Val Thorens, Europe’s highest ski resort and an obvious destination for an early season ski – It’s late November and a meter of fresh snow has just fallen, triggering the 2015-16 winter with a far more positive start than the previous year.
Naturally the drive to Val Thorens is a long one due to its altitude at 2,300 meters above sea level – although from Geneva Airport it’s quicker than getting to Tignes or Val d’Isère. Once you’re there, everything is located in one tightly compacted space, a rather convenient base for a ski holiday in what is a purpose built resort on a treeless landscape.
I’m staying with Action Outdoors at the UCPA centre, nicely located for the slopes in the lower part of the resort (ski in/ski out) and about a twenty minute walk up into the centre of the town. Not that you need to go into town, as you’ve got everything you need in the centre that can sleep around 500 people.
UCPA is a French government funded, non-profit organisation that provides a high standard of accommodation is mostly shared room facilities. Traditionally the focus has been on younger people but more recently they have opened their doors to a wider audience including older age groups and families. Although the rooms generally sleep 4 people (there are some 6 bedded rooms and some twins too), they are really smart and well designed and many have en-suite bathrooms. It’s not a luxury hotel, but if you want to ski or snowboard and stay in a convenient location at pretty much unbeatable prices then it really is a great option for individuals, groups and families.
During this early part of the winter, the link over to the 3 Valleys ski area (the World’s largest interconnected lift serviced ski region), isn’t yet open, but what I soon discover is that despite this, there’s more than enough skiing to be found in the huge bowl that sweeps around over 180 degrees and reaches heights of over 3,000 meters. It must be one of the largest natural ‘bowls’ in the Alps and it was clearly designed with skiers and snowboarders in mind.
I was eager to discover this famous resort, never having skied here before (I’d stayed in Meribel once 15 years ago but never made it over to Val Thorens). On a sunny and cold day in late November, as the ski lifts opened up for the very first time since April, I could not asked for better conditions to experience the virtually empty slopes on offer.
The lift network here is fast and efficient, with mainly high-speed, 4 to 6 person chair lifts whisking you up in all directions, alongside a trio of gondola style cable cars of varying sizes. Because you can pretty much view the entire ski area of Val Thorens with a turn of the head, the first impressions are that it’s not that large – how the eyes can deceive, the bowl is vast with several different ‘sections’ spanning east, north and west – follow the sun and end up above the village in the Folie Douce ‘nightclub on the pistes’ during the afternoon.
Generally, the skiing is suited to intermediates who enjoy long, cruisy blue and red runs without too many major challenges on the way down. There’s some easy to spot off-piste possibilities in-between the main pistes, which soon get tracked out despite the fact we have a meter of fresh snow, on top of rock – at this time of the year, possibly best to wait until the first layer of snow has consolidated and formed a solid base. Still, we had some cheeky turns ourselves and managed to stay safe. Most of this off-piste terrain was below 30 degrees and relatively safe from avalanche danger although there is the odd steeper pitch that could catch people out.
This is why you need to be extra-careful off-piste at the beginning of the ski season!
If you’re staying in the UCPA centre, the opportunity to head back for a quick lunch is too much to resist (especially when included in the price). It’s as good as you’d find in any self-service mountain restaurant. Along with a four course evening buffet, these two large meals a day means you better get back out on the slopes to burn it all off. We lapped up the runs over the weekend in Val Thorens, and even during the Sunday at the busiest time, we didn’t queue once for a lift.
If you do manage to venture out of the UCPA centre at night then Val Thorens offers a late night party scene to rival most other resorts in the Alps. I stuck with British favourite, the Frog and Roast beef – a small, fairly shabby establishment with friendly staff and full of returning seasonaires, helping to create a start of season atmosphere that made it buzzy and fun. At this time of the winter, the resort is still quiet though, so don’t expect huge après ski parties or late night crowds in the clubs and bars.
What you do get is an opportunity to get some quality skiing done before everyone else even realises the season has even begun.
What we like about Val Thorens
- Reliable snow conditions, even at the end of November.
- Fast, efficient lift system with no queuing.
- Plenty of accommodation options from 4 and 5 star hotels to the excellent UCPA centre.
- Long ski runs that are well groomed.
What we didn’t like so much
- Lack of architectural charm.
- Not many really challenging slopes for expert skiers.
Snow.Guide Ski Editor Rob Stewart stayed with Action Outdoors in the UCPA centre in Val Thorens – prices for the week commencing 2nd January 2016 that include 7 nights full-board accommodation, 6.5 days ski pass, 6.5 days ski or snowboard equipment hire, 23 hours of ski instruction and evening entertainment: £545 per person. Return coach travel from London direct to Val Thorens costs £140 per person.
Rob flew to Geneva from Gatwick Airport with Easy Jet and used Cophall Parking – an off site car park facility with friendly service and a fast route to the terminal. Cophall Parking has both a ‘Park & Ride’ and a ‘Meet & Greet’ service for short or longer trips with extremely competitive prices.
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