Slopes with savoir faire: Val d'Isère still retains its centuries-old character

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Polo, the ski-shop manager at Les Barmes de l'Ours, Val d'Isère's swankiest hotel, is the kind of fellow one finds only in winter-sports resorts and Bond movies: charming, cooler than cool, with an impressive air of worldliness for a man whose horizons are all jagged and snow capped.

He was 16 years old when, 34 winters ago, he first visited Val d'Isère from his home in Brittany. He fell in love with a local girl and decided to stay. Now their son, Tom, is in the French freestyle skiing team. Of course Polo is also a formidable operator on the slopes, although during our visit he was carrying a pronounced limp. Somehow it compounded his coolness. He ruefully admitted, however, that it was the consequence of chatting to someone while skiing quite slowly backwards and coming a dreadful cropper. As one who knows what it is to come a dreadful cropper while skiing quite slowly forwards, chatting to nobody, I sympathised.

It was another outsider, Jean-Claude Killy (from Alsace), who put Val d'Isère on the map with his extraordinary heroics in the 1968 Winter Olympics. Having learnt his skills in Val d'Isère, he won all three men's skiing gold medals, in the downhill, giant slalom and slalom.

In return, the old Savoie village put him on the map. The combined ski areas of Val d'Isère and neighbouring Tignes are known as Espace Killy. The territory contains more than 300km of pistes and some of the most dramatic scenery in the Alps. It is accordingly hugely popular. Yet the town itself – it can no longer honestly be described as a village – is appealingly French, if with a flavour of nearby Italy in the form of some rustic pizza restaurants.

At any rate, in the week we were there, in February last year, not once was it possible to close your eyes and be transported, by the braying noises all around, to London's Fulham Road. Or, for that matter, to Tverskaya street in Moscow. Courchevel and (especially) Méribel have had the Gallic life all but Anglicised and Russified out of them recently, and I'd expected to find the same of Val d'Isère. But despite all the fancy shopping opportunities, it has retained its centuries-old character, particularly in and around the delightful baroque church, dating from 1664.

The adjacent 1914-1918 war memorial, heartbreakingly inscribed with the same few surnames – no fewer than four young men from the stricken Bonnevie family – offers a poignant reminder that this was a working mountain village before anyone knew a slalom from a snowplough. Yet not long after the First World War, Val d'Isère caught the new British-led wave of enthusiasm for Alpine sports.

In 1937, a new road leading to the Col de l'Iseran pass, used the following year in the Tour de France, made the valley properly accessible. Then came the great Killy, and then the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, for which Val d'Isère was one of the skiing venues. A new international clientele descended. Yet there is something defiantly contradictory and non-cosmopolitan about Val d'Isère that I liked very much. It's not every Spar supermarket, even in the French Alps, that sells 2003 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru, at €420 a pop.

Not least of the many perks of staying at Les Barmes de l'Ours is that, although it stands practically at the foot of Val d'Isère's main Bellevarde run, the hotel will despatch a shuttle bus on demand to pick up guests who wind up at the bottom of other slopes, further along the valley. One afternoon my youngest child, Jacob, and I ended up at La Daille, a hamlet a couple of kilometres away. I phoned my wife Jane, who was back at the hotel and asked her to have the shuttle bus sent for us. "Could you please send the bus for my husband and son," she asked the chap at reception. "They're at La Daille." He reeled backwards, clapping both hands to his face in genuine horror. "They die!?" he cried, as if she might have broken such terrible news so equably. "No," she said, similarly shocked. "They're at La Daille!"

Is it everybody, or just my family and me, who has funnier experiences on skiing holidays than on all other kinds of holiday combined? And yet in the mountains, of course, comedy and tragedy are close cousins. Happily, it was only the former we invoked on the day that my three children and I, on a four-person chair lift, ascended into such a cold, murky mist that we decided not to dismount. For some reason the English sign "Mandatory Unloading" did not alert me to trouble, as an unvarnished "Get Off" might have done, and so we sailed serenely on and round, crashing not only into a language barrier but also the lift mechanism. The chap in charge was apoplectic as only a Frenchman can be who has watched an Englishman do something stupid. I got the strong feeling he'd seen it happen before, possibly earlier that day.

That was the only poor weather we suffered. Every other day was Alpine blue and white. We enjoyed some wonderful long lunches in what for my money – which admittedly was greatly diminished by mid-afternoon, for nothing hits the wallet quite like a French ski-slope family lunch – are among the finest mountain restaurants in the Alps. The pick of them was the studiedly eccentric La Fruitière, a Val d'Isère institution with a delightful if incongruous nautical feel, where they store your jackets in milk churns.

As for Les Barmes de l'Ours: it cannot yet claim to be a local institution, having opened only eight years ago, but it is well on the way. It's a fabulously located mountain-lodge style hotel named after the caves in which Alpine bears dwell, hence a huge mechanical bear in the lobby, which spends all day jerking its left paw up and down in what is meant to be a wave, but looks gloriously vulgar. We loved the bear and we loved Les Barmes.

The alpine-chic rooms were immensely comfortable, and the food was terrific (although I could not find a single bottle on the wine list for less than €50). But what I loved most of all was Polo's ski shop. When you started skiing on a student budget, as I did, struggling into your boots in cold, damp hangars with concrete floors, the luxury hotel boot room is one of life's enduring pleasures.

Brian Viner's Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn: The Great British Holiday (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) was voted Travel Book of the Year in the 2011 British Travel Press Awards

Travel essentials: Val d'Isère

Getting there

* Brian Viner travelled with Scott Dunn (020-8682 5050; scottdunn.com), which offers seven nights at Les Barmes de l'Ours from £2,120 per person. The price includes half-board accommodation, return flights from Gatwick or Heathrow to Geneva and private transfers.

* Val d'Isère can be reached from Geneva, Lyon, Grenoble or Chambéry.

Staying there

* Les Barmes de l'Ours Hotel & Spa, Val d'Isère (00 33 4 79 41 37 00; hotel-les-barmes.com).

Eating and drinking there

* Restaurant La Fruitière, Val d'Isère (00 33 4 79 06 07 17).

More information

* Val d'Isère offers seven-day ski passes from €255.50 (00 33 4 79 06 00 35; valdiserepass.com).

* Val d'Isère Tourist Office (00 33 4 79 06 06 60; valdisere.com)

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