Expert guide to Val Thorens
Europe’s most superlative ski resort
At 2,300m purpose-built Val Thorens is not only the highest resort in the 600km Trois Vallées ski area that also includes Courchevel, Méribel and Les Menuires, but the highest in Europe. Its lofty altitude means that its doorstep slopes have guaranteed snow cover from November to May.
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.
The terrain here suits everyone from beginners to experts. VT is not only linked into the vast network of trails across the across the well-known Méribel and Courchevel valleys, but also into the neighbouring fourth valley, the Maurienne.
Inside the resort . . .
In 1971, when the first ugly apartment blocks rose from this white wasteland, French Olympic ski champion Christine Goitschel described Val Thorens as “like living in the Wild West”. But it has since developed into an almost attractive, sophisticated resort.
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.
Val Thorens has 200m of altitude on its nearest pretender, Tignes in France, which shares a ski area with Val d’Isère. While Val Thorens’ high altitude gives many advantages, when the weather closes in on the village, way above the tree line, it can feel a little like an Antarctic expedition.
The resort boasts an ever-growing number of five-star hotels with fine restaurants. These include one-Michelin-starred Les Explorateurs, overseen by Chef Josselin Jeanblanc in the Hotel Pashmina, chic bistro Les Enfants Terribles at the Altapura and Le Diamant Noir with spectacular views at the Koh-i-Nor.
Nightlife is nonetheless young and surprisingly vibrant, partly because Val Thorens attracts university trips heaving with British students. It was also the second French resort after Val d’Isère to open an on-mountain Folie Douce après venue, set just above the village.
Val Thorens has 140km of pistes of its own, and also makes a great base from which to explore as much as possible of the Trois Vallées’ 600km. A journey from Val Thorens to the far corners of the ski area, say to Courchevel, is a full day out, however it does mean more time spent on lifts and paths than on the pistes. It makes sense to spend some time concentrating on and enjoying the myriad slopes closer to home.
On the slopes . . .
Navigate Val Thorens’ ski area with our insider’s knowledge of the local slopes and beyond, on and off piste, ski schools and terrain parks.
Looking upwards from hotels or apartments in Val Thorens to the snowy surrounding peaks that soar above 3,000m can feel somewhat overwhelming. The sheer volume of slopes laid out is nothing short of daunting – and the resort’s own runs are less than a quarter of the total terrain available in the Trois Vallées.
Val Thorens claims 140km of pistes of its own. Then there’s another 160km stretching down on either side of the Belleville Valley, belonging to Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville. Hop over the ridge into Méribel’s territory and across the next to Courchevel and another 300km is clocked up.
It would take an entire season to explore all the runs as well as the off-piste possibilities of the giant 600km Trois Vallées ski area, and for a single week, there’s more than enough even without venturing out of the Belleville and Maurienne Valleys.
Beginners are well served by magic carpet lifts and the gentlest of nursery slopes around the Rond Point des Pistes in the valley. From here they can progress to green and blue runs off the Deux Lacs and Cascades chairs from the village.
Experts will spend much of their time on and around the Caron peak that reaches 3,200m. The Cime Caron cable car serves two black runs and is the launch point for some of the best off-piste itineraries in the area, and that’s saying something given that the opportunities for powder throughout the resort are outstanding. There are descents on both sides of the ridge, with runs reaching all the way down to the small village of Orelle on the Maurienne side – also known as the fourth valley.
December 21/22 sees a new lift connection between Val Thorens and Orelle in the Maurienne valley, in the form of a fast, two-part gondola lift – ‘Orelle’ and ‘Orelle-Cime Caron’ – which takes 20 minutes from Orelle village to the top of Cime Caron above Val Thorens, replacing the 3 Vallées Express. There’s a free, 450-space car park in Orelle, next to the base station.
Val Thorens is in general a dream for intermediates. All standards can travel to the heights of the Cime de Caron for the long red run and blue run served by the cable car, and forays into the territories of Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville for long, cruising, and at times demanding runs should not be missed. There is plenty to be found in the other half of the Trois Vallées too – but since there’s just so much to be done in and around Val Thorens, heading over there is not essential.
There is also a world-class terrain park, the setting for national and international events. High on the Plateau sector beneath the Col de Rosael, the park is divided into four separate courses with jumps and obstacles suited to different levels of technical ability. There’s also a wickedly serpentine World Cup skicross/boardercross course, reached from the top of the Deux Lacs chair just below the village.
Alternative activities on the slopes include two exciting zipwires. La Tyrolienne at 3,230m connects the Orelle and Val Thorens ski areas with a flight of over 1,300m up to 250m above the ground, taking nearly two minutes. Above the village there’s La Bee, a double wire open to pedestrians and skiers for a flight of 1,800m 65m above the ground. For both zip wires, skis and boards are strapped to the riders back.
Who should go?
The terrain in Val Thorens suits everyone from beginners to experts and the the ski area is quite simply massive, but what sets it apart from the majority of resorts is its altitude and therefore long snow-sure season. Ski trips here begin in late November and run all the way into May, with plenty of snow on offer throughout. This makes it popular for Christmas trips as well as late-season getaways – if you’re looking for guaranteed snow you can’t go wrong in Val Thorens. It has a surprisingly good restaurant scene and a lot of the accommodation is ski-in/ski-out.
Know before you go . . .
British Embassy/Consulate: (00 33 1 44 51 31 00; ukinfrance.fco.gov.uk)
Ambulance (samu): dial 15
Police: dial 17
Fire (pompiers): dial 18
Emergency services from mobile phone: dial 112
Tourist office: See valthorens.com, the website for the Val Thorens Tourist Board, for weather reports, lift status, webcams, traffic details and local event listings. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from the office in Maison de Val Thorens at the centre of the resort and foot of the slopes.
Telephone code: from abroad, dial 00 33, then leave off the zero at the start of the 10-figure number.
Time difference: +1 hour
Local laws & etiquette
- When greeting people, formal titles (Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle) are used much more in French than in English.
- The laws of vouvoiement (which version of “you” to use) take years to master. If in doubt – except when talking to children or animals – always use the formal vous form (second person plural) rather than the more casual tu.
- When driving, it’s compulsory to keep fluorescent bibs and a hazard triangle in the car in case of breakdown.