48 hours in ... Val d'Isere

For a perfect skiing weekend which won't break the bank, head for the French Alps, says Vivienne Heller. A wide choice of runs, night life and good food await
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Why go now?

Far from being a luxury, a ski weekend is a positive necessity for stressed-out city folk or bored individuals. How else can you banish thoughts of work with a night on the tiles, then evict hangovers with a heady fix of fresh air, adrenalin and dazzling views? And all without exhausting your annual holiday allowance.

Current weather reports bode well for a long, healthy season: go now, and you'll benefit from last week's fresh snow, an as-yet-unjaded resort work-force, a decent exchange rate (pounds 1 around FF9.14), and, of course, a head start on your tan.

Why here?

Pause at the top of any piste and you'll understand why. Val d'Isere and Tignes link up to form L'Espace Killy, an extensive playground that includes 300km of pistes, limitless, breathtaking off-piste, and 102 lifts to help you access all of this. The vista is both awesome and inviting - a network of different coloured runs means most slopes can be tackled by all standards of skier, making the area perfect for mixed-ability groups and ensuring few queues or crowds.

As for the resort itself, Val d'Isere has sold its French soul to tourism, and caters for it with enthusiasm and a unique style, offering a good choice of apres-ski and accommodation to crawl back to.

Finally, of course, there's its ease of access from Britain.

Beam down

Val d'Isere has a fleet of planes, trains and automobiles just waiting for your nod. Fly to Geneva with easyJet (0870-600 0000), for example, for around pounds 68 return, then hire a car for the three-hour trip to the resort for about pounds 89 for two days from Budget (0800 181181; negotiate for snow-chains on collection). The overnight Eurostar ski-train service (0990 186186) will get you to Bourg-St Maurice (a short, cheap shuttle-bus ride from Val d'Isere) at 6.45am for pounds 199 return; and fast motorways from northern sea ports make driving an easy, if relatively time-consuming, option.

Check in

Tailored to tourism, Val d'Isere boasts accommodation for all budgets and tastes, from the four-star Christiania (00 33 4 7906 0825; from FF677 per person per night, B&B) to Chardons (7906 0015; from FF278 per person per night, half board). I stayed in the fabulous Chalet Milliga II, right by the lift area (call Claudia Wainwright on 0171-937 8511 for details). For other options, contact the Centrale de Reservation Hoteliere de Val d'Isere (7906 1890; valhotel@val-disere.com).

Pre-ski prep

Arrange everything the moment you arrive, to avoid morning delays. The numerous ski-hire places are open late and charge similar prices: around FF90 a day for medium-standard skis and boots; FF110 for paraboliques. Snow Fun lacks the charm of smaller operations such as Alp'Sport (7906 0291), but provides everything from ski hire (7906 1179) to lessons (7906 1979: groups from FF140, private from FF570). For a star among ski guides, call Piers Williams (7941 1700; FF700 per morning).

You need a photo for a two-day lift pass, available by the Bellevarde lift for FF405 without insurance, FF433 with (FF285/FF307 for kids). Finally, pocket a map (free from ticket offices), sunblock - even in cloudy weather - and a good stash of mini Mars Bars for topping up energy levels.

Get your bearings

Val d'Isere's skiing area is accessible from three points in the valley: Le Fornet; the resort centre, in the middle; and La Daille, connected to the Tignes area. All are linked by an efficient, free shuttle-bus service that takes approximately 15 minutes from one end to the other.

At weekends, Le Fornet is best for avoiding the crowds that spill over to the Val d'Isere area from Tignes, while for sun without the spring meltdown, head for Solaise.

The latter area is ideal for mixed-ability groups; beginners enjoy free chairlifts and drags in the nursery area by the resort centre, or, for a fix that will get them hooked for life, take them up to the wide, gentle, south-facing slopes at the top of the Express chairlift. From here, intermediates and advanced skiiers can shoot off for an orgy of skiing on runs around Le Manchet, down the awe-inspiring Cugnai, or back down to the village on Plan or the glorious "L". Alternatively, take the "up-and-over" chairlift from Solaise to Le Fornet, whose Ski d'Ete area, around its glacier, offers quiet, gentle slopes with long schusses and motorways.

