Spring can be a magical time to go skiing. Long days, dazzling sunlight, and the promise of summer, just around the corner, give the dying days of the season a giddy, happy-go-lucky atmosphere.
But you do need to be careful where you go. It’s not just a question of altitude. If you’re looking for a classic week-long ski holiday with a mixed-ability group of friends, you need a resort with several other key attributes – and in this respect it’s hard to fault lofty and progressive Val Thorens.
1. It’s high – and not just in one place
Okay, so altitude may not be the only consideration – but it is the most important. In the Alps, spring can turn from frigid to toasty at the flick of a switch (or rather, a change in wind direction), and you don’t want to find yourself wallowing in slush at 11.30am each day as a result.
To avoid the worst of the daytime freeze/thaw cycle you need to be high up, and that’s where Val Thorens’ slopes score highly. Not only is the “village” the highest in the Alps, at 2300m: the lift system also rises to 3000m at five separate points in the ski area it shares with Orelle. Most other high-altitude resorts hit 3000m in only one or two places.
Many of its pistes are north-facing too – and in the middle of sunny spring afternoon they’ll be 10C colder than a south-facing slope at the same altitude. Of course, that doesn’t mean Val Tho will be entirely slush-free if the weather warms up: but it won’t be as deep and as wet, and fewer slopes will be affected by it. As a result, you’ll pack a lot more skiing into your holiday – especially if you adopt the right skiing tactics.
2. Every level of skier can have fun here
Val Thorens is set in a flat-bottomed mountain bowl, and the gentle slopes at the bottom are full of broad and ego-boosting pistes. There’s nothing that’s quite as good as the long and magnificent Double M descent in Tignes. But in terms of quantity and convenience it’s hard to beat Val Tho’s late-season intermediate skiing – and in spring you’ll find more of the same on the higher slopes of neighbouring Les Menuires and Meribel (where the lifts rise above 2800m in several places). The resort’s main nursery slope – which runs along its southern edge, is steady and convenient too.
More advanced skiers will find a handful of steeper runs, dotted around the area: but they’ll have more fun if they hire a guide and go off piste (if the conditions allow it of course). The Val Thorens bowl offers everything from easy first-time powder, to stomach-in-your mouth steeps, and there’s more of the same if you pop over to the top of the Meribel valley and get stuck into the snow underneath the Cote Brune and Platieres lifts.
3. The apres-ski scene is epic
There are few experiences in the Alps weirder than the ride up the Plein Sud chairlift on a sunny afternoon. One minute you’re marvelling at the crags and couloirs of the 3,561m Aiguille de Peclet, towering over the resort. The next, a waft of vin chaud-soaked air fills your nostrils – and you look down to see a thousand Danish students with their shirts off, dancing on the sun deck of the Folie Douce. The chair rides straight above them.
It doesn’t end with an afternoon dance party on the slopes. Head to the rue de Gébroulaz (aka the rue de la soif) at the top of the resort, and you can stretch the night to 2am in its bars – further, if you head to a club. Proper, wigged-out, old-school apres-ski is generally on the wane in the Alps. But not here.
4. They know how to cook
Most skiers wouldn’t associate a purpose-built resort such as Val Thorens with gastronomic cuisine. But there’s plenty of it here – from the Michelin-starred cooking of Josselin Jeanblanc at Les Explorateurs in the Hotel Pashmina, to la cuisine de Grande-Mère at La Pause de Pierrette at the Hotel Portillo. Meanwhile, the La Fondue at the Hotel Val Thorens is irresistible for cheese-lovers (like me).
There’s good food on the slopes too – with Chez Pépé Nicolas and the Chalet de la Marine among the highlights. Meanwhile, if the budget’s tight, the croque-monsieurs at Val Burger Pizza are a steal. (For more on the restaurant scene in the Three Valleys, check out our restaurant guide.)
5. And there’s accommodation for every budget
I’m a lucky git. The last time I was in Val Thorens I stayed as a guest of the five-star Fitzroy, which is slap bang in the middle of the resort – as well as being ski-in, ski-out. The rooms are lush, the breakfasts go on forever, and I had one of the best massages of my life in its spa. And because everything is on the doorstep, you feel like you’re part of the action rather than isolated from it. There’s none of that “I could be anywhere” feeling you get in some luxury hotels, which hold the world at arm’s length.
But the resort also has a good choice of inexpensive three-stars such as the Portillo, as well as the funky four-star Fahrenheit Seven, catered ski chalets from the likes of Ski Total and Skiworld, and every kind of self-catering apartment. In fact, however you like your ski accommodation, you can find it here – with the exception of the kind of gemütlich Austrian B&Bs you find in Alpbach, or the private uber-chalets of Courchevel and Val d’Isere.
Just remember, buy a gallon of sunscreen (at the airport, not in the resort) and bring a good book for the odd day when the clouds come down and the visibility drops to zero. Val Thorens isn’t perfect: it’s densely-packed architecture (a product of its location in an avalanche-prone bowl) certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste. But my goodness me, on a sunny day in late March or April few resorts can match it.