Of western Europe’s 197,194,895 people, I am the least qualified to take a winter sports break. My disqualifications include chronic vertigo, a consequent unease amid mountains, a peasant’s aversion to snow and a sense of balance that can send me sprawling as I seek soap in the shower. Life-long distance from ski culture hasn’t helped. When I was young in industrial Lancashire, skiing – like the racing of yachts and the wearing of cummerbunds – was something southerners did. In adulthood I was busy elsewhere.
And now, approaching pensionability (from which direction we will leave imprecise), I’m too old. But – and here’s the thing – the weight of disqualifications meant I was just the person to discover whether there was anything for the acute non-skier in the very finest of ski resorts. Disqualification was, in short, the qualification. So I boarded the bus up to Val d’Isère in the French Alps.
You’ll have heard of Val d’Isère. Its ski area, combined with that of next-door Tignes, is the world’s eighth largest. The village itself is top-five cool and, property-wise, the priciest ski spot in France, ahead of Courchevel and Mégève. If you want to buy here, you’ll need Mayfair money.
I wasn’t expecting a great welcome. This was partly because there is no reason a world-class ski resort should give a tuppenny damn about a non-skier. And partly because, last winter – when Covid shut the ski resorts – I’d written a piece suggesting that closure was no bad thing. It would give a break to mountains, nature and intensive care units. The ribbing was gentle, the reaction atomic. I have never been so abundantly vilified. Skiers chased me around social media mob-handed, all brandishing ice picks. Beneath a civilised veneer, I concluded, the ski community hosted the hounds of hell.
These were, however, either well under control in Val d’Isère or perhaps operating elsewhere. I got hit on the head a couple of times by badly shouldered skis, but these were, I’m sure, accidents rather than vengeance. Otherwise, I met nothing but smiles, an urge to please and extreme indulgence for ski-related weaknesses.
And my, how lovely Val d’Isère looks, notably by night. Alpine chalets on steroids radiate from the baroque church in the old village. Trees are lit, the mountains barely etched behind. And snow softens the whole. Frankly, it’s like stepping out into a charity Christmas card (the charity, given the proliferation of melted-cheese sharing platters in resort eateries, being Raclette Sans Frontières). Val d’Isère has been developing non-ski activities for a while. I was here to try a handful – non-ski lessons, if you like – in order to answer the question: if you don’t ski, is there any point in “going skiing”?
First, though, I had to come to terms with snow. As mentioned, it looks lovely. It pleases children, glistens nicely when fresh and fills rivers by melting. Snow certainly cushions falls, but also makes them more likely. The pavements and steps of Val d’Isère were a trial for those who tend to topple. Two further minus points: snow renders a landscape uniform. Compare and contrast photos of Val d’Isère January through March, when it’s all white, and in June, when it’s several shades of green, blue and brown, wild-flower-bedecked and embellished by marmots, livestock and ladies in summer wear. This may leave one wistful in winter.
Second point: snow makes everything a frightful faff – from leaving the house shovel-first, through chaining tyres and skidding towards precipices to going to the toilet via the unbuttoning and re-buttoning of 35 layers of clothing. Snow is also lethal. I have been lost in a blizzard. I have seen avalanches on TV. OK, snow is a sine qua non for skiing but I don’t trust it.
Mountains, too, are an obstacle for those who stagger beyond rung five on a ladder. I’ve always considered them best appreciated from afar. That’s not changed. Getting right in among peaks at Val d’Isère proved unsettling. The village is about 1,830m (6,000ft) up and so jammed in, you wonder that early settlers ever stuck around. But they did, clinging on through farming until the 1930s, when skiing slid in. And 1,830m is (almost exactly) just the half of it. These mountains are terribly unlike my fondly remembered Pennines. The nearby Grande Motte tops out at 3,653m, and the competition from other summits is keen. Over a few days, they became familiar but retained their menace. I knocked myself dizzy just looking up at them. That’s vertigo for you.
But I could live with that, as long as no one was going to urge me much higher than where I already was. Down on the slippery streets, meanwhile, the village had the insouciance of a spot thriving on leisure. You would expect somewhere as rich and famous as Val d’Isère to be up itself, but it wasn’t – not as far as I could see. Cafés, bars and hotels, restaurants and shops knocking out ski-wear covered most bases, from merely moderately expensive to positively royalty-friendly. I drank cocktails with posh people in a five-star bar – all black and red, fake fire and fake fur – before sliding down the street to Le Hibou, where English-speakers crammed in, beer came in several pints and Manchester City was playing on one TV, test match cricket on another.
A learned appreciation of ski
The strange thing about Val (as initiates apparently shorten it) as opposed to any other town I have ever visited was the ubiquity of skiers. In theory, I’d expected this. In practice, it was startling to happen upon an entire community of helmet-, goggle- and boot-wearing people, walking the streets and pavements as if this attire were normal. Skis sloped like rifles were quite able to take your head off in a well-filled shuttle bus.
There was a sort of clunky clumsiness abroad – until, that is, the skiers arrived in their proper element, hurtling down something like the über-famous Bellevarde piste. This involved them chucking themselves off a cliff halfway to heaven.
Suddenly, in so many cases, clumsiness ceded to skill, speed, courage and even elegance. I was lost in admiration, which astonished me, given how insulting I had been in the past. The spectacle had me regretting an earlier life misspent being broke. And it starred people who had seemed absolutely ordinary when hitting me in the head on the shuttle bus.
