Monday 14 October 2019

Sybil Mulcahy: How to ski stress-free on France's snowy slopes

Skiing in Val d'isere

Whoosh: In late March, conditions at Val d'Isere were perfect: blue skies, lots of powdery snow and endless runs
Whoosh: In late March, conditions at Val d'Isere were perfect: blue skies, lots of powdery snow and endless runs

Sybil Mulcahy

TV3's Sybil Mulcahy checks into a chalet ski break in Val d'Isere, and finds it takes the hassle out of a ski trip.

"Look at how big mine is," my breakfast companion said to me, over hot croissants, pointing to a huge swollen purple bruise under his arm which he got the day before, when he tripped coming off a chair lift and crashed.

Suddenly the black bruises on my legs didn't seem so bad.

It had been my own fault anyway, barrelling down the mountain too fast on our second day on the slopes in Val d'Isere, and it wasn't even a black run - though this French resort has plenty of them, which was why it made a perfect venue for the winter Olympics in 1992.

It was late March, and I had decided at the last minute to go on a ski trip and hoped there would still be snow.

Luckily, conditions were perfect: blue skies, lots of powdery snow and endless runs.

Val d'Isere is a gorgeous ski town, which has an old style feel to it. It's pretty as a picture with quaint little bars and restaurants dotted in between ski shops selling outrageously expensive fur-lined jackets.

It's further away than the other French resorts at just under three hours from Geneva airport and two and a half hours from Lyon, but the extra transfer time is worth the wait.

Val-d'Isere, France
Val-d'Isere, France

I had always thought Val d'Isere was too posh for the regular skier and indeed there were plenty of stylish European women soaking up the sun in some of the many restaurants on the slopes, where a cheeseburger costs an eye-watering €30.

But it's during apres ski that you see this resort has something to offer everyone, from Michelin-star restaurants to college students downing Jager Bombs in the bars; the winter season here is a lot of fun for all.

This was my fifth time skiing but the first time I had booked in for lessons, and after just one hour in the ski school Reputation 2, I realised I had been doing it wrong the whole time.

My instructor Olivia took three of us every morning for three hours at a cost of €200, and for the first time it clicked how to do it.

She was brilliant, patient and not too technical. Her advice was simple, bend for skiing and stand when you want to turn.

After the first hour I was no longer snow-ploughing down the mountain with the fear of God in me as I had done so many times before.

Val d'Isere, France
Val d'Isere, France

This time I was actually skiing properly, enjoying the long and wide runs which Val d'Isere is known for and which were delightfully quiet.

With the sun beaming down and the breathtaking views of Mont Blanc, it was some of the best skiing I have ever had.

Val d'Isere is a great place for beginners to try their ski legs as the learner slopes are slap bang in the middle of everything, but it's excellent too for strong intermediates and better.

A blue run here could easily be a red in another resort, while black really does mean a serious challenge.

The lift system is first-class as well, you can see that millions have been put into it, and in high season when lifts are at capacity, rush-hour queues are no problem as there are no fewer than eight main mountain-access points.

As for getting around for apres ski or back home to your chalet when your thigh muscles are screaming, a free shuttle bus operates every five minutes up till 2am.

We were staying three minutes outside the town in Le Fornet, a tiny hamlet of wooden chalets with heart shaped shutters like you would see on a postcard.

It's the type of accommodation you don't just stumble upon here, you have to be in the know and we were in the best of hands with the Irish ski company Highlife, which offers high-end trips to high places.

Val d'Isere is pretty as a picture with quaint little bars and restaurants dotted in between ski slopes
Val d'Isere is pretty as a picture with quaint little bars and restaurants dotted in between ski slopes

Bringing Irish people to France for the past 13 years, this is a company that literally takes away the hassle of a ski trip, from organising your equipment when you arrive to driving you straight onto the slopes every morning.

From the moment we landed off the pre-dawn flight with Aer Lingus to Geneva, the hand-holding by the company began.

Inside the transfer bus were sandwiches, chocolates brownies and bottled water for our three-hour trip.

Upon arrival at Chalet Jasmin, Highlife host Emily Foy showed us to our pristine pine rooms where the snow outside came up to our windowsills.

Upstairs in front of a roaring fire, chef Aoife Longe from Galway, who is Ballymaloe-trained, whipped up a quick lunch of soup followed by a courgette and bacon quiche, and wine.

But there was no time to jump into the bubbling hot tub as within an hour we were out being fitted with our kit and ski passes so we could hit the slopes for the afternoon and get the most out of the four-day trip which Highlife offers for those who can't get away for the whole week.

Back at the chalet that night a chalk board revealed our four-course meal while wine chilled outside in the snow.

Highlife holidays are all-inclusive - as much food and drink as you want - and if you can muster up the energy in the evenings to leave your chalet they will even sort out lifts for you to the local pubs.

Their chalets can cater for up to 16 people, but if there are only two of you going skiing you make instant friends on arrival as everyone sits down to eat together at night and conversations naturally spark up.

They do solo skiing weeks as well, and the week before we arrived an 80-year-old lady who had come out on her own enjoyed her last skiing trip as she no longer qualified for health insurance.

She left her ski boots behind when she left. No doubt they will be put to good use when the skiing season opens in Val d'Isere at the end of November.

Getting there

The Highlife ski season will run from November 29 2015 to April 17 2016 and prices for 7 nights in Val d'Isere start from €725 per adult and €606 per child u/12.

Prices include: minibus transfers to and from your chalet, which is home to great facilities including saunas, hot tubs and log fires, delicious food, good wines and a complimentary bar, Highlife Ski Discovery Tours, and an excellent level of service.

Contact: 01 677-1100;

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