Above & beyond: hitting the heights of Val-d'Isere
Tempus heads to the famed ski resort – and the highest-altitude hotel in France – for four phenomenal days in the snow
“Come on, going in a straight line isn’t skiing.”
As this phrase leaves my guide Fabrice’s mouth, echoing off the walls of the canyon-like Col de l’Iseran, I sheepishly look down at my legs to discover that it had, as I had feared, been directed at me. Peering back up from the comfort of my rather unambitiously parallel skis, I can just about see Fabrice through the dense fog, a handful of metres in front of me.
There he is, with the elegance of a slalom champion, throwing himself into endless consecutive turns, practically leaping from left to right and back again as he carves pristine curves in the powder. He looks back and exaggerates his technique, nodding in encouragement as I clumsily execute a similar turn, but in a manner not dissimilar to a cat freshly launched onto an ice rink.
Heading deeper into the cloud layer, we find ourselves in an almost total whiteout by the time we reach the bottom of the Cascade Express chairlift, ready to take us across 1,741m of cable up onto the Pasaillas Glacier – this is the very top of the Val-d’Isère ski area.
The weather back in the resort had been mildly cloudy but with enough natural light for a decent day’s skiing and so, as a confident-but-by-no-means-expert skier, the idea of heading even further into this oblivion of whiteness is a little nerve-wracking. I have a vision of having to snowplough my way back down through the fog as I break all the basic rules of ski technique. But reality, so often, leaves us blindsided.
Around two minutes before we reach the top – 3,200m above sea level – we rise from the cloud layer to reveal one of the most stunning sights I have ever laid eyes upon. The sun suddenly bursts into view, punctuating an otherwise immaculately blue sky, and blanketing the peaks surrounding the glacier – they look like islands rising from a sea of cloud.
This feels less like Europe’s ceiling and more like its roof. There are no cliff faces to hide the sun nor distant peaks to dwarf those on which we stand. We are now atop the continent, halfway between the snow and the stars.
Val-d’Isère is European skiing at its purest. This is a resort where high altitude, raucous apres-ski, luxury hotels and miles and miles of some of the continent’s finest pistes come together to create something truly unique – a space that welcomes all, from professional ski champions to first timers, yet makes every individual feel as if they are experiencing something tailor-made for them.
And, as a lover of skiing and mountains, I could not have felt more at home upon arrival at the brand new Le Refuge de Solaise, our home for the next two nights. At 2,551m above sea level, this is the highest hotel in France – and the highest in Europe to feature a spa – and access to this remarkable hideaway is possible only via the Solaise gondola, which closes at 5pm.
In the dimming orange light of early evening, as the last skiing stragglers drain off the mountainside, we soar up and over them in the opposite direction. In a moment that feels truly surreal, we step out of our cabin and onto the lofty piste in our regular shoes, the cables slowing to a halt behind us as we trundle across the snow to the hotel. We are now mountainside at over 2,500m, entirely cut off from the resort below. While this prospect is a little daunting and almost intimidating, the sight of the wonderfully welcoming Le Refuge, perched on a ridge overlooking the valley in front of us, quickly puts paid to the notion that we will be anything but comfortable up in these frigid climes.
Bathed in warm light both inside and out, and bedecked with chalet-style pinewood and animal skin rugs and throws, Le Refuge is perhaps the dictionary definition of cosy; particularly on nights when winds pick up and the temperatures plummets to -10 ̊C. Considering the brutal conditions, we have to ask why there’s a 110-guest hotel up here. Opening in late 2019 as the brainchild of local restaurateur Jean-Claude Borel, at least part of the building was constructed using the former cable car station at Solaise, closed following the unveiling of the Telecabine de Solaise which now carries guests up here.
The result is the ultimate ski-in-ski-out destination, where guests can indulge in first class dining and spa facilities and have the quietest night’s sleep of their lives, before waking up and being the first skiers on the entire mountain. And, following a rental ski fitting with Oxygene, that’s exactly what we did. And it was glorious.
After a subsequent night of gorging on some of the classic Italian fare at Le Refuge’s Gigi restaurant – and a day of attempting to burn off the calories on the slopes – we venture down into the village courtesy of the cable car (which stays open until 11pm on Fridays). We dine at L’Altiplano, an experiential Peruvian restaurant housed in the five-star K2 Chogori hotel, offering extensive tasting menus with unique twists on South American classics such as ceviche, washed down with superb sommelier-picked white wines sourced, predictably, from Savoie itself. Sure, the French will gladly embrace foreign cuisine, but fine wine? That baton has yet to be passed.
Snow hounds seeking something a little more conventional – though no less luxurious – than Le Refuge should check in for a stay at Hôtel les Barmes de l’Ours (literally “The Bear Cave Hotel”), situated at the base of the Face de Bellevarde, the formidable, towering black run that dominates the Val-d’Isère skyline. This hotel, which has become a mainstay of the village after opening in the early 2000s, features themed floors (Scandinavian, American lodge, Alpine chalet and contemporary), a superb spa offering treatments of all kinds, and three restaurants including the Michelin-starred La Table de l’Ours. From here, guests who wish to forgo more punishing skiing can also partake in afternoon activities including yoga, fitness walks and fatbiking.
Perched at the furthest lurching reaches of the Tarentaise Valley, Val-d’Isère remains difficult to comfortably label. Whereas other Alpine resorts have fully embraced their fleshed-out niches – think the fur-coat glitz of St Moritz or the quaint homeliness of La Rosiere – this lofty corner of France, so isolated from the rest of the country and, indeed, even its surrounding resorts, is a microsociety of its own.
It is all the kaleidoscopic elements of skiing layered on top of one another; on our second night, as we ascend in a cable car up to our luxurious hideout at Le Refuge, we glide just metres above the heads of teenagers and 20-somethings dancing on tables to Carly Rae Jepsen at the famed Cocorico bar in the centre of town while, just beyond them, families were bedding down for an early night in the myriad cosy hotels nearby. Every snapshot stored in my memory is a painting, one in which every guest was allowed free rein to be themselves – and each one of them having the time of their lives while doing so.