This was, incidentally, best appreciated from the piste-side terraces of restaurants such as L’Etincelle or the brand new and hyper-cool Loulou. Here you are mixing with people who know a thing or two about shades and champagne. The atmosphere was Italy-meets-Scandinavia, the music a little too loud, the food a little too expensive, but the sunlit midday setting superb. The great thing about not skiing is that you can watch others doing it. I’d be there yet, but Loulou does involve a hefty run on one’s euros.
I made instead for the Aquasportif sports centre, a key Val d’Isère facility for those who would play squash, soccer or volleyball, climb walls, practise golf, lift weights or do pretty much anything inside rather than be outside and ski. As a first non-ski activity – “dauntless” is my middle name – I headed for the bubble zone of the leisure pool.
Through the giant picture windows, I could see cable cars and ski-lifts – and delight in the happy turn of events which meant I was in here, bouncing in warm bubbles and not out there, being rocketed skywards in a Christmas tree bauble. Clearly, only a halfwit would travel to Val d’Isère in winter specifically not to ski but, should you be a non-skier lumbered with a skiing partner (or skiing friends), then there are plenty of fine things to fill up a fortnight even if – like me – you have the head for heights of a sea bass.
Six things I learnt as a non-skier in the mountains
Snowshoes no longer look like things you could play tennis with
They resemble very short skis and are the finest way of exploring a snow-scape – especially if you have a good guide. Jean-Louis knew everything. We left the village for calmer country around the Tignes Dam. Walking in deep snow was almost a cinch and very tranquil – just forest, Jean-Louis and me and tales of trees, animals (we spotted hare, fox and ibex tracks) and the artificial lake Chervil, under which the old village of Tignes is submerged. The hullabaloo of skiing was distant, the quiet reality of the land to hand and rather wonderful. I still fell over, tangling my feet on a gentle descent, but Jean-Louis – like everyone in Val d’Isère – was limitlessly encouraging.
Moonbiking provides a novel way of falling over
Moonbikes are electric snow-scooters, with caterpillar traction at the back and handlebars attached to a short ski at the front. If you are familiar with motorcycling, you will find Moonbikes a doddle and thrust through snow, up and down slopes, with gay abandon and much excitement. If not familiar, you may rocket about unpredictably, avoid plunging into rivers by milliseconds and cause those nearby to dive for snowdrifts. Then the machine falls over and you fall off. “Falling off is a prerequisite of doing it properly,” said instructor Douglas, a tolerant fellow. “You enjoy the Moonbike?” asked my Val d’Isère friend, Chloé. “Absolutely,” I said. “I’ve rarely been less bored.”
Dogs are in their element
I stepped into the sled and sat down behind Inox, Grab, Iron, Copper, Soukoy and Soyuz: European sled dogs, a mix of pointer and Alaskan husky. They looked ripped for strength and stripped for speed. “They’ll do 40-45 kilometres in a couple of hours,” said musher Stéphane. Crikey. We were off. Dashing through the snow in a six-dog open sleigh, cornering at an angle and leaping forward again: I’ve not been as elated in a sitting position since… never you mind when.
Echoes of a non-skiing world remain
On the edge of the village, the Ferme-de-l’Adroit is a lone reminder of how the valley worked before skiing brought luxury to the region. These were farms where the families who owned them bedded down near their animals for warmth. Nowadays, the Brune-des-Alpes cows have their own accommodation in winter stables. With long-lashed feminine faces and a gentle bearing, the cows look particularly beautiful. The cheeses are ace, too. You may visit any time. Fourth-generation farmer Lucille Mattis will welcome you, explaining the tough and tranquil subtext to the mountains’ story. You may find it more gripping than skiing tales of derring-do.
The dining is impressive
Few villages of just 1,600 residents can claim 90 restaurants, from snackeries through to those with Michelin stars. You have, of course, to eat Alpine fare. It is bespoke-tailored for the setting and terrific, even if you have merely been frolicking in bubbles. I favoured, in ascending order: Le Garage, an industrial chic brasserie (restaurant-valdisere.fr); La Luge trad Savoyard restaurant – tartiflette, fondues, lamb shank (hotelblizzard.com); and the Avancher restaurant, whose raclette spoke to me in kilos (avancher.com).
Après-ski or root-canal work – it’s 50:50
That said, it’s available to all and a great attraction to many. If I were a little zippier and immune to noise, crowds and jumping, I’d doubtless have been happier at Cocorico N’Co (cocoricoapresski.com) where top-grade groovers gather from 2pm to 4am. The street food, conceived by significant chefs, was indeed formidable. Towards 6.30pm, the place was already frantic with dancers, few of whom seemed likely to make it through to 4am. “No,” agreed co-boss Aurélie Bonnevie, “but numbers are refreshed as the evening progresses.”
How to do it
The Avenue Lodge (hotelavenuelodge.com) offers a mix of contemporary dark materials (stone and wood), chalet cosiness, five-star luxury and staff who are among the most welcoming I have met in years. Mother and daughter owners set the tone. Add in a pool, spa and bar and you’re laughing (double rooms from £335, including breakfast). For a full review and to book, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-avenuelodge
For full details of entry requirements and in-resort Covid rules for your favourite ski destinations, including France, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-skirules. Refer to gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice for further travel information