Val d’Isère, France
Author: rob ingram
Photography: SHARYN CAIRNS
It used to be the running of the bulls at Pamplona.
But today, Europe's most compelling tourist attraction is the
running of the rich at the trademark winter resorts of France's
Savoy Mont Blanc. Skiing or snowboarding, of course, is not for
everyone. Take sane people, for instance. Many in this exclusive
category shy away from activities involving ambulances and plaster
casts. Nonetheless, ski-resort life offers plenty of appeal. Even
if you're immune to the pleasures of hot chocolate and dishes
designed around simmering molten cheese, there's an element of
swank about the better resorts. Just choose your destination
carefully. These days in Savoy Mont Blanc, it's a case of the
higher up the mountain, the greener grows the grass.
Glamorous Courchevel, once the very template of alpine sophistication, has been overrun by cashed-up Russians and is unspeakably crass. If you thought you couldn't go wrong spending a fortune on skiwear and flaunting it at Courchevel, just watch Volga-vulgar personal assistants sporting shiny $5000-plus Christian Dior ski suits on the nursery slopes. Megève remains a better place to spend than to ski, and Meribel is a better place to ski than to spend. But Val d'Isère - traditionally more sportif than exclusif - is right back in fashion and tarting itself up to host the Alpine World Ski Championships next February.
Val d'Isère's fashion makeover came in the form of the sophisticated Les Barmes de l'Ours hotel, which brought to the resort outstanding luxury accommodation with the warmth and intimacy of a familiar lodge. Its restaurant is Michelin rated; its spa facilities the finest in the region. And with it came style refugees from Courchevel and Megève.
Looking cool at 1850 metres and zero degrees is not as easy as it sounds in chic Val d'Isère, but these recommendations should help Championship visitors get the inside running:
Les Barmes de l'Ours
The name is something to do with bears and caves, but it should have been called Piste de Resistance for two reasons. It's the standout in Val d'Isère's portfolio of luxury hotels, and it provides an irresistible option to actually venturing out onto the piste.
This retreat explodes the theory that chalet-quaint and contemporary-chic are mutually exclusive. It looks like one of those places where you genuflect at reception and rely on borrowed manners, but it's friendly, thoughtful and efficient. Double rooms and suites overlook the piste or the village; twins enjoy a forest aspect. Top-of-the-range suites have their own fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs.
Skiers and resort restaurateurs generally share a cheerful misconception that standing on skis while propelled by gravity burns up enough calories to cancel out a mountain of carbohydrate. Hence the resort obsession with the pizza, the pasta, the polenta and the pâtisserie. The acclaimed La Table de l'Ours couldn't be more different. This is haute cuisine in the Haute-Savoie and, under the inspired direction of Alain Lamaison, boasts a well-deserved Michelin star. Lamaison mixes classical techniques with innovative instincts to create regional and seasonal dishes with a modern sensibility and a strong sense of harmony. Smart guests go for his degustation menu on the first visit then refine their choices to personal favourites on subsequent occasions - perhaps an entrée of cannelloni stuffed with crayfish mousseline; a main of sea bass with tomato, fennel, Provençal herbs and celery butter; and a dessert of vacherin glacé.
In alpine resorts, bling and bliss go together like Sass & Bide, and at Les Barmes de l'Ours' Comfort Zone spa you'll get to rub shoulders and share essential oils with the rich and massaged. Wraps, scrubs and all things holistic with names like Hydra Memory, Action Sublime and Body Strategist can be yours, while at the same time having a small swelling removed from your wallet. The signature treatments here are the Aromasoul massage, the Monticelli body wrap, and the 90-minute Wellbeing Ritual guaranteed to leave you feeling a couple of hundred dollars lighter. But le visage et l'esprit will thank you.
Chemin des Carats, Val d'Isère, France, +33 4 7941 3700, www.hotel-les-barmes.com.
BEST SHOPS FOR STAND-OUT GEAR
Decales and Killy Sport
It's definitely dag to drop into an après-venue straight after your last run - still wearing your hippo pants and, worse still, ski boots. For one thing, you'll quickly thaw into something resembling soup-in-a-packet; for another, you'll be judged alongside the upper set who have invested in alpine-après pieces with labels such as Celine, Marc Jacobs and the ultimate weapon, Prada.
Decales is wham-bam-glam from head to toe and the scary thing is, shoppers know exactly what they want when they come through the door. They've either surfed the fantasy look-books before they left home or have taken note of what Victoria Beckham wore here last week. Decales suggests a soft shell jacket if you want to look chic but still scream 'skier', while a stylish hat is this season's après-ski imperative.
If you're prepared to cheat about screaming 'skier', your best ally is Killy Sport. Triple Olympic ski champ Jean-Claude Killy is god in Val d'Isère and monopolises the fashion scene the way he used to monopolise medals. Labels include Burton and Killy Aroma (don't ask).
Decales, Val Village B, +33 4 7906 1683.
Killy Sport, Place du l'Office du Tourisme, +33 4 7906 0553, www.killy-sport.com.
Jack at Hôtel Latitudes Aigle des Neiges
There are those for whom 'après' is the most important part of the day and, in Val d'Isère, the truly committed hang at Jack. The hopeful and the hop-full who gather outside the village Post Office at closing time are not there to collect mail from home but to psych themselves up for the evening's Jack Attack next door.
