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Val d'Isère, France

Val d'Isère, France

Do you want a village that feels intimate and embracing at the foot of expansive yet seamlessly interconnected slopes? Is convenience king for you? If you answered yes, then go here.
By Susan Reifer Ryan
posted: 01/28/2008

Giant ski areas - the largest in the world - are a hallmark of French skiing. These sprawling arenas of interconnected lifts, runs and resort centers are so vast that even the brawniest North American resorts look Lilliputian in comparison. (Imagine six Whistler Blackcombs tethered together.) With the comparatively modest 24,000 contiguous skiable acres of Espace Killy out its back door, Val d'Isère is hardly the largest of the French megaresorts (a mere three Whistler Blackcombs). But with its historic Haute Savoie village and 70 years of innovative ski hospitality, its gorgeous wilderness mountainscapes and array of well-balanced terrain, its efficient lift system and propensity for great snow, it might well be the most appealing. Val d'Isère is a French megaresort with soul, and people come here with precisely one purpose in mind: to ski.

A quintessential Val day starts with spilling out of bed in a slopeside hotel or chalet adorned with wood-trimmed balconies and views of the slopes, eating a heaping breakfast of pastries, fruits, eggs, cheeses and cold cuts, then walking the short distance to the nearest lift. Val d'Isère means Valley of the Isere River, and the open headwaters basin that cradles the village is the literal end of the road. Sheer rock faces rise on one side of town, skiable mountain faces on the other. The village is large but feels intimate. The Village Centre, re-faced over the years to better blend modern development with the 17th-century stone-and-timber architecture, butts up against the very foot of the slopes. Lifts have been built in all the right places, and whichever lift is nearest your lodgings is a fine place to start the day, as everything on the slopes connects to everything else.

That said, many start their day on L'Olympique, a 30-person gondola that whisks 2,600 skiers per hour 3,200 vertical feet uphill to the summit of Bellevarde, the starting point of the 1992 Olympic men's downhill. French and British skiers fill the gondolas equally, and the milieu is social and friendly. Atop Bellevarde, Val's expanses open to the eye. The landscape is a crazy quilt of crags, nobs and needles, brown, white and gray - as though God couldn't decide how to shape the mountains here. But even a quick look around makes it easy to imagine that the creator was a skier.

Three primary mountain sectors - Fornet, Solaise and Bellevarde - are linked together by skiable ridges and valleys (and by smart lift systems). Some visitors find an area they like - perhaps Bellevarde's roomy backside basin striped with easy groomers, the Olympic downhill's twists and turns or Fornet's quiet wilds - and stick to it. Others explore Val's open spaces and easy-skiing bowls. This is a skier's mountain times 10, but one that's also friendly for vert-hungry intermediates.

Off-piste advanced and expert terrain lies over every ridgeline, above every basin and within the lower elevations' hardwood and evergreen thickets. Virtually all of it is accessible with easy traverses or short hikes from the lifts. If you can see it, you can ski it. Accessing the terrain of neighboring Tignes and getting back to Val d'Isère before lifts close requires a modicum of planning, but it can be done entirely on skis.

But this is France, so even powder lovers and Zen-like mountain guides stop to eat. Val d'Isère's cuisine isn't as central a feature as Zermatt's or even Chamonix's, but it's still possible to savor duck's leg confit or crème brà»lée a few short strides from the pistes before heading back out in search of fantastic skiing. Which, at a resort of this size, is never hard to come by.

Val d'Isère combines the charm of a traditional historic French alpine village with the conveniences of a modern resort. Whether in the Centre Village or one of a half-dozen outlying residential clusters, Val's 30 hotels, 100-odd lodges and dozens of aparrtment buildings and chalets all spill onto lifts. Val racks up 2 million skier days per winter and, unlike St. Moritz, 92 percent of its visitors are here to ski.

Skiing Snapshot
Skiers of all levels can find what they're looking for in Val d'Isère and Espace Killy, but experts will be rewarded with a lifetime of amazing descents. The spacious sprawl is well-connected by a superb lift system, so guides are only necessary if you plan on exploring the ample off-piste offerings.

Ultimate Adventure
Book Patrick Zimmer and his seasoned team from Top Ski to show you a seamless day of nonstop discovery in places you will never otherwise find. Small off-piste groups set out daily ( target=_blank>

Le Christiania, a classic four-star hotel in a great location (from $216 per person, target=_blank>; Les Barmes de l'Ours, a ritzy slopeside four-star (from $800 per room, target=_blank>

On Mountain: La Fruitière, known for its lively people-watching - order the duck confit; Rotisserie des Barmes, a high-end buffet.
In Town: La Casa Scara, Italian with a French twist; Le Christiania, Val's best-kept dinner secret.

Pier Paul Jack; XV

Local Secret
On a sunny day, pack a picnic from local cheese shop La Fermette de Claudine and enjoy it on the slopes.

Getting There
Fly to Geneva and take a bus for the three-hour drive ( target=_blank> For more autonomy, and if you don't mind mountain roads, rent a car.

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