve had our moments…
What I Love About Val d’Isère
The Ski Schools
Over the years I have come to discover that Val d’Isère is so ahead of the game in terms of ski schools – and I’d say it’s all down to a pal of mine named Jean Yves. This guy set up Ski Cocktail in Meribel, rocking the boat in the 80s and fighting many battles to eventually win the right to compete with the ESF.
Consequently private schools were now on the cards – such as Top Ski, Val d’Isère’s first independent ski school – and many began to pop up in neighbouring resorts.
Today there are over 20 on the slopes of Val, with unquestionably high quality and varied approaches. Check out Bernard Chesneau’s most individual, Zen-like take on ski instruction with his Ski Mastery Clinic. Pretty cool if you’re into that sort of thing.
Whilst I was training in 1986, much to the dismay of those involved with the Criterium de la Premiere Neige (the first downhill ski race of the European season), the Alps were suffering big time from a snow drought. However, when it came to the end of the skiing day the word drought was certainly no longer appropriate as we hit up the bars of the resort and drank away the memories of icy slopes!
Val d’Isère has always had a gleaming reputation as one of the liveliest après-ski spots in the mountains. Back in my day Playbach was the hot spot, always overflowing with young wind-burned faces and far too many goggle tanlines. Sadly that’s gone now, but there are plenty of other places to choose from.
Dicks Tea Bar has always been a buzzing seasonaire haunt (although you get chucked out at 1am, meaning you can get a few hours’ sleep before an early rise for the first lift on a powder day).
Dick Yates-Smith (photographed next to yours truly, below) was the owner in those days, and in 1991 his brother John founded – and still co-owns (together with former Olympic skier Fiona Easdale) – the Val d’Isere specialist tour operation YSE.
Nowadays the infamous La Folie Douce is where the party gets started on the mountain as early as 3pm. Think lots of merry chalet girls dancing in ski boots on the tables and a slightly sketchy ski back down after all those beers (take the La Daille gondola if too much Folie fun has been had).
The Opening and Closing of the Season
I worked in various resorts in Austria, France, Switzerland and Italy over the years and came to know the Alps and its quirks incredibly well. Through much trial and error I came to the conclusion that the place to be for the first and last party of the season was without a doubt, Val d’Isère.
As far and high as I searched, to my dismay nowhere else came even close to matching the fantastic buzz of the Val d’Isère Premier Neige. I then vowed to myself that my first ski of the season, always, would be here.
Afterwards there was a great choice of ski resorts to pick and choose from, but I would always finish the season back in Val for May Day bank holiday weekend. Empty slopes in the gorgeous sunshine, great spring snow and an all-round great ambience.
The memory of those last few days’ skiing would stay with me, haunt me even, over the summer and I would count down the days until I could return to what was slowly but surely becoming my home.
(If you’re anything like me and it’s empty slopes you’re craving, avoid the peak holiday times in Val and book your trip for early December, January or at the very end of the season.)
What I Don’t Love About Val d’Isère
The British Tourists
What really put me off those days was the fact that I didn’t hear a word of French. One resort that I spent a significant amount of time in was Courmayeur, and this was a genuine Italian resort with people that lived there all year round.
But Val, well it was like being in Fulham. I loved the skiing so I could bear the gaggles of well-to-do British women in white puffa jackets slipping around in their moonboots. My favourite thing to do when it all got too much was to hit up the Bar de Sport where most of the locals hung out.
If you’re looking for an authentic French experience, Val d’Isère is not the right place for you. These days the Brits come in their masses – expect to hear ‘Mummy, can you give Horatio and me another 50 euros each for Dick’s Tea Bar tonight?’ and other similar conversations as you wander down the high street.
Bear in mind, though, that a lot of these people will party too hard to ski in the morning and when they do you can guarantee they will slip down the red runs before stopping for a ‘hot choccy’. So the mountain is all yours, baby.
The Mountain Restaurants
The resort has never been renowned for its delicious cuisine… In my eyes a huge disappointment has always lain in the restaurants of Val d’Isère. Ok, sure I may have been spoilt in Courmayeur or indeed Italy, but I just cannot stand self-services.
There’s something about the queues of sniffling ski school kids fumbling for their five euro note to buy a plate of chips (yes, something that basic is that expensive) that has the ability to diminish the magic of the mountains. Sweaty, suncreamy crowded rooms full of clunking ski boots and unfriendly Frenchwomen at the cashier. No thank you.