Jack is the rowdy element of Pier Paul Jack, a trio of dining venues of diverse ambience across three levels of Hôtel Latitudes Aigle des Neiges. Bar staff can be as cool and distant as the Col de l'Iseran, but this is their idea of 007 sophistication. On the other side of the bar, chalet Sharyns and Sheryls enthusiastically meet powderhounds called Helmut and Sven. But by mid-evening, those who so promisingly paired off at six have been engulfed into one homogenously tipsy throng. Music is live, funky and often acceptable, and can be enjoyed from pear-shaped bean bags if you're worn out from a day carving the slopes.
Bar snacks rate highly - instead of the usual potato wedges, mini pizze and guacamole-slathered nachos, nibble on tuna tartare with ginger and coriander, tempura prawns, and escargots marinated in fennel jus.
Place de l'Eglise, +33 4 7906 2108, www.pierpauljack.com.
La Luge at Hôtel Le Blizzard
Abstinence - even from fondue - is no longer regarded as a virtue, especially above the snow-line. And a dip into the melting pot of life is not just for Valentine's Day. For almost 50 years, La Luge - a Val d'Isère institution within the charming Hôtel Le Blizzard - has maintained a giddy fame for its mature Gruyère fondue and its farmhouse cheese raclette. Host Pierre Cerboneschi happily admits to both dishes being of Swiss heritage, but says "alpine" is an international culture that overrides mere individual nationalities.
The classic cheese fondue at La Luge features only Gruyère, but Cerboneschi also approves of a mixture of Gruyère and Emmenthal. Also popular at La Luge is the beef fondue, where cubes of beef are dipped into boiling oil then a selection of accompaniments and sauces. Don't double dip!
The host's golden secret when dunking croutons is to make sure the cube is securely on the fork, because custom demands that the diner who loses his or her bread in the cheese buys the next bottle of wine.
Hôtel Le Blizzard, BP64, Val d'Isère, +33 4 7906 6939, www.hotelblizzard.com.
Church of St Bernard
Are skiers inherently god-fearing people? Do they crowd aboard the cable cars hoping that the top station is heaven? Whatever, the busiest address in Val d'Isère appears to be the pretty stone church in the centre of town built in 1664. Locals and tourists come and go around the clock - the locals to pray for more tourists; the tourists to pray for better snow conditions, freedom from falls and fractures and, perhaps, Mr or Mrs Right.
Named after St Bernard of Menthon, the church is one of the few that survived destruction by French revolutionaries and, while a ritzy resort has grown up around it, its spire remains Val d'Isère's best-known landmark.
The interior is high baroque and has an impossibly ornate altar. Above its Roman doors is a bust of Bernard of the Alps, patron saint of mountain dwellers. Clearly, he's looked after them rather well.
Old Town, Val d'Isère.
For the nutritional over-achiever, this is surely the only address in Val d'Isère. Patrick Chevallot is one of France's finest pâtisserie chefs and acts as consultant to world-famous French chocolatier Valrhona. As such, Maison Chevallot's shelves represent the four major food groups - milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate and chocolate truffles. Queue, as you must, to select from his range of beignet, bichon, bread, brioche, brûlée, cake, charlotte framboise, croissant, croque-monsieur, feuilleté, fougasse, galette, gâteaux, millefeuille, mousse, nougat, pain au chocolat, pâté, pizza, praline, quiche, tarte, tiramisù and tuiles. If you're struck dumb, you lose your place in the queue. The town's oldest bakery is certainly the Chalet of a Thousand Temptations.
Find a table adjacent to the counter and order exotic coffee, teas and hot chocolates. Customers who know they shouldn't be here form a spontaneous bonding. And if you think pâtissiers are born, not made, get this: M. Chevallot used to be a firefighter.
Val d'Isère Village, +33 4 7906 1609, www.chevallot.com.
BEST ROMANTIC RENDEZVOUS
Paul at Hôtel Latitudes Aigle des Neiges
Paul is the classiest of the Pier Paul Jack trio of eating establishments at Hôtel Latitudes Aigle des Neiges.
Apparently it's not difficult to get picked up at Jack, but if you're then invited to dine at Paul, the prospects are good for a meaningful relationship of up to 10 days. Pier, presumably, is for the already hitched.
With the usual stylistic elements, Paul offers a glimmer of glamour and a rare combination of space and intimacy. But it's the chemistry among its style-junkie diners that makes it such a high-voltage address. Should the company fall short, it's possible to have a brief romance with the menu. There's impressive attention to detail in dishes such as a medallion of pork basking in a pond of honey and green apple jus; and a retro banana flambé with iced chocolate and coconut frolicking in a slick pool of rum sauce. Mains are around the $40 mark - not bad for silver-service Val d'Isère.
Place de l'Eglise, +33 4 7906 2108, www.pierpauljack.com.
BEST TIME TO GO
To catch all the promised excitement of the 2009 Alpine World
Ski Championships, you'll need to be in Val d'Isère from 3-15
February. And you won't just be consigned to spectator status -
almost 90 per cent of the slopes will remain open to the public
Snow-wise, early December is a gamble and prices sky-rocket during Christmas and New Year. January is generally underrated and snow can be excellent. February and March are best for ski conditions, with April often providing fresh snow. June, July and August are popular for summer activities and glacier skiing. Much of Val d'Isère is closed during October and November.
THE FINE PRINT
British Airways flies twice daily from Sydney to London via Singapore and Bangkok, and flies from London Heathrow to Lyon three times a day, . To book rail connections between Lyon and Bourg St-Maurice, the closest station to Val d'Isère, go to www.raileurope.com.au. From Bourg St-Maurice, it's a 45-minute drive to the ski resort.