Inside the forgotten resorts of the world's biggest ski area

Stephen Wood
Les 3 Vallées is home to 600km of slopes in total, but not all are busy - MERIBEL ALPINA

The Trois Vallées was a remarkable creation. Established in 1973 when neighbouring ski areas created a common lift pass, the 600km ski area became the skiing world’s showpiece – even more so thanks to the publicity of the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics

However, happily for those of us with short lines of credit, some outlying villages in the ski area have been spared the glamorisation of Courchevel, Méribel and even Val Thorens, the ostensibly more down to earth of the three best-known Trois Vallées bases. 

Do these lesser villages still offer good value, despite being part of a famous ski area? Yes. Are they quiet and relaxing? Certainly; too quiet for some. Are lift queues shorter in their local vicinity? Definitely. 

Take the small town of Brides Les Bains. While it is on the Three Valleys piste map, the nearest piste is a half-hour gondola ride away in Méribel. Nor is Brides (let’s call it that, the locals do) anything like other ski resorts. 

Two events marked its history. The first, in 1818, was a sudden, natural diversion of a stream running along the valley floor, considerably increasing the flow. Minerals in the source were believed to offer health benefits, and two doctors arrived to conduct an analysis. One of them pronounced that the water could “cure everything: epilepsy, migraines, gout, rheumatism, joint pain and more”, and so began Brides’ life as a spa town. The first hotel opened in 1824; soon there were half a dozen of them.

Brides le Bains is a natural spa town Credit: Pascal Lebeau

The second event began its life as a winter-sports destination: some of the 1992 Winter Olympics events were to take place in Méribel and Courchevel, but there was a shortage of beds for visitors. While Brides has barely 500 inhabitants, it has lots of guest beds (6,488 at the last count). The solution, in the early Nineties, was to build the gondola, so visitors to the Olympics could sleep in the valley and spend their days on the slopes.

Given that medical care in the spa is the town’s main activity, and that many of its guests are no doubt weak with hunger, it is no surprise that Brides is quiet by day and night. Very few cars pass through, because there is by-pass higher up the valley. 

Even the customary morning chorus of ski boots on asphalt is almost completely absent, because the walk to the bijou lift station of the Olympe gondola is steep, and boots can be left there in lockers. Or, indeed, there is a free shuttle bus.

Nightlife? Virtually none: doctor’s orders. But there are a couple of good, busy restaurants, and a cinema. And unlike most ski resorts, the town is busy year-round thanks to the spa, which means that hoteliers have the revenue to keep standards high and room rates low. Excellent three-star properties include the Hotel Athena, which has double rooms in high season for €164 a night, half board. Similar properties in Méribel can cost almost twice the price. 

Next on my list was La Tania, a short drive from the busy main road that leads from Brides Les Bains up to Courchevel, and quiet even peak time. I walked through the lift station into an empty gondola lift at 9am; it was the same the following day – no queue, and a bubble of my own, in the rush hour.

Officially named ‘Courchevel La Tania’, as it is a satellite of its better-known, higher neighbour, La Tania became a ski resort at the same time as Brides, and for the same reason: it provided accommodation for the Olympics, in this case for competitors. But La Tania was a new build, and aesthetically has little to commend it. It makes amends, though, with its location, somehow both pleasantly out-of-the-way and well-connected.

Relaxation and wellbeing is top of the agenda in Brides le Bains Credit: YOANN SILOINE/M-AGENCY SILOINE

The compact, animated base area and the sense of enclosure provided by the grouping of the accommodation buildings (with 4,500 beds) makes it ideal for families. And it is inexpensive, too. When I asked the cost differential between hotels in La Tania and Courchevel 1850 above it, a local expert’s answer was that if identical properties were built in the two resorts, the one in Courchevel could charge room rates 30 per cent higher than those in La Tania. 

Thanks no doubt to the many apartments, shops and restaurants seem to be buoyant. And among the restaurants, one stands out: Le Farçon. It has a Michelin star, so it isn’t cheap; but for my €68 menu chef/owner Julien Machet did such magical things with hay that I resolved to skip the vegan fad and go straight to a herbivore diet.

Skiing – with a small amount of luggage – from La Tania to my final stop of Orelle entailed traversing each of the Trois Vallées’ three valleys. In common with the other Courchevel resorts, La Tania is in the Saint Bon valley; from there I crossed to Méribel in the Allues valley, pausing on the way for a bargain, two-course €9 lunch at La Petite Cuisine in the Folie Douce. The Folie is a venue so smart that it offers valet parking for skis (for a fee), and the gourmet La Fruitère restaurant, where high-rollers consume giant bottles of champagne and platters of oysters. Nonetheless, it allows hotel concierges and tour-operator reps in the Trois Vallées to share tickets for a value-dining experience like mine.

Orelle sits in the Maurienne valley

The wide third valley is Belleville, which embraces Val Thorens, Les Menuires and Saint Martin de Belleville. Until 1988, the Three Valleys ski area did not extend beyond the Belleville valley. But then a couple of pistes and a short lift created a bridgehead, and, 10 years later, a 15-minute two-way gondola ride connected the Belleville valley with the floor of the Maurienne valley, at the village of Orelle.

So the three valleys are in fact four, and Orelle a ski resort even less likely than Brides. 

All of Orelle’s local pistes lead towards the top of the gondola, whose little cabins press their backs against a near-vertical cliff and scramble over a rocky escarpment. The cramped valley floor can barely accommodate a foreground and a background; but here are the little piazza, a gaggle of cottages and the café, while there is the road to the autoroute (6km away), the TGV railway station (at Modane 14km away), and Italy. 

The village has a long and productive history; but by the late 20th century the work had dried up, the workers had left, and their former cottages were decaying. Now, however, the cottages on the hillside are being converted for holiday lets, and they are not expensive: four-bed properties start at about €250 per week in low season, and about €370 in high season.

A bus tours the local hamlets, to ferry people to the gondola in the morning, but Orelle is not a place for those impatient to get to the piste: from door to schuss is at least half an hour. Nor is it for those who crave evening entertainment. But, despite being part of this world-famous ski area, is it the oddest and most charming ski village imaginable? Probably, yes.

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