Désolé, mais il y a du monde aujourd’hui…” says the lady behind the glass, throwing up her hands and smiling in disbelief at how busy it is here today. I look around and count five other people, two of whom are almost out the door. There might as well be wisps of tumbleweed on the grey stone floor.
I’m in Val Cenis in the picturesque Haute Maurienne valley having a ski-lift -pass-buying experience quite unlike any I’ve previously encountered. And not just because the ticket lady is friendly, letting me practise my bad French without replying in brusque English, but also because in spite of her apology, I really haven’t waited long, four minutes at most. In some ski resorts it’s not uncommon to stand in line for 40 minutes, especially when the snow is fresh and the sky is as blue as it is today.
But then Val Cenis, a ski area set above three mountain villages, Termignon, Lanslebourg and Lanslevillard, is not your typical alpine resort, i.e. the kind that boasts a vast network of pistes, and a hyper-modern lift system to transport as many people around the mountain as possible. There’s a lot to like about such efficiency, of course, but sometimes when I see a mountain face stripped of trees and covered in criss-crossing pistes, with skiers and snowboarders dotted everywhere like ants, I can’t help feeling that I haven’t so much escaped my busy city life as switched the location of where I experience it.
It’s not that the lifts are bad in Val Cenis, or that the mountain is empty, though it certainly isn’t crowded, it’s just that nature is front and centre. The mountain is carpeted in pine and larch forest, which smells amazing, with the occasional piste running through it, rather than the other way around. There are animal footprints everywhere; birds of prey soar above us.
On one side of the valley is the Vanoise National Park, where building is banned, and there’s a long uninterrupted view of jagged peaks running into steep fields of snow. The backdrop on the other side of Val Cenis, across the Italian border, is also breathtaking, with spiked snowy summits as far as the eye can see.
I hear the odd English voice on the slopes, but the most frequent visitors appear to be French and Belgian. I get chatting to a French couple on a chairlift and I ask them what they like about it here “It’s not factory skiing, it’s wild and soulful,” one of them says, while the other nods with a wistful look. It might sound cheesy, but I know exactly what they mean.
Penny Kendal/Getty Images
even after it hadn’t snowed for a while, there were fresh tracks everywhere – so rarely the case in bigger resorts
Terrain-wise, Val Cenis is great for beginner and improver skiers and snowboarders. It has lots of gentle runs at higher than 3,000m where you get to enjoy the beautiful scenery above the treeline, whereas in most places the higher altitude runs tend to be solely suited to experts. There aren’t tons of challenging pistes for more advanced skiers and snowboarders, but the backcountry options are excellent, as are the ski and splitboard touring opportunities. I saw lots of tourers around the mountain, including some who’d brought their dogs along.
There is also lots of good sidecountry – off-piste terrain that you can ski next to the piste – which is perfect for mixed-ability groups as some of you can take on the steeper stuff right next to your friends who are progressing on piste.
My favourite spot was at the top of the Termignon side of the resort, in the shadow of the Grand Coin peak, where all was white and peaceful. Almost lunar-esque, it was the perfect picnic spot and one day I watched two skiers and a snowboarder pop out from high on the Italian side and proceed to ride down the crazily steep face in front of me. It was like watching a live extreme sports movie.
Last season saw record-breaking snowfall across the Alps, especially in the Haute Maurienne valley, which thanks to a special microclimate boasts some of the most snowsure resorts in France, even in a normal year. During my visit, even after it hadn’t snowed for a few days, there were still fresh tracks everywhere – so rarely the case when I snowboard in bigger, more popular resorts.
Val Cenis and its pretty, stone-built mountain villages feel like they’ve been dropped in from another era. There are no noisy après bars or swanky restaurants or signposts flagging great selfie spots. Instead you get retro skiing one-pieces worn without irony, charming farming co-ops selling tasty local cheeses including beaufort and bleu de termignon, and lots of great pizza places, perhaps no surprise, given the proximity to the Italian border (albeit via a mountain pass that gets closed in winter).
I found some lovely local Savoyard restaurants, including La Tata’tine in Lanslevillard, complete with chintzy decorations, that served tomato as well as cheese fondue, and perhaps most excitingly of all, fondue for one. The desserts, as in most Val Cenis restaurants, were traditional but impeccable. I also dined at some old-school restaurants whose dishes wouldn’t look out of place on the ‘70s Dinner Party’ Twitter feed, for good reasons as well as bad. Stepping back in time as a vegetarian was just about fine, but I fear vegans might struggle here.
Aux 2 Mousses in Lanslebourg was a rare exception amid the super-traditional eateries. A coffee shop by day and craft beer and cocktail spot at night, it had a hip stripped-pine design, mid-century modern chairs and a tasty on-trend burger menu, including veggie options, potato thins and original desserts such as Nutella tiramisu and chocolate mousse with Oreo cookies.
On the mountain, my favourite restaurant was L’Arole on the Termignon side as it was set in deep forest and glass fronted on two sides, so you could enjoy views of the beautiful Dent Parachée peak amid the snowy trees. The food was quite simple: pasta, omelette, burger-type fare, but they also had an indoor picnic section for cold snowy days, which you so rarely see at big resorts, as they are mostly pique-nique interdit! Elsewhere, La Vielle Poste down in Lanslebourg was great for atmospheric après-ski.
Need to know
Erna Low offers seven nights’ accommodation at the Chalet de Flambeau in Val Cenis from £694 per apartment; ernalow.co.uk. You can reach Val Cenis via Turin, Chambéry, Grenoble, Lyon or Geneva airports.
For more information on visiting Val Cenis, Bonneval-sur-Arc and Haute Maurienne Vanoise, see haute-maurienne-vanoise.com and savoie-mont-blanc.com
I took a day trip to nearby Bonneval-sur-Arc, a ridiculously pretty, sleepy farming village at the end of the valley, which is under the same Haute Maurienne Vanoise ski pass as Val Cenis. It has steeper slopes to challenge expert skiers and snowboarders alongside amazing off-piste and touring terrain. It’s one mountain ridge away from Val d’Isere and there are often rumours the mega-resort would like to buy Bonneval-sur-Arc and link the two, which would be a great shame.
While there will always be people who crave the convenience and bustle of a big, modern ski resort, there’s also a not-insignificant number of us who come to the mountains to enjoy skiing and snowboarding while also unwinding and recharging among the wild nature and quiet. If we get to step back in time in the Haute Maurienne valley while achieving that, so much the better.