Value for Money 60%
Purpose-built Val Thorens is part of the vast 3 Valleys lift system, and is the highest of all its resorts. In fact, it’s the highest resort in western Europe, and guarantees its snow cover from November to May. It won’t win any prizes for its looks – but there’s no doubting its youthful and dynamic atmosphere.
Table of Contents
- 1 Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
- 2 Guide to the Mountain
- 3 Where to Learn
- 4 Where to Stay
- 5 Where to Eat
- 6 Where to Party
Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
When plans were announced in the 1970s for a new ski resort at the top of the Belleville valley in France, most of the locals shook their heads in disbelief. “You can’t build a village up there,” they said. “It’s too high, too cold and too avalanche-prone. No-one will come.” During those first winters French Olympic ski champion Christine Goitschel – one of the founders – described it as: ‘like living in the Wild West’.
To the astonishment of all, 40 years on, Val Thorens has become one of the best high-altitude ski resorts in the Alps. And thanks to new wave of investment, it’ still developing. Bars like La Folie Douce and 360 have brought a powerful apres-ski buzz, while a new generation of upmarket hotels like Altapura and the Koh-I Nor, as well as smart self-catering residences, are broadening the appeal beyond its traditional, budget-conscious core.
There are some fabulous places to eat, too. Over the years, Val Thorens has actively supported talented restauranteurs, and the policy’s greatest success has been the career of Jean Sulpice, whose Restaurant Jean Sulpice has two Michelin stars.
Some things haven’t changed
The advantages – and disadvantages – of Val Thorens’ lofty position remain constant. Chief amongst the benefits are the ever-reliable quality of the snow. Not only is the village built at 2300m (higher than any other Alpine resort), but seven separate lifts top out at 3000m or higher – and at that altitude the white stuff stays in pretty good nick from November to the beginning of May. It’s one of the best places in the Alps to ski in the late or early season – and its altitude means it’s much less affected by mid-season thaws, too.
Sometimes, however, the altitude can be a pain. Whenever a blizzard blows in, or the clouds come down, visibility drops to the end of your nose. There are no trees anywhere in the immediate ski area either, to help add definition. The only way to enjoy yourself when the weather’s like this is to hire yourself a private instructor, and to ski on his or her tail for the entire day.
The village isn’t exactly the prettiest in the Alps either. That’s because of the avalanche risk. To avoid being swept away by snow, Val Thorens huddles in the middle of its mountain bowl in a dense conurbation. Most buildings stand six to eight storeys tall, although efforts have been made to give the modern ones a semblance of Savoyard style. On a sunny day, of course, none of this matters: but when it’s cloudy you’ll think you’re in a fogbound suburb of Paris.
You’ll either love it or hate it
Val Thorens has a loyal following. Students and twenty-somethings love the place – because despite its recent step upmarket, there’s still plenty of budget self-catering accommodation here, and the apres-ski scene is one of the best in France.
Anyone who wants to ski hard all week – at whatever level – will be happy too. Not only is the extent and variety of terrain on offer a mouthwatering prospect, the quality of snow is almost always good, too. Gastronomes will also be astonished by the quality of its best restaurants.
But if you’re in the market for a just a little skiing, and lot of traditional Alpine atmosphere; or if your party contains non-skiers; or if crowded pistes upset you; then give Val Thorens a wide berth. To get the most from this place you need to love your skiing.
Guide to the Mountain
At first, it’s the sheer volume of skiing on offer here that’ll blow your mind. Val Thorens’ own ski area offers 140km of pistes on its own, but that doesn’t even take into account the skiing above Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville, the two resorts which lie lower down in the same valley. They offer another 160km of pistes.
Then there’s Meribel and Courchevel – which brings the total to a mind-boggling 600km of groomed runs. Admittedly, this figure was recently questioned by German travel writer and consultant Christopher Schrahe. But even if you accept his figure of 495km, that’s still a lot of skiing: and there’s a vast amount of off-piste in between.
There’s something for almost everyone
It’s not just the quantity of skiing on offer here that makes Val Thorens such an attractive possibility – it’s the quality too.
