The French Alps: Spring Snow in Val d'Isere and Chamonix
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
The music of the French jazz band Vitamine gets feet stomping, or perhaps it is the night’s chill washing down the steep French Alps that make movement necessary.
In any case, the international crowd smiles as one when the band plays “When the Saints Come Marching In.” It is the tail end of April, yet steady snow has been falling over the last several days.
After a long raucous cocktail party, we headed into the beautiful restaurant Fruitere for the hearty dishes developed to combat hunger high in the French Alps.
The band followed us in and soon everyone was dancing on the dinner tables; the Alps have worked their magic. Energy flowed as fast as the occasional avalanche seen from the center of Val d’ Isere.
Many seemed to forget that to get to Fruitere we rode up the mountain on the La Daille lift, through a cave.
The plan was to ski back after the party with torches to light the way, but the silky white Savoie wine won, and I thumbed a ride on a snow cat down the slopes; plenty of time to ski the next morning and I wanted to use both of my legs.
While both Val d’Isere and Chamonix are renowned for great skiing, they are at opposites in experiences. The feeling at each is unique unto itself, part of the joy of skiing in the French Alps.
Booting Up in Val d’Isere
On my arrival in Val d’Isere I noticed immediately that one is there to ski and as much as possible. True there are restaurants, bars and shops galore, but it is the slopes that rule. In fact there are twelve slope-side restaurants alone, but diners are decked in ski gear, a sure sign.
The clop of ski boots can be heard just about everywhere, even in a disco. The resort is actually two as Tignes can be reached and skied on the same pass. The whole package is named L’ Espace Killy, after French skiing superstar Jean-Claude Killy.
Speed is king in Val d’Isere, and the face of Bellevarde seen from the lifts is a constant reminder; many important downhill and giant slalom races have been won and lost on the B.
In fact the 2009 World Alpine Championships will be held in Val d’Isere, fitting since over the last forty years some of the World Cup’s fastest races have been held there.
The beauty of skiing the Val is the amount of terrain available — more than 300 km (186 mi) of piste (slopes) and ninety lifts will keep you busy and if off-piste skiing is your bag, Val has the most options in the Alps.
Val d’ Isere Day Off
It is said that you could ski everyday at Val d’ Isere for two weeks and not repeat your runs. For those who get burning calves and fatigued feet, there are other options in this ski capital, no boots needed.
A car isn’t necessary in the town as a free bus system called the Train Rouge runs the length of the valley. I enjoyed taking it to the nearby village of Le Fornet with its old stone homes built to withstand the over abundant snow fall.
If you want to take a chance, there is a casino in Val. On Mondays a village market takes place and is perfect to stock up on local cheeses, white sausages and wines.
Still, as I could tell by the lines at the Ecole de Ski Francais or the National French Ski School, skiing is king. Still a little hidden time in a hot tub is possible for all.
Chamonix, Steep Adventure
Chamonix is one of the oldest Alpine resort areas in Europe and is situated beneath the Alp’s largest mountain, Mt. Blanc.
While skiing is big, mountaineering also is a key sport. In fact it was climbing the valley’s steep peaks that drew early visitors to the area. Even today tragic fatalities can happen as risk takers are drawn to the surrounding challenges.
That said, Chamonix itself is a most civilized city and also draws well-heeled visitors that like the challenge of good shopping and finishing a huge Savoie style lunch. It has attracted travelers since the 18th century, and in fact the climbing guides set up a guide bureau, Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix in 1821.
There are more than half a dozen peaks that surround Chamonix but the main connection to the slopes, piste and non-piste is the gondola, Auiguille du Midi, a thrilling ride in itself.
The second stage of the lift will take you just 328 feet from the peak of Mont Blanc. Even if not skiing down, the views are stunning.
Skier and day tripper both have the option of heading down into Italy for a lunch. Chamonix’s other ski thrill is the Vallee Blanche, a twelve mile long run. When delving into the more off-beat runs use the vast well trained guides that are well known in the area.
A Day Off in Chamonix
There is no sin in taking a day off the slopes in Chamonix and in fact I would make it a requirement. The city is a fabulous glimpse into lifestyles of better mountain living, complete with great dining and interesting museums such as the Musee Alpin.
One great option is to take the cog railway known as the Train Montenvers-Mer de Glace. The huge old Montenvers Hotel is perfect for a hearty view of the Mer de Glace, a glacier that spills from high peaks.
It was a spot that Liszt, Hugo and Goethe overnighted. Mary Shelly is said to have gotten some inspiration for Frankenstein from the groans of the glacier during her stay.
While I found the hotel options in Val d’Isere perfect, I opted for a different stay in Chamonix. Through a well respected lodging rental company named Collineige, I ended my alpine adventure in the Chalet Valhalla, one of Collineige’s many choices.
The Valhalla slept 10-16 and was spacious as well as charming. The ring of peaks visible combined with its location near the city center was an anchor to my great time in Chamonix.
After a day of adventuring, the hot tub on Valhalla’s deck was a perfect après ski starting point. Next in line was a stop in town for a coffee on the main square to people watch and gather strength for Chamonix’s wide ranging night time options.
Fortunately for me my favorite and last stop for the night was Canadian owned micro brewery MBC, located a scant five-minute walk from the chalet. The jumping atmosphere and lively buzz kept me going back. With a chef cooked breakfast at Valhalla, I was always ready to start another day high in the French Alps.
Want to Go?
For more local information on Val d’Isere and Chamonix try these two sites:
Both will give you lodging, dinning and activity ideas that will fill your days in two of the best Alpine destinations.
My stay at the Chalet Valhalla was one of the best travel lodging options in quite a while. The comfort level and amenities outstanding and service impeccable. The selection of properties that are handled by the company is extensive and covers a gamut of prices and type of stay. It was truly a pleasure.
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.