The Best December Snow In History

This week we're in the French ski resort of Val d’Isère, which opened its lift system at the end of November for the first time since March 2020.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice
Val d'Isere December

Photo: © P.Hardy

Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.

Peter This week we’re in the French ski resort of Val d’Isère, which opened its lift system at the end of November for the first time since March 2020. International travel restrictions involving COVID tests are complicated. Demand does outstrip supply, although that’s not down to the resort itself, but the return immigration requirements of the UK and other countries. Nightclubs are closed and you have to make your own late night entertainment, but the skiing, well, the skiing…it’s nothing short of fantastic. I’ve never seen conditions like it. For visitors and for the locals it’s all a bit tricky, but I can assure you that it’s really worth the effort of all that form-filling and testing.

For ski resorts, for tourism in general around the world, who knows what the future holds, but here in Val d’Isère catch the snow while you can. It’s a dream. And then, of course, as the December World Cup races to watch, I make no bones about it: along with Jackson Hole in Wyoming, Val d’Isère is my favourite destination worldwide. An absence of 23 whole months makes my return all the sweeter. So to find out what’s happening in the resort, I caught up with my old pal, David McCallum.

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David we’re back in Val d’Isère and you of course, live here and you have lived here for an incredible length of time, which makes you one of the most established expats here. How long is it since you first came here?

David Hello, Peter, it’s good to see you back in your second home – let’s call it that. I’ve been here since 1978, came out for a short season and haven’t really left since actually.

Peter That’s a very long time ago. And what have you done in all that time?

David Well, at the time, there was hardly any Brits, very few tour operators and when you met someone who spoke English, you actually stopped to say hello, which when you think about it today, is a bit ironic. But I actually worked straightaway in a French hotel started, you know, you didn’t have the tour operator possibility. So I ended up just doing the dishes, the bedrooms, the wash up as you do, pretty much seven days a week and got got into life in France and very luckily got to speak French straight away.

Peter David, you went on from there to find your own restaurant here?

David Well, not straight away, Peter. I spent I was very lucky to bump into literally bump into Dick Yates-Smith, who just started what became the famous Dick’s Tea Bar and Dick took me on after two seasons working in the hotel, and I became his first manager from 1980 to ’84. I then got into running what became the Mountain Lodges, which were the first high-end chalets. It started a whole new trend really in chalet holidays, which up until then had been very makeshift and fairly basic. And I just saw an opportunity in the market to do a luxury end of the classic chalet holiday.

Peter To service these guests who went to these really fantastic chalets, you had the idea of starting your own restaurant?

David Yes, I got into buying up property and I was very lucky at those days – there was a lot of opportunities on that front, to buy up some very old chalets, and one of them was a 350-year-old chalet, which was called the Chalet du Crêt in the hamlet of the Crêt. And we decided that having got married there and had the party there, that this would make a fantastic restaurant. And although I’d never been a restaurateur, I’d been very lucky enough all over France to work with some great chefs, and I decided it would be a good idea to run a restaurant, which we opened in 1995 and was an absolute immediate success and we had it for 11 years.

Val d'Isere December

December piste. Photo: © P.Hardy

Peter I spent a lot of time in there.

David Yes, we had some very good nights and some very good friendly people. It was an atmosphere where it didn’t matter what part of society you came from or how famous you were, you just got stuck in and had a good time and the food was very good too.

Peter Skiing is one of the great levellers – it doesn’t matter where you come from and what you do…it comes down to that. A few years ago, about 10 years ago, actually on some of the courses I run here at this time of year, we had two people improving their skiing. One was a High Court judge and the other was a rodent operative from a big council – and he was fascinating actually in how you dealt with rats and the growing problem in Britain. And you’d think these two people, the judge and the rodent operative, would not get on in life. You must be wrong: they absolutely hit it off from the first dinner and they were inseparable for seven days.

David Yes, we’d often have a pisteur – ski patrol – who had been saving up all winter to take his girlfriend out. So it was quite a cross-section of society.

Peter But that came to an end. And then you went into the property market.

David Yes, I I luckily was able to use the contacts in many ways gain through the restaurant and people kept saying, ‘I can’t find what I want to buy.’ And I got into the property market, either building or renovating or acting as a sales agent for clients. I’ve been doing that pretty much ever since, and it’s gone very well.

David And you’ve brought up your family here and you become an ambassador for the resort, which must be made tricky over the last couple of years because COVID has played havoc, as we all know with the travel industry worldwide, and perhaps in particular with skiing, How has Val d’Isère survived?

David Yes, it’s very true. We’ve been jealously looking at really the last two summers in the South of France or generally in the summer tourism areas and seeing how well they’d been doing. And every winter, it seemed to have hit us again that we were stuck with restrictions and various problems that we all know about. And it looks like, you know, we’re going back into that sort of thing again, but we’re very positive. We had a fantastic winter last winter, but unfortunately the French decided to close the ski lifts, which made the whole thing impossible to run.

