Now just to clarify, and to add some authenticity to Val Thorens claim of the best ski resort in the world, the resort was in fact voted as the best ski resort in The World at the World Travel Awards for last two years running… Now you can’t argue with that! Or at least you couldn’t until Kitzbuhel pipped it at the post last year but that’s by the by. To me, it will always be the best ski resort in the world.
Val Thorens first started out on its road to success in the late 60’s, with an access road carved out along the valley up towards Les Menuires, before continuing up to Val Thorens. The first lifts opened in the early 70’s and expansion has continued rapidly ever since. Unfortunately, with few building regulations, early Val Thorens was based heavily in concrete, giving it a very purpose built – utilitarian look! Fortunately those days are gone, and now with huge amounts of regeneration on existing buildings, and tight new regulations, VT has done all it can to shed that image. The main benefit of the town’s somewhat remote location is that once in resort, nowhere is more than a couple of minutes walk away from the nearest piste.
The town itself can be broken down into four different levels; the lower level down on the Rue du Soleil is home to some of the larger self catered apartments, with great ski-in ski-out access! Access to the higher levels of resort is via a public lift and covered walkway into the shopping centre – very welcome during the colder months! The middle level is dominated by the well equipped sports centre/swimming pool and the main shopping arcade. This section is home to a large selection of shops and restaurants, many of which are slope-side around the main square, the Place de Caron. To continue on up to the top of town, cross the Place de Caron towards the Church and keep heading uphill past the second shopping centre (the Peclet Centre). The top region is home to the vast majority of the bars and a varied selection of restaurants. There is also the Balcons area, off to the upper left of resort as you look at a map, but still only 5 minutes walk down from the town centre. This is mainly accommodation, but there are several fantastic traditional French restaurants located up there too. All of the areas of resort are linked by the free resort shuttle bus running every 20 minutes from 08:00 to 20:00 everyday (06:00 – 22:00 on Saturdays).
Val Thorens has often been viewed as the resort of choice for those placing their skiing experience above all else, and also often as a fairly pricey destination in account of fantastic access to everything that the 3 Valleys has to offer. While much of that can be true, for those wanting a more basic package, there are also some great self catered options around, with several supermarkets in resort all reasonably priced it’s still great option! In recent years the resort has been expanding into the upper echelons of the market, the simply stunning Hotel Altapura is hugely popular; its tagline of “The Highest Ski Palace” sums it up rather perfectly! Recently, the resort also saw a second restaurant achieve a Michelin star – L’Epicurien, inside of the Village Montana building down on the Rue du Soleil!
As in any resort, there is always much contention over where to find the best après, the most exhilarating yet deserted runs, and of course, who does the best burgers in resort! I make no apologies that this is a biased overview based on my own opinions and experiences…
Taken in front of Cafe Face West on the Place de Caron
The Ski area:
The first question to answer is whether or not to opt for the full area 3 Valleys pass, or just stick to the local VT area. Price wise, it works out cheaper to buy the area pass if you are planning on heading out of the valley more than twice during the week, and if you are anything above beginner level, you will be able to take advantage of the additional real estate! There is a third option, the Vallee des Bellville pass, which adds Les Menuires and Saint Martin du Belleville to the Val Thorens and Orelle area. This pass is only around 10 Euros less than the full area pass so I would strongly advise to stretch to the full area! The resort and lift pass company have been very much committed to improving the existing lifts and pistes, investing over 20million Euros last year alone upgrading some of the slower chairlifts to high speed 4 and 6 seat chairlifts!
Now for the individual pistes, it’s a tough subject to summarise due to the sheer quantity on offer (over 150km in Val Thorens, 600km over the 3 Valleys)! Nonetheless, I have a few recommendations:
- First thing in the morning is a great time to head on over to Orelle, the unofficial 4th Valley. Take the route from the top of the Grand Fond Gondola, as it gets the sun first thing in the morning and is always quiet as most people somewhat foolishly believe Orelle is not worth the visit! You get the option of blue or red, both intertwining with each other all the way down, with a steep section halfway along with a good long run out – always a good spot if you’re one of those competing to get the top tracked app speed of the week. There is also always some easy to access off piste all the way down, always within sight of the piste so you shouldn’t get lost.
- A good one for late morning (after the sun has risen above the mountains), go right at the top of the Peclet Gondola, following the toboggan track along (I will come back to this later) before swinging a left down on to Christina. Take the whole run flat out back down into town for a solid leg burn, it’s usually quiet and gives you plenty of space to push yourself.
The off-piste on the way down to Orelle
Best mountain restaurants:
Not the easiest of topics, as many of the restaurants offerings don’t vary too much! France isn’t known for its cheap slope side dining, but there are plenty of options hidden out there! For those wanting to save their money, there is an indoor picnic area under the Cairn/Caron gondola station, as well as numerous outdoor benches across the resort when the weather is good.
