Mid-way down a roller coaster red descent, I stopped in the raw morning air as the snow flurries waned and the sun made its first appearance of the day. It was the ski season opener in Val d’Isère, France, and yet, if not for the date on my phone and neck mask unfurled beneath my helmet chin strap, I could have been in the past, not the present. France’s ski lifts have been out of action since March 14 2020, forgotten as if relics from some previous life, and there was a touch of Groundhog Day to the scene. This felt all too familiar. And yet it was 20 months, 89 weeks, or 623 days ago that the residents of Val d’Isère could last go skiing.
Last weekend, as the first snows fell in the UK, I flew from London to spend two days re-educating myself on the fundamentals of early-season schussing. Do layer up, I reminded myself. Do tackle a few blues before heading off-piste. Don’t overdue the cheese fondue on the first night. And, to add to this year’s list: do activate your Covid health pass, do mask up on all lifts and in queues and don’t forget social distancing.
That first morning, Arnaud Leidinger from Evolution 2, Val d’Isère’s most adventurous ski school, had emphasised the importance of warming up my muscles gently, carving slowly, assessing the conditions. I’m not one for hanging about (the first time I skied with a guide in Val d’Isère I tackled the 50km off-piste Tarentaise Tour all the way to Villaroger), but, after so much time on the sofa with Netflix over the various lockdowns, I sensed I had butchered every turn. “Don’t rush it,” he said, encouragingly. “The snow will be here all winter.”
Nevertheless, my trip back to the Alps, regardless of the ever-variegated restrictions, was deeply satisfying. A few harum-scarum runs up and down the OK and Orange Haut pistes from the top of Bellevarde to the Marmottes chair, through 20cm of fresh snowfall, had a sense of scale I’d missed. And, like a slow train catching speed, I was soon thundering alongside my guide.
Val d’Isère, a best-loved British favourite since the 1970s, managed to open a dozen slopes and 18 lifts last weekend, and unlike Val Thorens, which was besieged by 17,000 visitors the week before, it didn’t have to rely on synthetic snow. The superb early-season conditions also meant I could ski its three interconnected mountains and ride the Olympique gondola above La Face, a slope made famous by Alberto Tomba at the 1992 Winter Olympics giant slalom. Looking out, beside pylons lancing the snow-aired sky, it was a panorama to make any skier ecstatic.
Increasingly, everything about booking this kind of European ski trip is a somewhat challenging adventure. Austria (thanks to a last-ditch 20-day lockdown) and now Switzerland (thanks to the reintroduction of the 10-day quarantine rule for Britons) are already off-limits for most travellers until, well, who knows when. But with ski resorts in France now open, and locals ebullient about the prospects for the season ahead, there was a sense here that La République can go the distance.
“We’ve waited too long for this moment and we’ve learnt to become medical specialists, so we’re prepared for anything,” said Christophe Lavaut, CEO of Val d’Isère Tourism. “People who live in the mountains know how to adapt – it’s in our DNA.”
Despite ongoing turmoil for travellers, French ski resorts are pushing ahead with their plans – including @valdisere. @MikeMacEacheran reports for @TelegraphTravel from its grand reopening, and the snow is looking 👌 pic.twitter.com/kyklMcOK2x
— Telegraph Ski & Snow (@TeleSkiSnow) November 30, 2021
This season, one concept is particularly newsworthy. A prefabricated building has been installed outside the town’s medical centre for walk-in guests to book PCR tests for €40 (£30) prior to departure to their home country if needed or to meet the requirements of the country’s pass sanitaire (the national health pass). The extra sweetener is hotels have also been advised to train staff in administering molecular and antigen tests in-house for guests.
That doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to consider ahead of travelling. In the past week, France has changed the requirement of testing for unvaccinated travellers to activate the pass sanitaire app to every 24 hours, rather than 72 hours. Conveniently for the vaccinated, this accepts NHS QR codes as proof of two doses. However, from 15 January, a third booster dose will be mandatory for all over-18s to active the same mandatory health pass. If you’ve not had yours, then your pass will be deactivated and you’ll be classified as unvaccinated and unable to eat in a restaurant or go to a bar unless you pay and carry out tests in resort. Worse for skiers, chairlifts will be off-limits with an active pass.
From this coming Saturday December 4, as officials in Val d’Isere understand it, France will also adopt tighter rules and health pass checks will be enforced on base lifts across the Alps as a swift reaction to Europe’s escalating case rate. The imperative then, is to keep au fait with the news cycle, know your travel insurance small print before you book, and stick with a reputable Abta-affiliated operator.
A faff? Unquestionably so. But Val d’Isère has uncommon staying power among Britons and it’s better placed to weather the storms – meteorologically, figuratively and literally – than many other French resorts. It has glacial terrain and altitude, with more than 185 miles of piste and more than half groomed above 2,200m. Almost half of the newly-rebranded Espace Tignes-Val d’Isère area is covered by artificial snow cannons and fed by 50 miles of underground pipes in case of a snap thaw. It has capacity and the freedom of space, with 25,000-odd beds in Val d’Isère alone. It also has a zeitgeist-setting restaurant and après scene. Small wonder Britons outnumber French visitors every ‘normal’ year.
Beside this, other new concepts have seemingly parachuted in from across the border. Italian restaurant Loulou at Airelles, a five-star hotel which opened in fits and starts before the pandemic hit, has unveiled a nifty terrace at the bottom of Solaise. With sight-lines of Mont Blanc, talked-about party spot La Folie Douce has diversified yet again and added new Italian restaurant Cucùcina, which – in an almost theatrical setting with marble busts and dangling, life-size horse sculpture – pays homage to Leonardo da Vinci. After a last few runs on the Glacier Express, I was the first to eat at Gigi inside the Refuge de Solaise, France’s highest hotel. Five hours’ of calf burning that day justified arancini and buttery linguine served with a window’s view of swirling flakes.
Elsewhere, skiers are also encouraged to surrender their equipment for the new 1,000sqm Spa Sisley in the Barmes de l’Ours hotel, wrap themselves in a shroud of pines for a night walk on a new tree-top walkway in Rogoney, or float in a mosaic of ice at 2,500m on Lac Ouillette in a Stay Puft drysuit. The idea, in part, is predicated on the belief that post-pandemic skiers now need a bit more ‘me time’ after earning their turns. The meditative landscape certainly helps.
Predictably enough, the resort has also capitalised on the ski touring boom that was kickstarted when the French government put last year’s season on ice. As the sun turned back to snowfall on the last run of my trip, I watched as a handful of tourers zigzagged above La Daille, where there is now a new touring trail scissored into the trees.
It was another sign that ski holidays have changed, simply because they’ve had to. Back before the winter-sports industry was shut down, Val d’Isère was a dependably sublime and guilt-free Valhalla. And it remains so, albeit with a few extra snags. No matter. In days like these, to get this far – or, indeed, to get anywhere in the Alps – is to suddenly feel like a millionaire.
How to do it
Mike MacEacheran travelled to Val d’Isère as a guest of Val d’Isère Tourism (valdisere.com). Doubles at Mont Blanc Hotel, from £235 (hotel-chalet-mont-blanc.com). Doubles at Le Refuge de Solaise, from £310 (en.lerefuge-valdisere.com). See our guide to the best hotels in Val d'Isere.