Travel: Northern Soul goes skiing in the French Alps
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that you don’t ski in May.
May is for summer holidays and evokes the scent of sun cream, shorts and sandals. And so it seemed almost nonsensical to be ferreting through my ski gear in the loft as the temperatures outside were creeping up. But I found out that it’s possible to go on a spontaneous short ski trip if you go high. Very high.
I had no trouble finding a resort. Val Thorens was the only one still open at the start of the month. Tignes, where one of my friends lives, closed at the back end of April. Les Menuires had shut the weekend before I arrived. However, Val Thorens is 2,300 metres above sea level and in the height of winter it has 600 km of runs. Unsurprisingly, not all were open when I was there in the last few days of the ski season.
There’s nothing eerier than a ski resort shut down for the summer as you head up the mountain road in the dead of night, the only vehicle for miles around. Inevitably, we encountered a deer in the headlights as it ambled across the road, startled by our presence.
I arrived at Des Hotel 3 Vallees smack bang in the centre of the resort in the early hours of the morning. There was a welcome note and the room key waiting for me. The room was perfect – it had a little balcony overlooking the slopes, a faux fur throw on the bed and was fitted out in traditional wood. It’s probably one of the most pleasant ski hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The toiletries were L’Occitane, for example. The bed was comfortable and there were extra blankets in the closet which I needed in the night.
After a restful sleep, I was welcomed by the friendly reception staff who directed me to the ski hire shop (opposite) which had a discount for hotel guests and to the supermarket next door where I sourced a cheap lunch each day. 2€ for a pizza slice and 1€ for a chocolate bar. I had my own water in a rucksack (which leaked perpetually).
It’s essential to source a cheap lunch on a ski trip otherwise you might as well set fire to €50 notes if you dine in the mountain restaurants which have a captive audience and can charge what they like. Also, the thin air and exertion of skiing makes you hungry. I’m never usually peckish at breakfast but I made sure I ate fresh pancakes, fruit, yogurt, pan au chocolat, ham and cheese and cereal to set me up for the day.
My ski boots felt particularly tight and I struggled for the first day skiing in their vice-like grip. As I was on my own, I stuck to blue (easy) runs as I didn’t want to come a cropper on a slushy steep red which would stop me in my tracks. Anyhow, the spring conditions with higher temperatures made the snow turn treacly by early to mid-afternoon and the blues felt more like harder red runs. I was up and down the Cascades chair lift, happily exploring a small section of the ski area and finding my ski legs.
Turning right from the Cascades lift, I enjoyed skiing a blue run called Dalles. By 3:30pm, the snow was too slushy, and my legs were killing from the boots, so I called it a day.
The hotel has a spa room which can be booked in time slots by guests apres-ski. The hot tub, sauna and steam room were sweet relief. It had a chill-out area where you could cool down and read. I had it to myself on a couple of occasions – blissful solitude.
I usually ski in a large group of friends or family so it was a different experience being on my tod. I kept looking behind me, expecting one of my daughters to be in my tracks. It was strange without them – the first time in two decades that I’d skied alone. My friends in Tignes had tried to help sort out a skier in resort, but most of their pals had already left at the end of the season. I appreciated their efforts to find me a ski pal.
It was Dutch Week – the resort was packed with Dutch people who had mostly driven from their low-lying country to one of France’s highest ski resorts. They were friendly to chat too, but I felt uncomfortable randomly asking people to ski with me. On day two, I ventured further afield as I’d changed my ski boots and could ski without wincing in agony. The visibility was poor, and the sun was very much an absent friend. The flat light made it difficult to judge what was horizon, bump or slope which was all very entertaining when navigating the slopes in fog. I veered off a blue run onto a red, but quickly righted my mistake. And the red run was not that different.
Lunch on all three days was on the hoof, gnawing on the pizza bread (by now slightly soggy thanks to the water leak). I dined at the hotel both nights. The food was decent, although I sensed they were using everything up in their larder as the season was ending. Cold asparagus soup on the first night was more appetising than it sounds. I swapped the veal on the first night for pasta Bolognese as it was too fatty for my delicate sensibilities.
On my last night, as the fog came down and snow fell, I looked out of what seemed to be a winter scene with a molten cheese fondue. A crisp salad took the edge off all the cheese and bread. I’d been to the Irish bar for a swift gin and tonic and met the laconic Danish barman called Stig. Music was blaring out nearby from a bar and it was snowing. I didn’t hang around for long.
Val Thorens also hosts a quirky street market on Tuesdays and Thursdays selling cheese, meats, olives, kids’ sweets and clothing. An oompah type band was playing in front of the stalls while I was there, and the atmosphere was friendly and carnival-like.
For my last day, the helpful resort PR officer texted to say she’d found a group of skiers on a three-hour ESF ski lesson. It had been snowing in the night and we were lucky enough to be the first tracks through fresh power on red slopes. I had to metaphorically pinch myself at my good fortune at this point. Our instructor, Julien, took us further afield to the Plain Sud chairlift and to the easy snow park. We passed a luxury hotel where a luxury massage costs €660. Catering for the super-rich, this resort now has a smattering of five-star hotels.
We skied and skied for three hours as the weather conditions changed from fresh powder early on to slush with fog thrown in and relentless sleety rain. After the lesson, I realised that my ski jacket was sodden and I was freezing. I stopped for an emergency hot chocolate to warm up.
I skied for a few more hours on my own, before heading back down to return all my hired gear and return to Geneva (and briefly laying down in the ski locker room to gather my energy levels). The hotel staff had let me store my luggage all day and I used the spa area to relax, warm up and shower before the long trip home.
The lovely reception staff were tolerant of my endless faffing with luggage. “I’ve forgotten my togs,” I said after hastily returning from the spa. They just smiled and said it was no problem.
It took just over two and a half hours to reach the airport and the flight was on time. By 11:20pm, I was home and my May ski trip felt like a bit of a dream. Nah, it was real as my legs could feel the burn from three days of skiing non-stop.
I was working in London so flew from Gatwick to Lyons. I got a transfer with Cool Runnings, who are efficient and cost effective if you are in a large group. “Yes, we get some funny looks at the airport when we hold the sign up,” one of the drivers told me.
The Hotel Des 3 Valllees cost about €633 for three nights including breakfast and dinner on two nights.
Ski hire varies but was slight cheaper as it was the end of season. I flew back to Manchester from Geneva. Both flights were with easyJet and cost around £200.
Ski passes vary in price depending on duration.
Alcohol is expensive about 9€ for a gin and tonic but luckily water in bottles is cheap. I had to resort to this after the water backpack would not stop leaking. Would I do it again? Hell, yes! But I’m taking my friends and family next time.
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