At 2,300m, Val Thorens is the highest mainstream resort in the Alps. It is located above St-Martin-de-Belleville and Les Menuires at the top of the least chic of the Trois Vallées. A few years ago, it was affordable by comparison with its neighbours, Courchevel, which was on a crusade to woo the oligarch rouble, and Méribel, with its surfeit of squires from the shires. In VT, as it now likes to be known to avoid pronunciation massacre, the charm-free apartment blocks and Michelin-free catering were less compelling. Nevertheless, groups on budgets were persuaded to fill the beds and plunder the best snow in the Tarentaise Valley.
What a difference a magic wand can make. Those who waved it over VT are young, ambitious and very French. At l'Epicurean, a tiny restaurant in the Hôtel Montana, Kevin, the equally tiny maitre d' from Marseille, sashayed over. With a glassy smile that turned out to mean zero tolerance, he offered two starters, a single oyster perched on three Brussels sprout leaves or a dish of butternut squash. The mains were wild rabbit or sole.
My group chose the sole, but Kevin ordained that both must be tried, so half must have rabbit. Lemon delice combos on oblong plates provided further cause for outrage. "Eat from right to left," snapped Kevin, scowling at an errant spoon hovering over the citron brandy snap rather than the juice ball.
Kevin's tough love triggered silences punctuated by nervous giggles. However, dinner as theatre is always an intriguing experience, and l'Epicurean signals the arrival of le beau monde living in Val Thorens. Young proprietors Sonia Piantoni and Emmanuel Deleuze run three restaurants in their Montana Collection in VT. All were masterminded by Jérémy Grillon, who learned his trade in assorted stylish eateries including celebrated Le Chabichou in Courchevel.
Today's young lions can thank 35-year-old Jean Sulpice for blazing a gastronomic trail into this particular wilderness. After he'd trained under three-star Michelin headliner Marc Veyrat in Annecy, his passion for ski touring brought him to VT in 2002. To feed his habit, he opened L'Oxalys with his wife, Magali, who doubles as sommelier. When he was 31, he made history as the youngest ever double-Michelin-star man. His food is exquisite and well worthy of the accolades, but the formal surroundings and television chef ambiance already seem dated.
When gourmets gather, smart hotels are never far behind. For years, the centrally located Le Fitz Roy, known far and wide for the grey felt slippers routinely stolen by its regulars on departure, was the flagship. In 2013, its traditional values were no longer deemed fit for purpose so it will emerge in a new form, hopefully with as warm a welcome, for the 2013/14 season.
Meanwhile cutting-edge rivals are multiplying, headed by Altapura, a glassy grey trapezoid that describes itself as "the highest palace in the Alps". The Sibuet family, descended from generations of Savoyard farmers, also owns Le Mont Blanc, Les Fermes de Marie and Au Coin du Feu – hotels that put Megève near the top of the wish list for sophisticated skiers. Unlike those, Altapura is next to the slopes but, in its first year of operation, it lacks their charm and attention to detail.
Nevertheless, the familiar Sibuet building-blocks are in place. Notable is Les Enfants Terribles, a copy of their restaurant at Le Mont Blanc, inspired by Jean Cocteau's regular visits to Megève in the 1950s. The dark red Art Deco interior and the delectable seafood are replicated in Altapura but Cocteau would have felt isolated from the international bohemian lifestyle he loved in Val Thorens' tree-free snowscape.
Le Hameau du Kashmir, another newcomer, is a five-star apartment complex that provides hotel services as required. Any links with the Himalayan region are hard to locate. The route between the pool and the spa goes straight through the lobby, giving guests at check in the chance to inspect fellow residents in their robes. Meanwhile, the Koh-i Nor is a monumental five-star luxury apartment block with full hotel services perched above the resort. It is due to open in December.
On the mountain, VT pioneered the Funitel, a people-mover with double-wire suspension that enables it to run in winds of up to 120km/h. Before its installation in 1990, VT's lifts closed for an average of 20 days a season–now reduced to just three. Once you've groped your way to the lift in a blizzard, the snow is almost certain to be magnificent. The immediate runs are gentle, but the Cime de Caron, accessed by the superfast 150-person cable car, has expert terrain higher up the mountain.
Heading towards the lift links to Méribel on the opposite side, the fog resonates to the familiar sound of après ski that has become unhinged.
Conceived in Val d'Isère, the Laiterie/Folie Douce brand (a very expensive lunch followed by wild rock music) has embraced the Tarentaise Valley. For a classier French lunch and the chance to talk to your companions, the Chalet de la Marine celebrates its 30th birthday this season. It's not easy to find a feast of succulent bone marrow in the mountains, let alone for €19, and the Chalet's are sensational. If a rustic Savoyard ambiance is not to your taste, a smaller menu is served in a yurt below.
My January 2013 visit to Val Thorens attracted big snow and some of the season's best skiing. When I returned in April, the Trois Vallées were basking in sunshine. The fourth valley, the Maurienne at the back of Cime de Caron, was optimum for off-piste expeditions. For a change of scene, I stayed at the Chamois Lodge, run by Helen and Chris Raemers, in St-Martin-de-Belleville.
If you like the quiet life, this is the way to go. The chalet accommodates up to nine guests with canapés, champagne and gourmet dinners. You can plunder the delights on offer with the Trois Vallées pass – 173 lifts serving 600km of pistes, the world's largest linked ski area. Then you can stroll to the village square for a pastis. It's all on a human scale; you might even dare order your pastis in French. In l'Epicurean, that would be very rash indeed.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Alpine Club, which offers weekly rental of Chamois Lodge (00 33 77884 5710; thealpineclub.co.uk) from £5,212, fully catered, for up to nine guests.
Inghams (01483 791111; inghams.com) has a week's half board at Altapura from £1,310pp, with Gatwick flights and transfers.
Le Fitz Roy (00 33 4 79 00 04 78; hotelfitzroy.com). Doubles from €275.
Le Hameau du Kashmir (00 33 4 79 09 50 20; montagnettes.co.uk). A week's rental starts at €1,143; sleeps four.
Hôtel Koh-i Nor (00 33 4 79 31 00 00; hotel-kohinor.com). Doubles start at €340, half board.
Village Montana (00 33 4 79 00 21 01; vmontana.com).
L'Oxalys (00 33 4 79 40 00 71; montagnettes.co.uk).
Chalet de la Marine (00 33 4 79 00 11 90; chalet-val-thorens.com).
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