Wednesday, January 6th, 2016
‘A skiing holiday? You? Really? Learning to ski?” Incredulity was the common response when I told friends I was off for a week to the French Alps. To be fair, their doubts mirrored my own. I have notoriously bad balance, I regularly trip over my own feet and sometimes get vertigo standing on a chair – hardly the qualities which make for a ski pro.
As I click into my skis and prepare for my first lesson in Val Thorens, I have resigned myself to spending the entire week of the beginners’ ski course sliding around on my behind. Or if things go really wrong, observing the action on the slopes from the balcony of our hotel’s all-inclusive bar, hopefully without my limbs in casts.
As 13 of us novices waddle around one after the other, trying to get used to the feeling of having these strange metal sticks strapped to our feet, skiers and snowboarders of all ages whizz past us heading for the slopes. I look on in awe, feeling utterly ludicrous as I try my hardest to stay upright on one of the flattest surfaces in the whole resort.
We are in good hands though. Our two instructors, from the École du Ski Français (ESF), are remarkably patient as we slip and slide through the lesson like a baker’s dozen Bambis on ice.
By the end of the morning, most of us are just about able to snowplough our way slowly down the gentlest of gentle slopes, although a few still can’t manage to stay on their skis for more than a few metres before slipping into an ungraceful heap, limbs spread-eagled and faces on fire.
The class is divided and my name is called to join the ever-so-slightly-less-incapable group. I’m not the worst! This is going much better than expected, I think smugly, until minutes later I ski straight into one of the instructors and knock her to the ground, realising too late that I don’t yet know how to stop.
The bottom of the snowy bowl in which the resort of Val Thorens is perched provides the perfect nursery slopes for learning, and it is here we spend our first afternoon, ploughing downhill among the kindergarten skiers in their brightly coloured jumpsuits.
Surrounded by dramatic, treeless peaks, the vista is simply stunning. It is easy to see what prompted a group of ski-loving developers to build a tourist village here in the 1970s, having discovered exceptional ski conditions in the uninhabited Belleville Valley next to the Glacier de Péclet.
Situated a dizzying 2,300m above sea level, Val Thorens is the highest ski resort in Europe. The altitude and the mainly north-facing slopes result in one of the longest ski seasons in the Alps, with guaranteed snow from November to May.
Snaking around the sides of the valley are 78 ski runs covering 150km, from long, cruisey green and blue slopes to more challenging reds and blacks. There’s also a 6km toboggan run, a snow mountain biking run, an ice-driving circuit and the world’s highest zip wire, La Tyrolienne, which travels at an eye-watering 100km an hour for 1,300m between two peaks.
To my secret relief, it is closed due to bad weather on the day we plan to visit.
And that’s in Val Thorens alone. The resort is connected by slopes to Meribel, Courchevel and Les Menuires, which together make up Les Trois Vallées, the world’s largest linked ski area, with more than 600km of slopes in all.
You really do feel the altitude here, but thankfully you don’t have to do much walking, and never with your skis; every hotel and self-catering complex has its own slope. You can roll out of bed and straight out the door on to your skis, and back off them and straight into the bar for après-ski in the evening without that dreaded slog to and from the lifts with your gear.
With its imposing, purpose-built apartment blocks, Val Thorens has been much maligned as the ugly duckling of Les Trois Vallées, but the resort has been working hard to shake off that image to serve an increasingly wealthy clientele.
The concrete facades of the 1970s and 1980s buildings have been reclad with timber, while stricter planning laws ensure all modern construction replicates the region’s traditional Savoyard style, with pitched roofs and wooden balconies.
Inside lie luxurious hotels and holiday residences, many boasting spas and upmarket restaurants – three of which share four Michelin stars. Val Thorens is now reaping the rewards for its improvement efforts; it was named World’s Best Ski Resort for the past two years at the World Ski Awards.
The sprawling Club Med Val Thorens Sensations, where we stay, is an impressive example of Val Thorens’s modern accommodation offering. Opened last December after a whopping €80 million investment, the “village” has the look and feel of an all-inclusive space-cruise ship from the future, with two restaurants, two bars, a spa, gym, clothes boutique and 384 rooms, most with balconies facing on to the snowy peaks.
On arrival we are met by staff wielding iPads. Touchscreen information points allow guests to check the snow forecast, the gym class timetable or the evening’s entertainment schedule. There is even a dedicated app, which you can use to book ski lessons or geolocate to chat with “potential ski partners” among the other gentils membres of Club Med.
The main buffet restaurant offers an array of dishes of exceptional quality for an all-inclusive resort, from crabmeat salad to duck confit, steak frites, and Savoyard-style raclette. For a more formal dining experience, you can book into the Epicurious restaurant (also included) for a tasting menu designed by Michelin two-starred chef Edouard Loubet.
We are welcomed back from a morning on the slopes by pumping tunes spun from the decks of the resident DJ set up on the snow outside. A waiter dressed as an astronaut wanders around the restaurant, asking if guests would like “une selfie avec le spaceman”. And the blue-hued Oxygen bar is consistently packed for the nightly high-octane dance shows, starring waiting and bar staff right up to the chief du village.
However, if all that is too choreographed for your tastes, the après-ski scene in the bars around Val Thorens is legendary. With live DJs every afternoon, the pulsing La Folie Douce is the most famous on the piste. The ski slope down from here leads directly to the main “strip”, where the party continues before finishing up in the underground depths of Malaysia, the largest club in the Alps.
We were too zonked after two ski sessions each day (10 lessons and a ski pass are included in the hotel package) to check out the zumba or pilates classes in the hotel gym, not to mind attempt the four-storey climbing wall in the lobby. Finding the energy to make our way to the hammam to allow the minty steam to melt our tired muscles was difficult enough.
By the end of the week, we fear we will never be able to make decisions for ourselves again, so timetabled and well-arranged our stay has been.
Our last day on the slopes is spent exploring, our first excursion without the instructors. Following a map and sailing down some of the trickier blue slopes that instilled utter panic in me earlier in the week, the resort feels like my own giant, snowy playground. I even look forward to shuffling on to the chairlifts and soaring up into the air, with my eyes wide open after days of squinting through them with my heart in my throat.
I could never have imagined before that first lesson how confident I would feel by the end and how free. I just can’t believe it has to be a full year before I can try it again.
Ciara Kenny travelled as a guest of Sunway, which offers packages at Club Med Val Thorens Sensations starting from €1,792 each, including direct return flights from Dublin to Geneva, airport transfers, full board, daily ski lessons and a five-day lift pass. See clubmedsunway.ie
Ciara Kenny, The Irish Times – 3 October 2015