Peter And the British weren’t allowed to travel. It was pretty quiet in the resort, I guess in lots of ways and of course, rather lovely without the tourists.

David Yes, it was very interesting because we all got into into touring and climbing up the mountain on skis and then skiing down, having walked up for an hour and a half, two hours, and doing literally a three- or four-minute run back down. But in fact, it was a completely different lifestyle, really, and everybody got into it. But unfortunately, it hit the businesses very hard, clearly, and we’re hoping that this year is going to be something…not maybe fully back to normal, but definitely on the right track.

Peter Well, we’re back in the resort and it is now fully open, and the conditions this last week have been really quite sensational for lots of people. We’ve had extreme cold. I mean, when I’m talking extreme cold I’m talking about -18, -20. And then on top of that, with the wind chill factor it could be up to -25, 26 on the glacier, which is chilly by anyone’s standards. But we’ve had a huge amount of snow.

Val d'Isere December

Snowy trees in Val. Photo: © P.Hardy

David People say this every year, but we’re generally we’ve had an amazing start to the season, with a fantastic base and very few people. So the ski patrol have had time to prepare the runs and I think we’re heading for a really fantastic Christmas, New Year period.

Peter I have to say after the first two turns…and I haven’t skied properly since January 2020 for obvious reasons, after the first two turns you wonder whether you’re going to be able to do it. First of all, you realise you can do it, and then almost immediately you realise what you’ve been missing. I don’t think I knew quite how much I had missed it until I was skiing down the first run on, I say, the most fantastic sunshine morning with about 20 centimetres of fresh powder underfoot. You can’t go wrong.

David Yes, I felt exactly the same. I had my first first turns last Friday in wonderful conditions on very quiet slopes, and I’d just forgotten, as you say, how much I missed it. I was quite pleased to know that it came back – it was bit like getting on the old bicycle and it was all there and I was quite glad I managed to keep myself fit, that’s for sure.

Peter Of course, the problem that the elephant in the room at all times is COVID and we’ve got to face up to that. And Val d’Isère, like all resorts across the Alps, has put some pretty clever sanitary measures in place so that the risk of infection is cut down to a minimum. What sort of things are they actually doing?

David Yes. For those of us who have been living in France full-time during the COVID period, we’re very much used to wearing the masks, which are necessary going into all establishments. Although once you’re in a bar and a restaurant, clearly you can take your mask off. The most important thing really is to have what the French call the pass sanitaire, which is pretty much like the NHS app, and you can either download the NHS app – generally just use that, or you can go onto the Tous Anti Covid French app and put your NHS app onto it and just show it whenever you go into restaurants and bars, and that seems to be working very well.

The gendarmes are being very cool about it, but they are checking hotels and restaurants and bars to see that it is being respected. Otherwise it hasn’t really changed that much – we’re feeling fairly happy that…not obviously not total freedom, but it’s not really invasive in terms of enjoying your holiday. There’s no doubt about that.

Peter And then you have to use the pass sanitaire in order to get into a lift in the morning. Although I have to say that I haven’t been checked, but I know people who have been checked.

David Yes, they’ve tightened up since the 4th of December. The rules regarding access to lifts and you now need the pass to get your ski pass and onto lifts. But I haven’t been checked either, I must admit, but you’re supposed to wear masks in the lift queue and even obviously in the télécabines and the télépheriques, but you don’t need it on the chair-lift once you get going. So again, it’s not something that’s very tight and it’s not something that’s making your holiday any more awkward that it would normally be.

Peter Now I have to say you get remarkably used to this and you don’t have to wear a medical-type mask. You can wear what we like to call a neck-warmer or a buff, and you pull this up over your face when we need to.

Well, going back to the property market and where you stay when you come here, certainly a lot of tour operators have gone. Those tour operators that remain have cut their capacity by up to 70%, particularly in the chalet market. And presumably, David, there is a lot of empty property around waiting to be sold?

David Yes, undoubtedly, Peter. It’s an interesting situation. A lot of the traditional chalet companies, unfortunately, are no longer with us. And of course, now we’ve got the issue of Brexit and applying the French rules and regulations as in other countries across the EU, which has undoubtedly put up the cost of running the chalet companies for the various operators. And this has been passed on to our clients, which obviously has put the price of the holidays up, but you can still get some pretty amazing deals.

One thing that has surprised us is….and I think this has been the same in the UK…is the general property market in terms of sales has been very, very buoyant. We were very much thinking with Brexit and then with COVID that the whole thing was going to plummet. And in fact, it’s been completely opposite and the demand has outweighed supply by quite a significant margin.

Val d'Isere December

Photo: © P.Hardy

Peter Well, I guess your mountains equal fresh air and health, and a lot of people want to get out of the cities and into a natural environment. I know the demand for rentals for the whole season is pretty high and indeed there’s a lot of people who are thinking now, ‘Well, maybe I can buy a chalet,’ but you’ve got to pay a lot of money, of course.