Back in my youth we mostly brought picnics up the mountain and it didn’t bother us. But a recent family holiday lead me back to Val and I found myself shocked at the ever-growing price of food and drink on the mountain. Everything was 50% more expensive than Italy, and the quality didn’t come close! Especially the coffee, which was miles away from what you can expect in Italy. I was also horrified to see that some restaurants in Espace Killy still charge for the loos.
Le Signal, situated at the top of Le Fornet cable car, has a both a dining room and a fairly pleasant self-service as well as a definite sense of enthusiasm in the staff. Edelweiss on the Fornet side has a lot of hype, but the reality seemed to be overpriced and very poor quality food with a sense of arrogance.
L’Arolay, also in Le Fornet, was still there with same rustic ambience – ideal for a group seeking raclette or fondue. Local favourite Chez Brigitte at the bottom of the Madeleine express chairlift, has a very friendly atmosphere and on a sunny day the outdoor BBQ is great fun.
I was delighted that Tete de Solaise has extended its offering from self-service only to include table service… but I won’t be going back there again. When asking whether a certain dish contained nuts, the waiter said he didn’t think so. When I requested that he check with the chef due to my daughter’s severe nut allergy, he shrugged his shoulders and said he was ‘too busy’!
And the overall winner of a bit of a, well, slightly sad bunch? It has to be Le Trifolet – still as good as it was 20 years ago.
Back in town, I did discover two new places which I really liked. La Baraque, halfway down Avenue Olympique, is my new locale – the kind of place where you might bump into friends over an aperetif and great for dinner too.
Further up the main road and in the heart of the action is Sur La Montagne – the best place in town for a pizza with the kids. There’s a great play area if they get bored sitting at the table, and it’s very family friendly all-round with early opening times for an evening meal.
And the saddest news was the closure of my favourite establishment, La Pedrix Blanche, once a ski bum palace with everything on the menu from pizzas to seafood platters. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with this place next season.
The Airport Transfer
Oh that torturous transfer I remember well. Transfers come in the shape and form of buses, taxis, or shared minibus.
Val d’Isere is only a two-and-a-quarter hour drive from Geneva airport, which, when you think about it, really isn’t that long. But over the years I have experienced some pretty terrible transfers. Think screaming children, cramped seats, stressed staff stocking up on sick bags for little kids when the coach hit those corners on the climb from Bourg St Maurice.
And of course, if you are on a coach, the transfer becomes at least two and a half hours long – far from ideal.
All in All, It’s a Pretty Great Place…
What we know for sure is that for all its shortcomings, Val d’Isere is improving. Take the lift system for example: from November 2016 the old Solaise Express four-person chair-lift, along with the cable-car, will be replaced by a 10-person gondola with 91 cabins, complete with heated seats and wifi.
On the Val side of Solaise a giant, covered magic carpet lift has replaced the old Terrasse button lift. This serves a new secluded beginner area for both adults and children without other advanced skiers whizzing by.
So will I go back? Absolutely. Despite the torturous transfer time and hearing English almost everywhere, I have rekindled my friendship with this resort. But I would only go in April when the slopes will be empty and snow will be great.
In fact, I was just there myself this April just gone. It was our City Ski Championships commentator Matt Chilton, who is the voice of things ALL things ski racing (Ski Sunday, Eurosport, Winter Olympics) and tennis at Wimbledon amongst many other sports, that persuaded me to go back to Val. I had forgotten so many of the great ski runs out there – not least the excellent off-piste, which Matt guided us around as we reconnected with the area.
We stayed with Mark Warner – their usual faboulous childcare meant I could ski with my wife Gabriela and eldest daughter Emilia whilst Max (2) and Emma (4) were looked after in the creche and taken to and from ski school.
And as for yourself, should you go? Absolutely yes. The resort’s altitude makes it a great early- or late-season option, and the ski area is just phenomenal with something to offer for everyone.
I still relish in the range of off-piste, as well as well-groomed pistes as much as I did all those years ago under the instruction of Leon Emperor. The man who absolutely taught me everything I know – clichéd as it may sound – and even blindfolded me and skied behind bellowing in a thick French accent: “feel ze mountain!”
Want to Try Val d’Isere for Yourself?
If you’re interested in experiencing Val d’Isere as your next ski holiday in France, we can make it happen for you. Get in touch today and we can start planning your tailor-made trip to this ever-popular, world-class destination.
I’d love to hear your feedback, too. Have you been to Val d’Isere? Do you agree with my assessment?