Travel: The British love affair with Val

Early snow, amazing views - just what is it that makes Val d'Isere such a uniquely popular ski resort? Stephen Wood finds out
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The early-season skiing was excellent in Val d'Isere this year. The week before last, I skied down the D902, the old Alpine road from Bourg St Maurice, in France, to the Italian border. Soon afterwards, I skied across a car park. I suspect that, later in the day, I traversed the proving ground used for Europe's biggest four-wheel-drive motor show. But it was hard to tell when the whole area was covered with 80cm of snow.

The snow usually comes early to Val d'Isere, allowing it to open for business on the last weekend in November and to stage the first race in skiing's World Cup in mid-December. By tradition, the British come early, too: last season, almost one in three skiers in the resort in December were Britons. And those who were there at the beginning of this month enjoyed good snow conditions, empty pistes and blue skies. The only downside, apart from the fact that about half the ski area had not yet opened, was a bitingly cold wind.

But we like "Val" enough to go there throughout the season: the statistics show that only the French, with 51 per cent, make up a bigger share of its market than the British, who constitute 27 per cent, making it the most popular skiing resort in the world for British skiers (the statistics also suggest that you are unlikely to meet many Poles, Turks or South Africans on the slopes: those nationalities have, respectively, a 0.3 per cent, 0.2 per cent and 0.1 per cent share of the market).

So just what is so attractive about the resort? First, the Espace Killy ski area - which Val shares with the neighbouring resort of Tignes - is absolutely huge (more than 100 ski-lifts, 300km of pistes), dramatically beautiful and high enough for reliable snow cover; and its skiing "is so varied and demanding that it has raised a whole genre of international experts who never ski anywhere else", according to the Good Skiing Guide. Second, the reputation of the night life is such that ski operators have a hard time persuading their chalet staff to work anywhere else. Finally, the resort has managed to maintain its chic image despite operating on an almost industrial scale, coping with more than a quarter of a million skier-weeks per season.

The image is unwarranted, as anyone who has been to Val - or watched BBC1's War and Piste docusoap - will know. The night life could well be exceptional, but I took up skiing too late in life to see the point in standing in a crowded night-club drinking expensive brands of beer and being deafened by hard-core snowboarder music. Which just leaves the skiing.

The top of the resort is absolutely sensational: the view off La Grande Motte is one of the great Alpine panoramas, an immense sweep of mountains across the Isere valley to the north-east. Wait at the top for those who have travelled with you in the cable-car to disperse, and you can ski alone into a landscape which almost matches the Vallee Blanche in its epic scale. And at the bottom, there is a superbly varied black run down to the resort - called Face, it was created as the downhill course for the 1992 Olympics - which drops off the Bellevarde peak into a gully, then winds down to traverse a lumpy snow-field, and finally hurtles into the trees on a steep, icy slope.

But between the two is a ski-area whose attractions are largely technical: wide, fast pistes and plenty of unpisted terrain set in a vast, tree-less snow-field that straddles the four valleys that run down to the resort. For those who want to improve their carving turns or powder technique, it's perfect; for those who (like me) prefer to find adventure in the landscape, on runs which disappear into glades and gullies, it's rather dull. In that huge ski-area, I like two things: the immaculately finished post-modern interior of the cafe/restaurant at the top of the La Daille lift and the switchback ride on the Lessieres lift, which climbs out of one valley floor and drops down onto the next. The skiing leaves me cold.

Alarmed that, as apparently the only British skier who hasn't fallen for Val, I might be missing something, I consulted an old hand while I was there. Jason Grist, who worked in the resort for five years with the tour operator First Choice, isn't blind to its deficiencies: beginners, he says, "should be advised against coming - except for the night life. Although there are good nursery slopes in the Solaise area, I don't think it's a resort for people in their second or third week of skiing". He was much less sympathetic about my skiing problem; for intermediates and experts, he reckons Val is "a paradise, particularly the off-piste Tour du Charvet" (too late: I spoke to him on my final evening in Val).

More helpfully, he believes that Val (he dislikes the nickname because it reflects the Sloaney past) is misjudged, particularly by Britons - and not just because it is no longer the skiing playground of the British middle-class: "Ten years ago, yes; now it's much less exclusive. Fundamentally, it's still a French mountain village: when I worked at La Daille we used to give stale bread from the chalets to an old guy to feed to les betes.

"And underneath Val d'Isere there remains a community of Avalins" - the local name for natives of the Isere valley - "with a surviving mountain culture."

Grist regrets that visiting Britons are so oriented towards skiing. "In a `welcome' meeting at Club Med, guests are told about Alpine pursuits such as snowshoeing, mountain-walking and cross-country skiing, and maybe 20 per cent will take them up. British guests would have no interest at all."

His remedy for my disaffection with Val d'Isere was to go up to the Tour du Charvet with an Avalin guide on my next visit. "I guarantee that you will discover five or six things that you didn't know about the area, and if you're lucky you'll see a flock of wood grouse."

That struck a chord: I went straight out and bought a proper map of the area, to investigate the old mountain village which lies beneath the surface of the ski resort. Which is how I know I skied down the D902 road.