My kind of place: Catherine Cooper travels to an altitude of 2,300 metres and discovers one of Europe’s very finest skiing destinations.
Heading into the clouds at Europe's highest skiing resort, Val Thorens
Why Val Thorens?
As the highest ski resort in Europe (the village is at 2,300 metres; the six highest peaks in the ski area rise to more than 3,000 metres), Val Thorens is the place to go to be sure of some decent snow. As part of the Trois Vallées region, with more than 600 kilometres of pistes and six glaciers, you can happily ski for a week and barely ski the same run twice. Within Val Thorens itself, you can also try out the six-kilometre toboggan run, go ice driving at the Alain Prost ice track (www.icedrivingacademy.com) or ride down the pistes on a mountain bike after the skiers have left for the day. In recent years, some fabulous hotels have sprung up here.
A comfortable bed
Val Thoren’s first five-star hotel Altapura (www.altapura.fr, 0033 4 80 36 80 36) has everything you could want from a ski hotel. Built with lots of wood, stone and fur throws, it’s luxurious and comfortable, while the jumper-clad staff and quirky touches like an old telecabine in the lounge give it a hip and relaxed feel. It boasts a 1,000-square-metre spa with an indoor/outdoor pool, huge, comfy bean bags for relaxing and three restaurants – the buffet in particular is spectacular. Rooms are large, luxurious and well-equipped – each with its own Mac Mini. Double rooms, including breakfast, from €292 (Dh1,468).
Koh-I-Nor (www.hotel-kohinor.com, 0033 4 79 31 00 00) is Val Thoren’s newest five-star hotel – its name aptly translates as “Mountain of Light” – the hotel is built largely of wood and light glass with a luxurious interior including two pools and an 800 metre spa. Is huge terrace offers spectacular views over the ski area and two-Michelin-starred chef Yoann Conte heads up the restaurant. Koh-I-Nor also has 35 apartments for those who want the luxury experience on a budget and with the greater flexibility of self-catering. Doubles from €340 (Dh1,712) per night, apartments from €685 (Dh3,448) per week.
Le Fitz Roy (www.hotelfitzroy.com, 0033 4 79 00 04 78) has been refurbished for this season to win a fifth star and is now an intimate, chic hotel with a family-chalet atmosphere (albeit extremely luxurious). After a day’s skiing you can relax in the library with a book, snuggle up by the fireplace, enjoy the south-facing terrace or relax in the spa. Bedrooms have wood panels, chiselled-slate sinks, mountain views and come complete with every mod-con – you can even hire iPads loaded with films and music. Doubles from €331 (Dh1,666) per night.
Find your feet
The Place de Caron is the main centre for skiing, shops and restaurants and is the hub of the resort. The sports centre is also here. Some of the more upmarket accommodation is at the lower end of the village, while most of the tour operators’ catered chalets are in the Plein Sud area. You can walk (and ski) between the sections, but there’s a bus that links them every 30 minutes and most hotels away from the centre also have shuttles.
Meet the locals
Towards the end of the skiing day (or any time after lunch on bad weather days) almost everyone – visitors and locals alike – heads for La Folie Douce (www.lafoliedouce-valthorens.com), with a daily DJ and fire eaters, for a few hours before skiing the rest of the way down just before the light goes.
Book a table
Chalet de la Marine (www.chaletmarine.com, 0033 4 79 00 11 90) is one of the best places to eat on the slopes. Downstairs offers hearty, well-made, self-service food, while upstairs serves a more formal (and much pricier) menu. In the evening, you can book a dinner party in the restaurant’s romantic Mongolian yurt. Upstairs, typical menus include mushroom soup with white truffle shavings (€29 [Dh146]), followed by steak tartare with fries (€26 [Dh131]), while downstairs features pasta, burgers and pizza.
Restaurant Jean Sulpice (www.en.jeansulpice.com, 00 33 4 79 40 00 71) is named after its two-Michelin-starred chef, who, as the father of a five year old, sometimes makes lunch at the resort’s local crèche. Despite the high-concept food with matching prices, the restaurant has a relaxed feel. The menu is inventive and unusual – such as agnolotti (snails, herbs and lemon caviar; €46/[Dh226]), followed by pigeon baked in a salt crust with camomile (€70 [Dh352]) The chef also runs cookery classes.
La Cabane (www.restoleil.com/la-cabane.html, 0033 4 79 00 83 84) is a great place to sample traditional Savoyards dishes, such as raclette and fondue, in a cosy setting with a fireplace. Starters are mainly salads (from €12 [Dh60]), which is all you’ll want before the hearty, often cheese-heavy main courses, including la raclette grand tradition (local cheese which you melt yourself to pour over potatoes and cold meat; €25 [Dh125]), fondue bourguignon (raw beef to dip in hot oil, served with various sauces and fries (€25 [Dh125], or pierrade (similar, except that the beef is cooked on a hot stone; €25 [Dh125]).
There are two malls in Val Thorens selling sports clothes, ski equipment and usual ski resort goods, but it isn’t really a resort known for its shops. The upmarket hotels have more upmarket ski shops, but if you’re after designer boutiques, ski over to Courchevel on the other side of the Trois Vallées.
What to avoid
Try not to travel on a Saturday – most package holidays run Saturday to Saturday, so the roads can get busy, plus Saturdays on the pistes tend to be quieter.
Val Thorens has just opened Europe’s highest zipwire at 3,600 metres, 250 metres above the glacier. It takes two minutes from one side to the other, with a maximum speed of 100kph. and costs €50 [Dh250] per go, with a minimum age of 10.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Geneva, and Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Geneva, from Dh3,000 return including taxes. The flight takes six hours and transfer by road to Val Thorens takes three-and-a-half hours.
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