Skiing in Maurienne: The French Alps don't have to cost the earth
Not everywhere in the French Alps costs the earth. James Tapsfield discovers a reasonably priced ski haven
It was a decisive moment in my skiing career.
Poised at the the top of a forbidding off-piste run called The Corridor, I considered my options.
Setting off would be simple: it only required angling my skis slightly downhill. But after that things looked a bit more difficult. I tried to imagine navigating the steep, narrow, rock-strewn channel without sustaining serious injury.
Alternatively, I could shuffle round and take a pleasant schuss to the nearest restaurant.
Perhaps on this occasion, I thought nervously, discretion was the better part of valour. And then my guide said proudly: "Did I tell you my nine-year-old son tried this run the other day?"
As an intermediate skier who is reasonably happy taking on the odd black run, I hadn't expected such challenges from the Maurienne Valley.
In fact, I hadn't known much about the area at all - even though it's only a relative hop, skip and jump away from the more famous Three Valleys.
Reaching the Maurienne involves a short flight to Grenoble, followed by a three-hour transfer by road to one of more than a dozen resorts.
We started our visit in La Norma, a bijou spot with around 6,000 beds. The first startling thing was quite how much skiing there is. The 65km of runs, with altitudes ranging from 1,350m to 2,300m, mean that even at the busiest periods, everyone has plenty of space. They include some testing reds, as well as broad, sweeping blues with moguls for the show-offs to do their thing.
Black runs are admittedly in short supply. But, as I discovered at the top of The Corridor, the off-piste should satisfy all but the most extreme thrill-seekers. Snowboarders who enjoy dodging trees are particularly blessed.
The second startling thing was the prices. We have become accustomed to paying through the nose for top resorts such as Meribel or Val d'Isere. Aside from the crippling chalet costs, you're lucky to get away with €70 for a rubbery Spaghetti Bolognese and watery Hot Chocolate on the slopes.
In La Norma, that bill would be more like a tenner. A six-day ski pass comes in at a very reasonable €140. Accommodation deals start at around 200 Euros per person, based on four sharing a self-catering chalet for a week. For that money, you wouldn't expect five-star pampering or especially decent decor. But they're close to the chairlifts, perfectly clean, have powerful, hot showers, and beds comfortable enough to soothe aching muscles. And if you're set on a bit more luxury, there are a host of impressive detached chalets on the private rental market, which also look extremely good value.
Larger, and offering more in terms of apres-ski, is nearby Valloire. This charming town is the home of slalom world champion Jean-Baptiste Grange, and the natives just won't let you forget it. His grinning face occupies every available inch of wall and telegraph pole, taunting visitors with their own comparative mediocrity.
You can hire skis at Grange's family shop and take lessons from his uncle - who happens to be the local mayor. Unfortunately, however, even that doesn't guarantee you'll be able to execute turns like the great man.
Thanks to a link with its neighbour Valmeinier, Valloire offers 150km of varied and easily-accessible slopes. There is also a snow park and half-pipe, which was thankfully marginally less dangerous to life and limb than it first appeared. The feeling of getting 'air' and landing safely was exhilarating enough for me. But my effort looked rather tame when an expert skier behind me rocketed skyward and did a virtual somersault.
If you get tired of skiing and want to try something different, the snow-shoeing treks could be for you. We saw eagles swooping majestically around the peaks, but learned that pursuing mountain goats is not easy when your feet are effectively strapped to tennis rackets.
The bowling alley offers a rather more restful activity, while sore bones will find respite at the well-equipped spa.
Valloire is more a family than party destination, but if you do have some stamina left at the end of the day, there are more than a dozen bars to choose from, including Bar Centrale and the cosy Au Resto. Really energetic types might even want to carry on beyond 11pm at the Odysee nightclub.
As you would expect in France, the food is generally top notch. The restaurant at Valloire's Grande Hotel was perhaps the classiest we found, offering gourmet fare and superb steak. But you will be hard-pressed to find a substandard French fondue, and it's the perfect sociable meal for sharing anecdotes about your day's exploits. The crisp local Savoie white wine was particularly good for washing down the delicious cheese - and had the added benefit of sending the banter into overdrive.
It was over a few glasses of the above that I received a verbal introduction to the art of telemarking from our instructor Thierry - who happened to be an expert.
Named after the region of Norway where it originated, this technique uses special skis without a heel binding. You have to go virtually down on one knee to make a turn. Done well, it looks incredibly graceful and, according to Thierry, those who get a taste for it often don't want to ski any other way. However, it's also meant to be extremely exhausting. My interest was definitely piqued enough to try it next time!
Goaded by the accomplishment of my guide's nine-year-old son, I did eventually pluck up the courage to test my skills on The Corridor.
Unfortunately, I soon regretted my decision after comprehensively wiping out and watching one lone ski slide serenely to the bottom.
An ignominious and exhausting half hour followed as I shuffled slowly down in its wake. To make things worse, a small crowd gathered to take in the pitiful sight.
But it would take more than that to put me off returning to the Maurienne. With value for money like that, who cares about a bruised ego?
KEY FACTS - MAURIENNE VALLEY, FRENCH ALPS
BEST FOR: Couples or families who want to get in some serious snow time, rather than engaging in wild apres-ski antics.
TIME TO GO: Valloire and La Norma have the altitude and infrastructure to guarantee decent conditions on main pistes right through the season.
DON'T MISS: The half-pipe and ski park at Valloire. Make sure someone's on hand to photograph your tricks for posterity!
NEED TO KNOW: Slalom world champion Jean-Baptiste Grange grew up in Valloire, and is the undisputed local hero. He's the one staring at you from the posters.
DON'T FORGET: The back door into the prestigious Three Valleys. Take the cable car from Orelle and you'll be in Val Thorens in 15 minutes.
James Tapsfield was a guest of Maurienne Tourism (0033 624 645407 and www.maurienne-tourisme.com).
Through the local tourist office (0033 479 590022 and www.resavalloire.com), packages start from 169 Euros per person (six sharing) including a six day Galibier-Thabor ski pass (valid in Valloire-Valmeinier, so 150 km of slopes). Transfers from Grenoble (and Lyon and Chambery) to Maurienne resorts can also be organised each Saturday in ski season. Or you can book directly at www.altibus.com. Prices start from 50 Euros return.
For information on La Norma, where apartments cost from 200 Euros per person per week (four sharing), visit www.resa.la-norma.com.