Purpose-built Val Thorens is not only the highest resort in the giant Trois Vallées ski area that includes Courchevel and Méribel, but the highest in Europe. Its lofty altitude means that doorstep skiing with guaranteed snow cover is possible from November to May.
At 2,300m it has 200m on its nearest pretender, Tignes, also in France. However, its rivals used to argue that, without a church, it wasn’t a proper village. So, in 1991 – to put an end to the argument – the village built one.
The resort’s position at the head of the Belleville Valley, surrounded by a horseshoe of dramatic peaks, is truly spectacular. On a fine day this offers a world class winter panorama. But when the weather closes in on the village, way above the treeline, it can feel a little like an Antarctic expedition.
In 1971, when the first ugly apartment blocks rose from this white wasteland, French Olympic ski champion Christine Goitschel described it as ‘like living in the Wild West’. But Val Thorens has since developed into an almost attractive, sophisticated resort.
The concrete edifices of the early years have largely been reclad with more favourable materials and all modern construction is in a more sympathetic Savoyard style. Its increasingly wealthy and discerning clientele demands – and receives – a clutch of some of the smartest hotels and gastro restaurants in the French Alps. But the resort has also managed to maintain its appeal to 20-somethings without a platinum level of disposable income who revel in the range of skiing and snowboarding.
Val Thorens’s terrain suits everyone from beginner to expert. The resort is not only linked into the vast network of trails across the other two valleys of the Trois Vallées, but also into the neighbouring fourth valley: the Maurienne. It’s a great base from which to explore as much as you can of the ski area’s 600km of linked pistes.
However, a journey from Val Thorens to the far corners of, say, Courchevel is a full day out, with more time spent on lifts and paths than on the pistes. It makes sense to concentrate on and enjoy the myriad slopes closer to home.