Correspondent Daryl Grout spent the first week of February skiing in the French Alps and sent us this report from Val d’Isere and Tignes, which he and his wife, Susan, visited this year for the first time. Among the highlights: an introduction to Génépi (a Savoyard liqueur), a fondue dinner in a cozy yurt, and lots and lots of fresh powder.
By Daryl Grout
Our ski holiday begins at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland, where Susan and I follow dozens of skiers out of the terminal to waiting buses. Minutes later we’re viewing mountain scenery in the French Rhône-Alpes département of Savoy via lakefront Annecy (a UNESCO wannabe) and Albertville, setting of the 1992 Winter Olympics. Near the Italian border, after winding through a high pass in the Tarantaise Valley, we arrive at our destination: Espace Killy and the resort village of Val d’Isere.
After checking into our hotel, we step out to explore in a light snowfall. The village is a charming mix of old and new Savoyard architecture—stone, log and wood-beam chalets designed to support stone-tile roofs and tons of snow. Shops and restaurants are packed tightly in a central pedestrian-friendly core, with falling snow (and partying Brits) adding to a festive atmosphere.
We awaken Sunday to snowplows after a foot of overnight powder, and it’s still coming down! Jet-lagged or not, we’re early to breakfast then off to explore the mountain. Our inexpensive 6-day pass gives us access to Espace Killy resorts Val d’Isere and Tignes—a vast expanse of open bowls and glaciers. The skiing is fantastic, but with snow still falling and avalanche danger high, we’re confined to the Solaise area without a glimpse of scenery beyond our limited visibility.
A View of the French Alps in All Their Glory
The sun emerges on Monday and we board the Olympique gondola only meters from our hotel. Now we view the French Alps in all their glory—a singular 360-degree sensation that no photo could ever capture. All we can do is say, “Wow,” point our skis downhill and immerse ourselves in the landscape.
Destination Tignes, we follow signs for Val Claret. (Tignes sprawls over several small villages. Serious skiers stay in Val Claret or Tignes le Lac.) Higher in elevation than Val d’Isere 1850, Val Claret 2300 has an obvious snowfall advantage. With easy connections between the two areas we hop back and forth frequently for the rest of the week.
The days go quickly: breakfast, ski, sauna or steam (or both) then dinner. Our favorite restaurant is nearby La Casa Scara—intimate local decor serving Italian cuisine and wine. Here we discover Génépi, a homemade Savoyard liqueur infused with local plant Artemisia (of absinthe fame). We also learn, from autographed pictures on the wall, that our childhood ski-hero Jean-Claude Killy grew up in this very neighborhood.
Our favorite ski area is the Glacier du Pissaillas, accessed by the roller-coaster inspired Lessieres chairlift. Best mountain lunch is the tiny lodge near the Ouillette rope tow. And our “best mountain perk” award goes to the hotel ski room where friendly attendants actually help us remove and put away our boots at the end of the day.
Val d’Isere’s icon (every Alps village has a pet rock) is called Rocher du Charvet. If you look closely you can see ski tracks on the challenging Face du Charvet (before adding it to your bucket list, Google “Charvet avalanche”). It’s tempting, but we’re happy to enjoy the view from a distance.
A Torch-Lit Trail, a Bonfire, and a Fondue Dinner
Late Thursday, as if my body needs more exercise, Susan scores reservations for Evolution 2—Wilderness Evening, a popular resort activity. Following a torch-lit path in heavy snowfall, we arrive at a “secret” location, where we mingle around a bonfire sipping Kir. Later, the group migrates inside a cozy Mongolian yurt for fondue dinner. Surprisingly, an excellent vegan meal is offered along with Savoyard wine, meats and cheeses. After dessert, the way home is a four-kilometer sledge ride down powdery work roads to a screamingly fun ski trail runout into the village.
Yes, it was fun, but the overnight snow means we have to crawl out of bed early. After obligatory powder runs, we opt for a rest on the touristy Tignes funicular to La Grande Motte glacier for views including La Grande Casse (3852 m) and distant Mont Blanc (4808 m). As an added bonus, our final run down to Val Claret offers the best sun and snow of the entire week. We are left with a final impression that Tignes is a great place to visit, but on the lift home with sauna and La Casa Scara dinner awaiting, there’s no place like Val d’Isere.