Skiing: Those in the know head for Val Tho
It might be the least known of the Trois Vallées resorts, but what it lacks in profile, it makes up for in personality.
Saturday 17 December 2011
The French, as you may know, believe that bothering to complete words of any length is a symptom of decline. Anyone with pretensions to remaining branché (literally, "plugged in") will, with typical Gallic lassitude, shrug off the end of the word and replace it with an "o". Hence apéritif become apéro, and – as I discovered in the easyJet inflight magazine en route to Geneva – the ski resort of Val Thorens becomes "Val Tho" (pronounced "toe").
The December issue of the magazine carries three advertisements for the resort, all bearing the slogan "Get yourself to Val Tho!". Each one gives a reason, expressed as a question. They are: "Had enough of cheesy evenings out?"; "Had enough of slow-moving lifts?"; and "Had enough of resorts with no snow?". The copywriter probably had some regrets about the last when the magazine was published, because at the beginning of this month no snow had fallen on Val Thorens, nor on many other Alpine resorts.
But any embarrassment was short-lived. On 4 December Val Thorens had a light, white dusting; and on the following day, just as I was getting myself to Val Tho, the snow started to fall. By the morning, there was 20cm on the slopes. My ski season began, at the beginning of last week, on fresh, soft snow.
Among the main resorts of the Trois Vallées, Val Thorens is the one with the low profile. For British skiers, glamorous Courchevel (lots of bling, lots of rich Russians) and familiar Méribel (a sort of outer suburb of Fulham) are the big attractions. Val Thorens, which turned 40 this month, may be the highest resort in the Alps, and it does offer excellent and usually snow-sure terrain, but is a rather anodyne place, more matt than glossy, with a hard-to-pronounce name (it's somewhere between "Torons" and "Torance") and no discernable image.
It does have a celebrated, two-Michelin-star restaurant, L'Oxalys, but has always lacked top-end accommodation. Until now: for its birthday Setam, the operating company, has given it a new "magnet" four-star hotel and a development of five-star residences.
Last week I was denied access to the residences in their not-quite-finished form, so all I know is that there are 37 of them, they are called Montana Plein Sud, and they open today. However, the new four-star, 88-room Altapura hotel, a joint venture between Setam and the Sibuet Groupe, has been open since the beginning of December, and it is a remarkable place.
The hotels, restaurants and spas of the Sibuet family are highly regarded in France. The mountain properties – including their first hotel, Les Fermes de Marie – are in the resort of Megève; they are romantic places, much influenced by traditional Savoyard style. Altapura is very different. Jocelyne Sibuet, co-founder of the group with her husband, was in the hotel last week, and she offered three reasons for the dramatic change in style."It's another time: Les Fermes de Marie opened 20 years ago," she said. "It's another resort: Megève is about lifestyle, and shopping, but Val Thorens is sporty. And it's another generation: this project is the work of my son, Nicolas."
What is remarkable about 27-year-old Nicolas Sibuet's design is its ingenuity in finding so many uses for plywood. It's everywhere, on walls and ceilings, in furniture and the magnificent "reindeer antler" chandeliers in the 2mille3 restaurant, on the bar top and the standard lamps. Other materials – green carpeting on some walls, grey-wool furnishing fabrics – are minor players, apart from the grey stone used in wet areas. The decorative devices include soft-toy animal-head "trophies" (with "Lifestyle hunting trophy 1994" on the plaques) and old skis and poles for once used to good effect, the skis cladding a 30m stretch of wall above the fine, curving main staircase, and the poles formed into a globe sculpture above the hotel's front door.
I could go on, at length. But I'll just add that the restaurant food is good, and refreshingly unshowy; the spa – the work of the Sibuets' daughter, Marie – is a calm, elemental place of saplings and stone; and it was a wrench to leave, only in small part because the heavy snow – still falling – made a 2am departure necessary.
So much for the novelties of Val Thorens; what of its enduring virtues? The skiing is the obvious one – although that has seen improvements for this season, too. A new cable car has been installed, called Thorens: it runs from the top of the Portette chairlift across the main ski area to the 3,003m Col du Boucher, giving access to new blue and red runs. Elsewhere another red run has been created.
Set well above the tree line, the ski area – with 150km of pistes – has a range of terrain but is particularly good for intermediates, with some of the best red runs in the entire Trois Vallées. There are few proper black runs, but expert skiers are well served by the off-piste areas, which range from quite gentle descents on the Pierre Lory Pass to the bigger and tougher pitches of the Lac du Lou route. The beginners' slopes are down at the bottom of the resort, and served by moving carpets.
But being high, exposed and bereft of trees, the slopes are susceptible to storms and offer little shelter. The Funitel lift, whose double cables reduce the problem of swaying cabins, was developed by Setam in the 1980s precisely because the not-infrequent high winds there could close traditional lifts. If the weather is harsh or the visibility low, the solution is to go down the valley to Les Menuires and St- Martin, or across to the next two valleys and the slightly lower ski areas of Méribel and Courchevel.
Although it may seem to be a perennial attraction, the two-Michelin-star L'Oxalys restaurant actually opened in December 2002. The then 24-year-old chef, Jean Sulpice, couldn't even boil an egg properly when he arrived. The first one that went out of the kitchen was returned as uncooked. It took Sulpice some time (and several experiments) to work out that because of the low atmospheric pressure, a three-minute egg must be boiled for six minutes at altitude.
Sulpice hit his stride long ago, and his restaurant serves stellar contemporary cuisine. There are foams, yes, but there are also beautiful, rigorously made main courses, too. And the Savoie wines his wife Magali selects for the cellar are a revelation. The people who gave birth to Val Thorens 40 years ago are known locally as "The Pioneers". Many of them are still around, and on meeting Pierre Josserand – who was in charge of creating the ski area and, though now retired, remains Setam's chairman – you realise how appropriate the term is.
Josserand was hired by Pierre Schnebelen, a showman/developer who saved Tignes from financial disaster and was then asked to rescue Le Menuires when it went bankrupt. He agreed, on condition that he could build a brand-new resort further up the valley. Amazingly, his original proposal was a year-round resort (with ski slopes, a golf course and an airport) which climbed up from the Val Thorens site, straddled a glacier and connected with another new resort on the other side.
One of Josserand's first tasks was to organise a local work crew to drill holes in the glacier down to its rock base, to determine whether it was possible to run a railway across the top. The whole thing sounds crazy; wasn't Josserand tempted to pull out? "No." Why not? "Because I was 25 years old."
His tales of the boom-and-almost-bust history of Val Thorens are very entertaining and end on a high note. Setam's ski lifts are believed to be the most profitable in France, and the occupancy rate for its accommodation, 80 per cent, is the highest of any ski resort in the country. Josserand is clearly proud of the place The Pioneers built. So he should be. It wouldn't be a bad idea to get yourself to Val Tho.
Travel essentials: Val Thorens
* Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk) offers seven nights' half board at the Hotel Altapura from £1,249 per person, with flights from Gatwick or Stansted to Geneva and resort transfers. Flights are also available with a supplement from Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
* Geneva airport is served by a wide range of airlines from the UK, including easyJet, Bmibaby, BA, Flybe, Jet2 and Swiss.
* Residence Montana Plein Sud (00 33 4 79 00 21 01; vmontana. com/uk).
* Altapura (00 33 4 57 74 74 74; altapura.fr). Eating & drinking there
* Restaurant L'Oxalys (00 33 4 79 00 12 00; restaurant-loxalys.fr).
* Val Thorens: valthorens.com
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