Okay, so real balls-to-the-wall experts should probably head somewhere like Chamonix, La Grave or the north face of the Bellecote, above La Plagne, for really steep and sustained off-piste descents. But everyone else will have a good time – provided the sun shines.
Beginners will appreciate the fact that the nursery slopes are next to the village, and can be used without a lift pass. (There are also several easy pistes to progress to once they’ve mastered their basic turns.)
Intermediates will love the grippy, confidence-boosting snow on many of the runs above Val Thorens itself. They’ll also enjoy skiing above nearby Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville – which are home to several of the most enjoyable pistes in the 3 Valleys.
And anyone with an appetite for off-piste will be in clover whenever it snows, because there’s so much easily-accessed freeriding on offer in the Val Thorens bowl, and above neighbouring Orelle too (though they’ll need to hire a guide to stay safe).
But there are two significant drawbacks:
Before you drop everything and book your next holiday in Val Thorens, bear two things in mind:
1. Almost all the local skiing is above the treeline. On a sunny day, that adds to the appeal – a vast empty playground opens up in front of you and it feels at though you’ve got half of France to ski in. But when it’s snowing or cloudy, you’ll be skiing by sense of smell. Okay – so there is one easy way round the problem: grab a private ski instructor for the day and get him or her to show you round.
By sticking right on his or her tail you’ll significantly increase your enjoyment of the day. (Fortunately, in Val Thorens, hiring a private instructor is significantly cheaper than in the neighbouring 3 Valleys resorts of Meribel and Courchevel.) But if you can’t afford it, you’ll probably manage a couple of hours of stop-start “where the feck are we?” skiing, and then head indoors. If that sounds like a drag, book Courchevel or Meribel instead and ski over to Val Thorens when the sun’s out.
2. As a whole, the Three Valleys suffer from overcrowding and Val Thorens is no exception. This isn’t always the case – ski here in January and you’ll wonder what the fuss is about. But at busier times – especially in mid-February and over New Year, it can be a hectic, frenetic experience.
The Cime de Caron is a black spot (“I am regularly annoyed with the constant queues at the cable-car to Cime de Caron,” said one reporter), and often the pistes can be densely-packed too. In other words, you need to get up early, ski the popular runs when everyone else is still at breakfast, and then migrate to the quieter areas, like the Pointe de la Masse above Les Menuires – or the ‘Fourth Valley’ above Orelle. Leave the people-slalom to those who can’t read a piste map.
Where to Learn
Val Thorens is one of the most cosmopolitan ski resorts in France – both in terms of its guests and its workforce – and the ski schools have the same international flavour. The local branch of the ESF, for example, is the most diverse in the country and was – briefly – run by an dynamic Flemish instructor, Lode Nolf. The locals used to call it the Ecole du Ski Flamand, rather than Ecole du Ski Francais.
Sadly, Lode’s gone, but you’ll still find Japanese, Vietnamese, Belgian, Danish, Chilean and Italian instructors in its ranks, as well as one Brit, (David Mitchell). Prices are on a par with those you’ll find elsewhere in France: but they’re significantly cheaper than with the ESF in Meribel and Courchevel 1850.
The ESF also does a great private-instructor deal for around €50 an hour, for up to four people: well worth considering if the cloud’s come down and you want to follow someone who knows their way around the mountain.
However, it’s also worth noting that Val Thorens has also become home to a growing branch of highly-rated British school, New Generation. You pay a premium for New Gen instructors, but in our experience they’re excellent: both upbeat and painstaking in their approach. Feedback from other skiers is overwhelmingly positive, too.
Four independent ski schools provide extra choice
The resort also supports several other independent ski schools: Prosneige, Ski Cool, and the FSA. Ski Cool and the FSA are particularly strong in snowboarding, which still has a big following in Val Thorens. Prices tend to be a little higher than with the ESF. L’Office de la Montagne is a new ski school that specialises in off-piste, and offers workshops and video tuition.
Sadly, none of the British family-skiing specialists runs an operation in Val Thorens. If you’re looking for that kind of seamless service in a snowsure resort, head to Tignes instead. However, all the ski schools have children’s classes and some of the hotels have in-house nurseries too – notably the Hotel Koh-i-Nor.
