Christmas 2007 was one of the whitest in the French Alps for a generation thanks to more than a week of continuous snow.

More than 160 centimetres of snow fell on the Espace Killy area, encompassing Tignes and Val d’Isere in the two week before Christmas.

Below-freezing temperatures firmed pistes up nicely, just in time for Christmas week.


After last year’s dismal Christmas across the Alps – mega resorts such as Alpe d’Huez could only open a quarter of their slopes – this one could not have been a better.


“I have been here more than 20 years and we have never had snow like this before Christmas before,” said Jane Jacquemod, the English-born public-relations director in Val d’Isere who went to France in the early 1970s to study at university in Grenoble and never went home.


“Last year the media got hold of the idea there was no snow in the Alps, which was true at first but not later in the season, and we suffered because of it as people stayed away.

 

“This year word has been getting around there has been early snow in the Alps and our reservations department has been saturated with calls from people looking to book up for Christmas week.”


Jordan Hollows, resort manager for Skiworld, who run 11 chalets and one chalet hotel in Val d’Isere, confirmed the opinion of the press office when he said: “We started filling our chalets early because of the early snow.”

Mr Hollows expects flagship chalets such as the 22-bed Chalet Du Fornet at La Fornet hamlet at the top end of the Isere valley to be full over Christmas and New Year. However, it is worth checking www.skiworld.ltd.uk for last-minute Christmas bargains.


“We like to think we have something for every pocket among our 12 properties,” he said.


“At one end there is the flagship accommodation like Du Fornet and the Chalet Tolima, where Eddie Jordan stayed with us last year, down to budget chalets like the Sylvia and the Bazille.”


Having had a look round the Chalet Du Fornet just after breakfast on Tuesday morning, I can confirm it certainly as a flagship location looking down the valley towards Val d’Isere town.

As far as the eye can see it was a winter wonderland of snow-dusted pine trees and traditional stone and wood-build chalets with chimney’s puffing out smoke. Christmas in your mind’s eye or what?


Val d’Isere isn’t the most-Anglophile resort in the Alps, Morzine and nearby Tignes would probably argue over that title, but 36 per cent of its winter visitors are United Kingdom passport holders. The Brit skier will feel at home, try rugby theme bar Le XV or the Underground pub, but it isn’t Blackpool by the snow.


French ski resorts tend to fall into two categories – purpose built, like Avoriaz and Tignes – or developed around an existing village, such as Chatel or Les Gets in the Portes Du Soleil.


Val d’Isere falls into the latter category, and is all the more interesting visually because of it.


“Our architecture is a bit of a hotch-potch because the town has developed over the years,” said Jane Jacquemod.


“There is the old village around the church, some buildings from the 1960s when the chalets started going up.


“Around 20 years ago a conscious decision was made to build in a traditional style. Buildings have columns at the front and there are a network of interesting alleyways to explore.”


Certainly, Val d’Isere is less of a hard-core ski centre than near neighbour Tignes, which is no bad thing. The two resorts compliment each other rather well.


The ski-from-first-lift-to-last light brigade are more at home in Tignes than Val d’Isere, where the relaxed approach is highlighted by the number of attractive-looking lunch spots dotted around the town centre and foot of the slopes.


Val d’Isere town is 250 metres lower than Tignes, which means it is below the tree line and a little less bleak when the bad weather sets in. It is also a touch warmer, although these things are relative when one is minus nine at dusk and the other a ‘balmy’ minus four!

What the neighbouring resorts do share is one of the largest 100 per cent linked ski areas in Europe, if not the world. Lift-ticket salesmen and women in the Dolomites and the Portes du Soleil will tell you their passes cover 400 km and more of pistes. They do, but they aren’t linked like the Espace Killy.

In many other resorts all over Europe you will have to take a bus or a train to get round the circuit. Not in the Espace Killy. All 140 marked pistes, serviced by 96 lifts and covering 312 kilometres of snow, are linked. You don’t have to take your skis off unless it is so sit down at one of the piste-side restaurants for a vin chaude or a café noir.


Hotel and chalet accommodation was snapped up like hot croissants in Val Thorens.


Val Thorens first claim to fame is it is the highest ski resort in Europe. At 2350 metres in the town centre, at 3230 metres at the top of the highest piste, there is nowhere higher.


Great height means low temperatures – when we visited the temperature has dropped to minus-10 degrees centigrade at night – which means once it snows it’s a while before the white stuff melts.


Val Thorens didn’t have too much pre-Christmas snow last winter, but more than made up for it after Christmas. While resorts lower down had grass sticking through the piste tops, it was business as usual  until the end of April.


Julien Clatot, the assistant press attaché in Val Thorens, said this season’s early snow falls had meant a double whammy in terms of bookings.


“Last winter, when there wasn’t too much snow about, Val Thorens was snowsure and a lot of people remembered that when they came to make their bookings this winter,” said M Clatot.


“Most visitors only have one week when they can go skiing and they want to be certain there will be snow.


“Because if the early snow falls this winter, we were able to open our resort a week earlier than usual. We intended to open in November 25, but opened on November 18 as it was possible then to ski back to the resort, which is our criteria for opening.


“When people saw we already had snow in November, there was a second surge of bookings.”


Val Thorens is part of the huge Three Valley’s network of resorts that includes Courcheval, Meribel and Les Menuirs, to name just a handful.


Val Thorens alone operates 29 lifts serving 140kms of slopes. Almost 80 per cent of the prepared pistes are either blue or red graded, so mileage hungry intermediates will love the place.


A reasonable skier, such as your correspondent, can make a day out of a modest circuit to Courcheval and back – with time allowed for a decent lunch on the way.


One piece of advice worth noting for any first-time visitor to Val Thorens is wrap-up warm. This time of year it’s a warm day if the temperature gets to minus five!

 

 Conrad Sutcliffe and photographer David Morgan travelled to Val d’Isere as guests of Skiwold (www.skiworld.ltd.uk) They stayed at the Chalet Hotel Le Fjord for three nights before moving on to Val Thorens, as guests of the local tourists board. While in Val Thorens they stayed at the four-star Fitz Roy Hotel (www.hotelfitzroy.com).

 

Christmas isn’t the most expensive time to go skiing – the week after is. For the best deals, check prices in early January before the month-long round of French half-term holidays start.

 

A six-day adult lift pass covering the Espace Killy – Val d’Isere and Tignes – will cost 198 Euros, around £140 in sterling. Children under 13 pay 148 Euros. Adults aged 75 or over get a free lift ticket – not that there are many takers – on production of a passport at the sales desk.

 

There are three underground car parks in the village and it pays to use them. Street parking is limited to 15 minutes and penalty notices start at 100 euros each. Persistent offenders can expect to have their cars towed away.

 

A Val Thorens lift pass, which covers all 600km of slopes in the Three Valleys area, will set you back a cool 215 Euros. Passes are free for the over 72s. Val Thorens is aiming to create a car free environment so expect to be directed to parking area on the edge of town and look for a shuttle bus to your accommodation.

 

Do-it-yourselfers can fly from Exeter to Chambery every Saturday during the ski season with Flybe. Hire a car at the airport and it is a two-hour drive to Val d’Isere or Val Thorens. Mini-bus transfers are easy to find on the Internet. It can be cheaper to fly Easyjet from Bristol to Geneva, but allow at least an hour more to get to either resort.