The ups and downs of Les Deux Alpes

This French mountain resort might only have one peak, but it has plenty of variety.

The funicular railway is a handy piece of transport infrastructure in hilly terrain. You know the idea: counter-balanced carriages shuttle up and down a steep gradient at a jaunty angle. But here's something you may not know: one station on the world's oddest funicular is 3,200m high in the French Alps. Stranger still, that is the lower station. Oh, and the whole strange conduit is underground. Clamber into the cabin, and the only way is up through raw Alpine rock to the rounded summit of Dôme de Puy Salié, at 3,400m. Then breathe as deeply as the icy, thin air permits and survey the top of the world.

For a wobbly skier like me, whose provisional membership of the broad church of "intermediates" is constantly jeopardised by an unhelpful fear of heights, this is the best moment of any winter-sports holiday. For a few precious moments, before gravity and peer pressure prove too intense, Europe's natural skyline surrounds you.

The top station of Les Deux Alpes is one of the very best places from which to survey the handiwork of the scenery gods. It shares a longitude with Geneva, a latitude with Turin and an altitude with the uppermost portion of Mont Blanc – which is 100km to the north-east, though you may swear you can see it peeking above the horizon.

Look in the opposite direction, towards Montelimar (100km south-west), and you understand why France is just so delicious. The same nation that provides us with the singular pleasures of nougat and Côtes du Rhône and soft, seductive landscapes also manages to scrunch itself up and out-Alp the Swiss in rugged magnificence.

But this is a skiing holiday, which means leaving the view behind to join the swishing column of high-altitude humanity going downhill – but not too fast, at least initially. That is because the first few hundred metres of descent comprise a gentle meander across the friendly, convex face of a glacier. Millions of tonnes of snow have, over thousands of years, been compressed into a mighty tongue of ice in perpetual slow motion – which explains the funicular.

The ski-resort designer's standard repertoire of cable cars, chair-lifts and T-bars depends upon being able to anchor the infrastructure into solid rock. The only way to take skiers upstream against a river of ice is to take them beneath it. Accordingly, Les Deux Alpes (like Val d'Isère) has tunnelled beneath the ice. The flow of upwardly mobile skiers beneath the downwardly mobile glacier is presented with a multitude of choices, even at a time of the season when the snow covering at lesser altitudes is pathetic.

Les Deux Alpes opens today. I was there in the second week of April this year, a time when you would expect the crowds to have diminished. In fact, there were more skiers than usual. The final weeks of the last winter season in much of the Alps were characterised by fast-melting snow, and temperatures too high for snow-making equipment to be usefully deployed. When resorts such as Alpe d'Huez started making a convincing impression of summer pastures, the clientele was bussed for an hour down the 21 hairpin bends to the pretty valley of the Romanche river and all the way up an equally sinuous road to Les Deux Alpes for the promise of snow.

Halfway to heaven, there was plenty of snow to share. The curtain of rock draping from Dôme de Puy Salié has been richly exploited. If you are a skier or boarder who craves variety, then Les Deux Alpes delivers in shovels-full. An artfully constructed web of chairlifts and cable cars creates dozens of permutations. Every few hundred metres of descent, you seem to be presented with a fresh choice of long, sweeping blue runs (some of which serve, in summer, as roads), challenging reds and blistering black runs where you shed altitude faster than a skydiver. Expert skiers will find an abundance of challenges, providing fine spectator sport for more timid skiers riding high above, aboard the chairlifts.

For intermediates who have skied at other resorts, though, there is some risk of disenchantment. After many grim, wintry descents elsewhere in Europe, I had fondly but erroneously concluded that I could cope with any red run: all it took was gritted teeth and a preparedness to default from a misconstrued turn to a snowplough. But I struggled with the steeply raked reds at Les Deux Alpes, convincing myself that some would cheerfully pass muster as blacks in Bulgaria or Norway. You can defeat the brute force of gravity with artfully carved turns, but only if you are more skilled and confident than me.

At either end of the season, don't plan on descending too low on your own two feet. Until I discovered Les Deux Alpes, I had happily imagined that skiers use lifts solely to gain potential energy, transferring it to the kinetic kind amid whoops of high-velocity excitement. But from about 2,200m downwards, Les Deux Alpes looked as if the US Air Force had recently called by to implement a scorched earth policy. At tea-time, instead of the customary long, gentle drift back to the resort, almost everyone dutifully lined up for the exits – in the form of cable cars of varying vintages.

One token black run avoided the ignominy of a "Fermé – Closed" barrier, though before the intended end at the village it had degenerated into a brown run. Skiers and boarders disconsolately disconnected themselves from their equipment and picked their way through the sludge to the nearest bars, of which, thankfully, there are many.

Les Deux Alpes, a straggly village, comes with more character than you normally find in mile-high French resorts. The name derives from the days when the land now occupied by the village was a meadow providing summer grazing for the livestock of two communities: Mont-de-Lans and Vénosc.

You can graze cheerfully all the way through the village. Towards the western end, there are two points of interest. The first is the Hotel Aalborg, an attractive Alpine property that is the sole preserve of Neilson. This is the Thomas Cook subsidiary that invites British holidaymakers to test their mettle in Mediterranean locations in summer and in the mountains in winter. The convivial hotel is run by a Frenchman, who ensures you don't forget which country you are fortunate enough to be in.

Continue a little further, and the earth falls away – in a good way. Les Deux Alpes ends in something of a precipice, but it is fitted with an emergency exit for visitors keen to escape to real life. Your lift pass also acts as a ticket for the second transportational surprise provided by Les Deux Alpes: a cable car from the resort that goes downhill.

Seven hundred metres beneath Les Deux Alpes lies the medieval village of Vénosc, once a lonely hamlet at the end of a long and winding road to the mountains. Happily, the earnings from the ski industry have funded a gondola for Vénosc, a splendid piece of retro-fitting that adds a dimension lacking in other high-altitude ski resorts. Take the lift down, and suddenly you switch from skier to cultural tourist, wandering through the huddled lanes of an ancient Iseran community and catching the odd, anomalous glimpse of a cable car gliding by. Instead of the invitations to gorge yourself on pizza and beer in Les Deux Alpes, you are invited to sip vin chaud and nibble tartiflette.

Travel essentials: Les Deux Alpes

Getting there

* All the leading ski companies feature Les Deux Alpes. The writer paid £3,134 for a family of four for a week with Neilson (0845 070 3460; neilson.co.uk) , including flights from Gatwick to Grenoble, transfers (2 hours 30 minutes), half-board accommodation at the Hotel Aalborg and tuition. The first departure this season is on 17 December and the last on 14 April. Neilson has flights to Grenoble on Thomas Cook Airlines from Bristol, Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester. If you are arranging an independent trip, Thomson and easyJet also fly from a range of UK airports to Grenoble.

* Grenoble airport is a small, friendly facility, half-way between Grenoble and Lyon that, in the normal scheme of things, would be a pleasure to pass through. In fact, about the only time it sees action is on winter Saturdays, when it struggles to cope with half-a-dozen arrivals and departures in quick succession. Either be prepared for an hour or two standing in a long queue, or consider flying in and out of Chambery airport on FlyBe, Jet2, BA or Bmibaby. The transfer time is about the same, but the airport experience is likely to be far superior.

More information

* Les Deux Alpes Tourist Office: 2alpes.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world