Where to Stay
Don’t come to Val Thorens if you’re looking for cute or luxurious free-standing chalets like those in Meribel, Verbier, Courchevel or Val d’Isere. And give it a miss if you crave a laid-back villagey atmosphere to rival Champoluc’s in the Aosta Valley. This is a modern purpose-built ski resort – and to keep it safe from avalanches, all the accommodation is grouped tightly together into a conurbation of six to eight-storey buildings.
Yes, many of the blocks have been prettified in recent years – but there’s no denying that, when it comes to Alpine aesthetics, Val Thorens is one of the uglies.
Still, if you’re the kind of person who’s going to enjoy Val Thorens, you won’t worry too much about the look of the place. What you’ll want is accommodation with quick access to great skiing – and in that respect this resort scores highly. Just be sure to get accommodation which is properly ski-in, ski-out: after all, what’s the point of coming to somewhere like Val T if you have to walk to the pistes?
Here are our recommendations (and a link to the town map so you can find ‘em).
The pick of upmarket hotels
Altapura is not as sumptuous as the luxury hotels in Courchevel, but it now has five stars, and is run by the super-experienced Sibuet group, of Fermes de Marie fame. It’s a great choice for a group of well-heeled and sporty thirtysomethings, and comes complete with a chic bar, three restaurants, and high-tech rooms.
Okay, so the pared-down decor does look a bit Apple Store in places, but is brightened by a sense of humour and some great design flourishes, like the river of old wooden skis that flows around the lobby walls. Service is good, the piste-side location is to die for, and while prices are high for Val Thorens, they’re nothing like as eye-watering as they are in Courchevel. The only real drawbacks are that it’s a bit of a hike from the bars and clubs – and the piste outside isn’t quite gentle enough for complete beginners.
Meanwhile the Koh-i-Nor is the highest five-star in the Alps – and one of the most child-friendly. It has its own kids’ club, and both the restaurant and bar offer special menus for children. The spa even does a range of junior treatments – such as Discovery Relaxation for the Little Skier, and Snow Princess Nails. It’s home to both hotel rooms and apartments and the decor is modern alpine with grey walls, wood, leather and fur much in evidence.
Four-star Le Fitz Roy has been completely updated in recent years, with pale blond wood, a spa and swimming-pool. It’s in a good position in the centre of town.
At a less exalted level, we’d recommend the three-star Sherpa at the top of the resort – a ski-in, and (almost) ski-out hotel with excellent food, great service and smallish rooms. Meanwhile, the refurbished Tango has been getting some good reviews. This is a decent spot for beginners, because it’s near one of the nursery slopes.
The posh apartments
Himalayas meet the Alps at Le Hameau du Kashmir Hotel & Residence, where the buildings hug a small central square and have colourful pink and saffron orange interiors. Facilities include a bar and two restaurants, and a relaxation centre with swimming-pool and saunas. A Prosneige ski school desk is located in the residence and there’s also an in-house nursery.
The Montana Plein Sud apartments are some of the nicest in the resort – boasting five stars. The decor is a bit less clichéd that most modern apartments too, and there’s a popular pool in the basement. However the l’Oxalys apartments, rated four star, are a little roomier and have the added benefit of being on top of Jean Sulpice’s superb restaurant. Both developments are set well away from the noisier bars and clubs, and don’t get student groups.
But you don’t need to spend a lot of money to stay here
Despite the arrival of Altapura and Koh-i-Nor there are still lots and lots of cheap places to stay in Val Thorens. But bear in mind the resort’s reputation as a great place for nightlife: lots of guests complain about the noise of drunken revellers at 3am. So try your damnedest to get rooms at the top of whichever building you book, rather than beside any roads.
For self-catering apartments, try the ski-in, ski-out Pierre & Vacances Residence le Tikal which has been refurbished, or the cheap and cheerful Maeva La Gypaete. And if you’re 18-39 years olds and on a tighter budget, the revamped UCPA is where to stay in hotel/hostel accommodation with good food, though it is a long way from the middle of town.
