SKIING is an expensive business – think lift passes, getting kitted out and the high-altitude cost of a drink or a meal – and most of us try and cut corners here and there when we visit the slopes. But what if money was no object? Conrad Sutcliffe discovered a whole new world of skiing when he visited Val Thorens recently as a guest of the town’s tourist board.

FACT FILE:

A room for two in the Hotel Fitz Roy on half-board starts from £120 per night. Children under five stay free.

To reserve an entire floor of the hotel, set aside between £1000-£1500 per night, depending on the time of year.


A six-day lift pass covering the 29 lifts in the Val Thorens area will cost around £120. Two adults with two children under 18 can buy in bulk for about £380. Three Vallees lift tickets are between £150-£160 per adult depending on the exchange rate.


On-street parking is discouraged in Val Thorens. Park in the wrong place and you will be towed away sooner or later. Park indoors for £35 a week – it’s cheaper and less hassle.


If you have something tiresome like a budget to stick to, there are plenty of places in the Alps more expensive than Val Thorens. A decent pizza supper, with a crepe for desert and a large beer to wash it all down will cost less than £20.


Conrad Sutcliffe and David Morgan stayed as guests of the Val Thorens tourist board, having made their own way to Val Thorens via Easyjet and Hertz Car Rental.

 

 

 

 

 

I’VE stayed in some swanky places before, but the four-star Fitz Roy Hotel in the centre of Val Thorens really takes some beating.

I have never stayed in a hotel that can be booked by the floor. The Fitz Roy can, which is good news for rock stars and others who value their privacy above all else.


A stay in the Fitz Roy, more of which later, was all part of a package put together for myself and photographer pal David Morgan by the Val Thorens tourist board to allow me to give you an unusual insight into the highest ski resort in Europe.

Skiing is an expensive business at the best of times and I am not the only person to wince when presented with a drinks or meal bill with a light dusting of snow. If you can afford it though, all sorts of possibilities open up, some of which David and I were lucky enough to try on your behalf, for which we both thank you!


Firstly there was the Fitz Roy Hotel, the only four-start hotel in a town dominated by chalet accommodation favoured by those not so well-heeled.


My room, in a smart new annex with a premium view over the slopes, appeared never to have been slept in before. That’s how new it was. The bed was something else, big enough to land a light aircraft on if the wind was blowing in the right direction.


You know you are staying in accommodation intended for the well off when the wardrobe doesn’t just include a dressing gown, but a pair of slippers as well!


Meals were taken in a dining room with views out over the mountain. For skiing gastronomes, this was the place to be. Personally, I prefer my food plain and simple. David is a little more adventurous and tucked into the snails, octopus soup and pink rack of lamb with relish.

At the top end of the dining experience were silver salver loads of lobster and crab that made their way past us to an adjoining table. The diners, an English family with cut-glass accents, clearly approved of their seafood repast. While we were enjoying our after-dinner coffee and mints, the chef was summoned from the kitchen to accept the plaudits of his contented clients.


Fine dining comes at a price – the supplement for eating off the superior menu as opposed to the one included in your half-board rate was around £25 per person - but when money is no object why worry?

The last time I stayed in a ski hotel with a swimming pool - Les Gets in 2001 – it was nothing more than an outdoor pool with a Perspex roof over it. The Fitz Roy’s pool, you will be unsurprised to learn, was tucked away in the basement and came complete with loungers.


To say we were impressed with the Fitz Roy would be an understatement. Wherever we stay next is inevitably going to be a comedown. Don’t take my word for it though: have a look at the hotel’s website (
www.hotelfitzroy.com) and take the virtual guided tour.


My famous namesake Conrad Hilton, a man who knew something about hotels, observed the only thing that mattered was location, location and location. He would have approved of the Fitz Roy. For all practical purposes you could ski out in the morning and ski back again in the afternoon, the dream of skiers the world over.


