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Winter wonderland, summer paradise

Roger St. Pierre extols the year-round joys of Val d’Isère

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There’s something very special about the French alpine resort of Val D’Isère. With 90 ski lifts and 300 km of ski runs, it’s truly a wintersports’ paradise.

What’s more, thanks to its neighbouring Pissaillas glacier, you can actually ski in the area for 12 months of the year.

Not that there aren’t plenty of other things to do when the winter snows recede, with mountain biking and road cycling, hiking, bird watching, horse trekking and other activities drawing hordes of outdoor lovers to the area right through the languid summer. And the crowds are never heavier than when the sun-bronzed athletes of the Tour de France roll though town.

Since first figuring on the route of ‘La Grande Boucle’ in 1947, neighbouring Briançon – the highest city in Europe – has been a Tour host some 22 times.

This July, the ninth stage ran through Val d’Isère, crossing the Col de L’Iseran pass, one of Europe’s highest, the Col du Telegraphe and the starkly beautiful Col du Galibier before a breakneck 37 km downhill rush into Briançon.

One of the key figures behind the world’s greatest annual sporting challenge is Jean-Claude Killy, a native son of Val d’Isère and, in his youth, reckoned by many to have been the greatest skier in the world.

Today, the resort’s massive Espace Killy wintersports’ playground is named in honour of the man who took three gold medals at the 1968 Grenoble winter Olympics.

Here beginners and experts, skiers, snowboarders and telemarkers are all spoilt for choice, whether their taste is for marked runs, off-piste or freeride – and the truly adventurous can experience specially created big-air, half-pipe and other rails.

The quality of snow allows sensational powder skiing and many are especially attracted in springtime.

Local hero Louis Bonnevie was French national skiing champion as far back as 1906 while in 1948 Henri Oreiller won two medals at the St. Moritz winter Olympics. Since then, other hometown heroes have included the Goitschel sisters, Patrice Bianchi, Ingrid Jacquemond, Pierre Paquin, Audrey Peltier and seven times snowboard world cup winner Mathieu Bozzetto.

After all that activity on the piste, Val d’Isère really knows how to party. There are pedestrianised arcades with a host of cosy tea-rooms, intimate little bars and elegant hotels and eateries for all tastes, from quick food to gourmet, often featuring the superb local Savoyard specialities – as at La Table des Neiges where chef de cuisine Jérôme Labrousse creates a truly gastronomic experience based on the freshest local ingredients. The boutique shopping is great too.

Early forecasts for heavy snows at the start of this coming winter are being made by Piers Corbyn, founder of Weather Action, who predicts that the very jet stream that has brought the wet weather that’s ruined our summer, will go on to create a great winter for the Alpine resorts.

In Val d’Isère it will all kick off in November with the Critérium de la Première Neige World Alpine Skiing Cup event. In January, spectacular firework displays and torchlight descents upstage the sporting side of things until, in February, Val d’Isère becomes the unofficial freestyle capital of the world.

In March and April there are music and film festivals and the season closes in early May – and that’s when the summer visitors plan their arrival.

The piste makes a truly exciting alternative to the golf green as a place to seal business deals and Val d’Isère has conference facilities as well as being a favoured choice for incentives that truly sparkle.

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