Where to Eat
Val Thorens doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as just another soulless and functional high-altitude ski station. As a result, one of its policies has been to promote proper gastronomy in its restaurants – with spectacular results.
A decade ago, Val Thorens went looking for a talented young chef to bring proper gastronomic cooking to their resort – and struck gold when they recruited Jean Sulpice. Now, his restaurant Jean Sulpice (formerly called l’Oxalys), has two Michelin stars for quality, and he’s a regular on French television – still young, still dynamic, and still in love with the Alps (he skins up the mountains a couple of times a week during the season).
The restaurant is in the resort, so you can eat here in the evening. But it’s still the hottest lunch spot in the ski area. Sulpice’s cuisine is inventive, precise and delicious – and deserves its accolade. It’s well worth saving up so you can experience it while you’re here.
The other gourmet eateries in town
Next in line after Jean Sulpice comes Michelin-starred Jeremy Gillon at L’Epicurien, which opens each evening. Fish and seafood are his thing, with a strong emphasis on seasonality. But there’s a lot of good eating here beyond the Michelin stars. At Altapura restaurant Les Enfants Terribles, is twinned with owner Jocelyne Sibuet’s Megeve restaurant in Hotel Mont Blanc and named after the 1929 novel by Jean Cocteau. It’s a similarly appealing and darkly sophisticated venue. The burgundy colour scheme is contrasted with blond wood delicately carved into stars and snowflakes. Seafood is the speciality.
Elsewhere, Le Table du Roy at Hotel Le Fitz Roy is a long-established favourite amongst gastronomes. Meanwhile, at the five-star hotel, Koh-I-Nor, has a two-Michelin-star chef taking the reins of its restaurant and brasserie. Yoann Conte formerly worked in Annecy with Laurent Petit and in Chamonix with Pierre Carrier.
La Maison Blanche (+33 479 00 00 48) is a traditional brasserie offering simple good food in a friendly and unpretentious atmosphere. The decoration is cosy with fur rugs, a central fireplace, and natural materials. The terrace is contrastingly decorated with brightly-coloured furniture.
Slightly lower down the price scale are La Ferme de Rosalie (+33 479 08 07 29) is in the Quartier des Balcons sector of town. It offers traditional Savoyarde dishes as well as pizzas, as well as crepes or charcuterie to accompany an apres-ski drink. Le Vieux Chalet is a traditional place owned by brother and sister Magalie and Vincent who use recipes passed down their family for generations. These are created by Chef Alexandre Gautreau who has previously worked in Morzine, Montchavin and Quebec.
Le Rendezvous is a brasserie offering local and Italian specialities – such as pizzas, pasta, salads, risotto, raclette and pierrade. La Chaumiere (+33 479 00 01 13) is popular with locals and John’s American Restaurant is not what it says but a Danish-owned Tex-Mex offering home-made burgers and Mexican fajitas. Les Saint-Peres (+33 479 00 02 92) in Galerie Péclet is an unpretentious, French-run restaurant that is popular with locals and seasonnaires alike. It serves reliable food from pizzas to Savoyarde specialities. Panda is a bar with food – in fact it was the first restaurant ever to open in the resort.
On the mountain there’s a lot of choice
Among the mountain restaurants to target are Les Aiguilles de Peclet, which reworks Savoyard staples with a light, modern touch. Light, bright and funky La Fruitiere is a scion of the popular lunch spot in Val d’Isere. Also worth trying are Chalet Les 2 Ours (+33 479 01 14 09), accessed by the Boimint chair-lift, and Chalet Caribou (+33 611 18 06 71) accessed by the Moraine chair-lift.
Chez Pépé Nicolas is so remote it can only be reached off-piste (the nearest piste is Boulevard Cumin), on foot, or by snowmobile. It’s worth the trek, though. The original shepherd’s hut has been here since the 19th century when it housed cows and goats. It was bought in 1957 by Nicolas Jay and today it is run by his grandson Eric.
The interior is all rough-hewn wood, animal skin rugs and local artifacts, where Happy, the resident St Bernard, plays host – greeting you on arrival and snuggling down at your feet. Outside, there are more tables on the terrace, with rugs provided. If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of modern ski resorts, this is the place.