- For a cheap simple option, you can’t do much easier than the aptly named, Ski Food on the main square in town, the Place de Caron. Right on the side of the piste, 5 euros gets you sorted with a quick sandwich and chips.
- For something different, head in to Chalet du Thorens as there is a great little noodle bar (Wok-Ski) hidden away inside, offering some beautiful fresh food.
- In resort, Face West Cafe offers fantastic food and drinks, based right on the main square with a huge terrace for a lunchtime sunbathing session! I highly recommend the Club Sandwich, particularly if you’ve got a big hole to fill.
- Chalet du Mariandre, in conjunction with Inghams, run a brilliant torch lit decent on a Wednesday evening. The evening mainly consists of consuming your body weight in cheese and then being given a flaming torch to aid the moonlight in illuminating your guide-led ski back to resort, giving you a spectacular view of the town from above at night!
Torch light decent from Chalet du Mariandre
- The Folie Douce is definitely worth a visit if you’ve never been to one! Following the same mould as the original in Val d’Isere, you can expect to be dancing on tables with champagne regularly sprayed from the balconies above! Coming up the Plein Sud chairlift, you can hear the music from halfway, before it takes you right over the top of the action. For some variety, head to bar 360 for a more chilled out atmosphere to start, before it really gets going as the sun drops behind the mountains. You can ski/slide back down to the bottom of town and take the free resort bus back up to wherever you may be residing for the week with relative ease.
Bar 360 during an Afrojack set
Top spots in town:
- Cafe Snesko is a must for après. There is live music most nights with the resident Magnus throwing out an eclectic mix of Danish and English classics! It often looks packed but you can always get served from the other side of the bar, pints passed across the crowd one way, and then send your money back over! Sounds mad, but it works!
- Tango for 2-4-1 cocktail happy hour 20:00-22:00, more of a chilled out atmosphere sat on comfortable sofas fireside usually with some hilarious retro ski films on the tv screens, ski ballet is always worth a watch!
- Johns Scandinavian is top of my list for incredible food (sharing the Cote de Beouf is a top favourite). Always brilliantly helpful staff full of great recommendations!
- The Frog and Roast Beef has long been a seasonaire favourite, with good reason! Always a friendly atmosphere, playing some of the best bar games, regular live music and with the added acclaim of serving the best burgers in town.
- For those sunny days, head to Panda to chill out on their huge terrace, and order a delicious cocktail to aid in focussing your aim on their beer pong table out in the sunshine!
View from Panda’s deck on Christmas Day 2014.
Top miscellaneous tips:
- Two words; Sandwiches Savoyard. Located in Meribel Motteret in the main cluster of shops and next to the supermarket, seven of your finest Euros afford you the chance to sample the King of the sandwich world! Filled with lashings of raclette cheese to start you off, you then progress onto the additional selections of chicken, burgers and bacon. A personal highlight is the sublime Thai chicken with the curry sauce; great fuel for hungry skiers!
- Some of my favourite skiing in the 3 Valleys is found out towards Courchevel, and the runs from the top of Chenus down into La Tania are incredible. Follow the twisting blues or greens through the trees for a relaxed scenic route, or take the direct red route straight down, nearly 1000m of vertical drop in one run, finishing up at the infamous snow lodge for a well earned vin chaud! When there is fresh snow in abundance, there is some fantastic tree line skiing is to be found on the way down.
- If you fancy creating some memories to giggle at when back in the cold, wet misery that is better known as ‘merry old England’, head to the Grand Couloir between Courchevel and Meribel. Scan your lift pass at the top of this tricky little number and a number of cameras track your progress down, be it stylishly upright or cruising down the last section on your face. Log in online to view them back home as the goggle tan slowly fades to mere memory.
- General advice; while planning a day over to Courchevel ensure you allow an extra hour for the return journey to VT as it is more lift orientated on the return. There is no direct short route back home if you miss the last lifts, instead it will result in a rather expensive taxi back via the valley floor through Moutiers at an approximate cost 200 Euros…
- The best thing to do in Val Thorens? The toboggan run! The longest track in Europe at 6km, it is brilliant fun for all! Take it at whatever pace you want, from a leisurely relaxed decent to Mario Kart style carnage with friends – arm yourself with snowballs and try not to flip the sledge too often, not an easy task when you neglect to use the sledges brakes! I would recommend those who ski, to avoid wearing their ski boots if possible as, when you crash into each other they aren’t the most forgiving… Definitely wear warm, waterproof shoes instead though!
- A new addition last season was the zip line which departs from the top of Orelle (the highest point in the three Valleys) and is a truly incredible experience! Suspended 250m above the valley floor you reach speeds of over 100kmph as you race back across to the VT side of the valley ready to ski back down, it is definitely one not to miss out on!
The departure point for the zip line at the top of Orelle – Point Du Bouchet
Blog by Tom Hollyman, Transport Manager.