Further down, the endless Signal drag lift is my personal nemesis, but worth enduring for access to the stunning off-piste Grand Vallon (off- piste runs should only be tackled with a guide; for more information on safety, see The Independent's Travel section). To descend to the village, a variety of slopes - blue motorway, the black Foret run, challenging off-piste - ensure that everyone arrives happily ski'ed out back at Le Fornet cablecar and restaurant.

Yet more sublime skiing lies in the Bellevarde area. Good skiers get their kicks on the thrilling Face - a former Olympic downhill run - or, in good conditions, head off-piste on the beautiful Tour de Charvet. Alternatively, motorway on gentle south-facing slopes past La Fruitiere (see Lunch on the run, below) down into La Daille, where beginners enjoy free ski lifts. At Bellevarde's highest point (2,850m) is its link with Tignes, which boasts year-round glacier skiing on La Grande Motte, and myriad other delights.

Lunch on the run

However useless your skiing, you can redeem yourself by looking good at lunch. Perfect for posing are the wide, south-facing terraces of Val d'Isere's several mountain restaurants, which double up as cosy havens in bad weather.

Absolute favourite is La Fruitiere (7906 0717), at the top of the La Daille gondola. This former dairy was transplanted here, lock, stock and milk churns, three years ago, to form a delightful restaurant serving local produce - with oddities such as snail lasagne - at prices equal to those in the self-service restaurant next door. Train your taste buds to lead you here in a white-out.

Another place to hole up in in bad weather is Crech'Ouna, towards the bottom of La Daille. Warmed by a roaring fire, it also boasts a perfectly placed terrace for watching the sun go down before you begin your last short but slushy descent.

Other notable lunch spots are Tufs, in La Daille, for excellent croque- monsieurs, and Toviere, at the top of Tommeuses, whose location, at the convergence of several mixed-level pistes, makes it an ideal meeting place.

Apres-ski

Lifts close at 4.45pm early on in the year, and colourful hordes descend for a vin chaud or beer before dinner. Unpretentious Bananas, near the Bellevard Express, is a perfect place to end the day; or sip cocktails in perennial favourite Dick's Tea Bar.

Freshly thawed, you can then contemplate Val d'Isere's winter wonderland of nightlife venues, all of which can be covered in a dedicated one-night club crawl. Most of these are striving to keep pace with current club trends to tempt a predominantly young, infinitely cool tourist market.

Summer-withdrawal symptoms can be sated at Club 21, where Camouflage has jetted in to bring an Ibiza brand of clubbing to Wednesday nights. Best for debauchery is Cafe Face, whose fancy-dress parties are not for the easily shocked. If your energy begins to flag, L'Aventure provides a home from home - literally. Curl up on a bed or perch on the bath and admire the staying power of the hip, gyrating clientele.

When you do finally slink home, you'll pass under the gaze of the "shush police", a league of lads employed to ensure night owls keep the peace. This is a reaction to the drunken behaviour of many young, English tourists - encouraged, say locals, by documentaries such as the BBC's recent War and Piste - which local police are attempting to stem.

Demure dinner

If you aren't blessed with a chalet girl slaving over a hot stove, a smattering of restaurants offers a hearty alternative, serving up local produce such as fondue savoyade and tartiflette. Worth a visit are the cosy Casserole (7941 1571), cheery, established Perdrix Blanche (7906 1209), or the pricier, more refined Clochetons (7941 1411). Wash dinner down with the best of local wines: try the red gamay or mondeuse; or whites chignin, roussette or apremont.

Then mosey home along snowy streets under a starry sky, and reflect on a weekend very well spent.

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