The lovely wooden Le Chalet de la Marine, located on the Dalles slope at 2500m, is everything you’ve always hoped a mountain chalet should be, with roaring log fireplace, sheepskin rugs, and extremely tasty local cuisine. There’s live music and DJs on the terrace in the afternoon, a separate self-service downstairs, and a large yurt where you can have lunch or dinner.
It takes 45 minutes to reach the yurt on snowshoes, or you can take the Cascades chair before 5pm then descend by torchlight afterwards. The yurt can also be rented for a dinner of up to 16 people.
Oh yes, and while you’re at it, put another piggy bank aside for La Bouitte, lower down the valley at St Marcel de Belleville, near St Martin de Belleville. Home of the father-and-son team of Rene and Maxime Meilleur, it now has three Michelin stars, and is a place of pilgrimage in The 3 Valleys. Make sure you try their fondue – made with local Beaufort cheese and Savoyard wine, and blitzed with carbon-dioxide to make it foamy and fluffy.
Where to Party
Val Thorens is a fairly compact resort, and that helps create a big after-hours buzz. These days the scene here is a lively as the likes of St Anton and Val d’Isere – and it completely outshines the other purpose-built high-altitiude ski stations in France. This is especially so when one of the big university groups rolls into town. In the quiet weeks before Christmas you might find you’re sharing the pistes with more than 3,000 students.
Val Thorens’ growing apres-ski reputation was cemented by the opening, in 2009, of its own branch of La Folie Douce. The concept first took root in Val d’Isere: a bar with a great big balcony outside which played host every afternoon to DJs and regularly drew an audience of hundreds. Songs aren’t really the thing here.
What matters more is creating a club-style vibe in the sunshine, which builds and builds as more people gather and add their goodwill. And, needless to say, it put down roots very quickly in Val Thorens. Sometimes, it seems like the crowd can be numbered in thousands.
If those kind of numbers seem a bit daunting then try Bar 360 at the bottom of La Moraine chair-lift – it’s smaller, a bit more intimate, and often has just as much of a buzz. There’s also a DJ playing from 3pm at Le Chalet de la Marine.
Later on, you won’t be short of a bar or two
Once the lifts close the action moves down rue de Gébroulaz, also known as rue de la soif or thirsty street. This is bar central, with different pubs and bars catering to different nationalities – mainly British, Scandinavian and Dutch. The strip of bars includes Frog and Roastbeef for live music and dancing on tables, O’Connells (+33 479 01 05 05) which is a French-owned Irish pub with mainly Scandinavian staff, and the Rhum Box Cafe which serves 38 different flavours of rum.
The Saloon is one of the most popular apres-ski venues in town for cocktails, live music and a Scandi-Brit clientele, In the Balcons area The Red Fox (+33 479 00 85 37) has a pub atmosphere.
Much later on, Malayasia is one of the resort’s three nightclubs, with a 700 sq m dance-floor (biggest in the Alps) that keeps going until 5am, attracting between 2,000 and 2,500 people at a time. The drinks don’t come cheap here. Le Baramixis a disco-bar with DJ that’s open until 4am. Finally there’s Klub Summit, which claims to be the highest nightclub in Europe. It houses two bars, and plays a mix of rock classics and cheesy disco hits. Entrance to all three is free.
It’s more low-key in one of the big hotels
Don’t fancy dancing on a table in your ski boots – or downing flaming sambuca? Then the Ski Bar at the Altapura hotel is the place to go. It has been constructed using more than 60 pairs of ski boots and 20 skis, and complements the hotel’s contemporary design. Dramatic chandeliers are made from 100 ski poles, and six old chair-lifts have been refitted for the lounge area.
Other non-ski activities in Val Thorens include the new zip-wire, The Tyrolienne. Deemed to be the world’s highest zipline, it connects the Maurienne and Tarentaise valleys, is 1300m long and stands at over 3000m in altitude. Flying along it you can reach speeds of up to 105km per hour. Or, if you want to discover how to control a winter skid when you are behind the wheel on a mountain road – or in London, come to that – take a spin at the the Ice-driving Academy