Our hotel was also within a short walk – we are talking a couple of minutes if that – of the Val Thorens Sports Centre in the very nearby Galerie de Caron, a mega-sized mall at the end of the ski run back into town.


If you have the strength left to play squash, go trampolining or join a game of roller hockey after a day on the Val Thorens slopes, you are a better man than me. Personally, I would plump for the spa bath every time ahead of anything too strenuous. The sports centre opened four years ago and can be checked out at www.sogevab.com Worth a look if Val Thorens is on your destination short list this (or any other) ski season.


Our hosts at the tourist board had booked us a session of ice-driving lessons, which looked like fun, but that was cancelled because there had been too much snow on the course.


The compensation was more than adequate though: a day out with a ski guide who really knew his way around the mountains in the immediate vicinity of Val Thorens. This isn’t cheap if you have to pay for it – prices on application to the Ecole du Ski Francais – but it would have been worth over Euro.


Allain, our guide, was an expert on the history of the area, where the best runs were and where to get a good cup of coffee when needed. I doubt I have ever skied so many miles in one day in my life. I’ve certainly never had such a long day on the slopes. It was dusk by the time we skied round to the back door of the Fitz Roy.


Our day tour around the Val Thorens area included a couple of interesting stops organised for us by the tourist office to find out more about the town and the ski area.


First stop after coffee and before lunch was a new gondola due to open officially the following day. We took a ride with Eric Bonnel, the sales
and marketing manager for the local lift company, who filled us in on some of the resort’s immediate plans.

 

 

Two new lifts have been opened in Val Thorens this year, costing a cool 20million euros. The lift company turned over 40million euros last year, so the latest investments have swallowed up a sizeable share of the profits.


Our meeting with Eric was broken by a stop off at new lift station on the outskirts of Val Thorens that showed just how much thought is going into future developments of the town and the ski area.


Val Thorens is popular with day trippers and weekend visitors – we will come back to some statistics later – who are encouraged to park out of town. A bridge over the piste links a new car park to the equally new lift station, from which the entire ski area is no more than a couple of lift rides away.


Day trippers bring their picnics with them, something the town planners have catered four in the new lift station by building picnic rooms into it. No more soggy bottoms from sitting on the snow, or being chased out of mountain-side restaurants by angry waiters hollering “picnic interdit”.


Another surprise was to learn that the bulldozers had been at work during the summer making the run back to the out-of-town car park a little less steep. The  reason being to encourage visitors to use the car park.


Before moving on to the final highlight of our visit, here are a few random facts on Val Thorens. Firstly, it isn’t England by the snow, unlike too many resorts in the French Alps.


Around 60 per cent of visitors come from overseas, the rest are French. Roughly a third of the non-French visitors are British; next best are the Dutch.


Be prepared for thin air. The resort height is 2300 metres and lifts will take you up to 3200 metres if your lungs are up to it.


Val Thorens is part of the massive Trois Vallées ski area, which runs to 600km of prepared pistes when all the lifts are open. The season runs until late April or early May depending on snow conditions. From early May onwards, most hotels are mothballed until November.


Our last treat wasn’t something you will find on a price list: lunch with one of the founding fathers of Val Thorens in his family-owned restaurant high in the mountains, Les Aiguilles de Peclet.


Camille Rey, the son and grandson of farmers, is 80 now and can remember when Val Thorens didn’t exist! His family used to graze their animals on pasture where the town is now, getting there along donkey tracks.

When nearby Les Menuires sprung up in the early 1960s, Camille was one of the people who  spotted the potential for an alternative resort offering something a little less upmarket. In 1971 Val Thorens opened its first lift and Camille was the first manager of the first ski school in town. It was a fascinating lunch.


Today there are 29 lifts and half a dozen ski schools. Val Thorens remains a young resort though and is continually evolving to meet the moods of the skiing fraternity. We were only there on a flying visit for a couple of days. Next time, we are going for longer.