David Yes, it’s I don’t know. I’ve heard through the grapevine, and working with some of the bigger UK estate agents that we have in the Alps, that certain areas of Britain have gone up as much as 20/25% over the last 12 months, and it’s pretty much the same across the Alps.

What’s been surprising is the British, who have been a very, very big clientele in terms of buying properties in the Alps…we found that the French have been buying and I’m sure it’s pretty much the same in other Alpine countries. People have been trying to get out of the big cities and we found the top-end properties particularly have been in great demand, but there’s still plenty of smaller properties and studios and smaller apartments available at what you and I still consider reasonable prices for the ski market.

It’s very much the feeling here that this winter is an intermediate winter, between a full-on COVID situation and things getting better. We’re obviously trying to be optimistic, but there’s a general feeling that we’re going to see the worst of this epidemic fading out over 2022 and then pretty much back to normal in ’22, ‘23. That’s the hope we’ve all got. But this is definitely going to be a very tight winter, and we’re just praying that things get better as it looks like there will be.

If you’ve got any doubt about the skiing conditions, if you just tune into the World Cup races that Val d’Isère’s got, you can see for yourselves the trees are laden with snow.

Peter Why is it that was chosen for the really big races at the beginning of the season?

David Well, it’s quite clear that the Federation Internationale de Ski, as they call it, was looking for the most guaranteed ski resort in terms of snow they could find. Organising downhill races early in the winter is not easy to do, and fortunately, they’ve chosen the most snowsure resort really in the Alps as far as we’re concerned, and that is probably Val d’Isère as and this year is about to prove it even more than before.

Peter Well, on that note, we’d better go skiing. I guess.

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Peter It’s time now to catch up with how the resort itself is managing to cope with what will undoubtedly be one of the trickiest winters for tourism since the first hotel opened here way back in 1888.

So Cecile Ferrando, your father was a ski instructor here. You were born here; you learned to ski here, and you went on to become a national ski racer and now you’re director of communications for Val d’Isère. So you spent half a lifetime here and you’ve seen every start to the season – apart from the ones when you’ve been away racing. But what kind of a start for Val deserves this one?

Val d'Isere December

La Face ready for racing. Photo: © John Yates-Smith, YSE Ski

Cecile Hi, Peter. Yes, I’m born and raised in Val d’Isère and I’m really happy to live here now all the time and it’s a great winter. I have to say that we’re really, really happy and enjoying the coming winter. I’m not saying it’s easy because of all the COVID situation, and we have to be really, really aware of what people need to do. And we’re putting lots of efforts to make sure we can welcome people and they can go back into the country. So it’s challenging, but I have to say that it will be a great winter because we have so much snow. It’s mad. It’s been so many years. We haven’t started like this with the more than a metre at 3000 metres. So it’s really good news, great powder. I have to say that I’ve been skiing on Sunday and it was really nice.

La Face is getting ready for the Criterium and there are already a few clients in the resorts and people are really enjoying it. People are so happy to be able to ski because they couldn’t ski last year and the year before we had to stop mid-March.

Peter Well, I’ve been coming here, Cecile, for the past…I guess something like 30 years at this time of year, at the very beginning of the season and I don’t think I can remember quite such a good start. And know we always say this every year, but this is truly special: there is so much snow and we’ve had the sunshine. And in the last week when I’ve been here, we’ve had very cold weather, which is good. We’ve had a lot of snow; really a big dump of snow. It looks like February outside that window there, isn’t it? Overall, it looks like truly being the vintage start the season of all time. But of course, we have got that one little problem of COVID and then we’ll come back to that in a minute.

But first of all, I want to know from you why Val d’Isère is the best resort now during the course of my long career. I’ve been to over 550 resorts in the world, I guess, and I rate Val d’Isère not just as Europe’s, but as the world’s number one ski resort. Now that’s a pretty big statement, and I should, of course, qualify that by saying best ski resort for what I mean, every skier has different requirements and the old powder hound like me, doesn’t have the same demands as a family with young children, but then actually Val is great for both. So tell me what you think? What is this magic factor Val d’Isère’s got that’s so very special?

Cecile Well, I agree with you, Peter. I think Val d’Isère is the best place to ski in the world and not only to ski, to come for ski holidays. And you said it, you can come even if you’re a family, you can come even if you’re a great skier, you can come even if you’re a beginner. We welcome everybody. And I think that’s what’s magic about Val d’Isere. It’s the diversity of the slopes, the diversity in the village, because I think it’s another great thing is that Val d’Isere has been a small village and became a great ski resort, and that’s why it’s so special.

There’s not so many places like this – actually, there’s only one ski resort like us, was a small village with locals, local family like my grandparents, they were farmers and then they became a people who were renting apartments and welcoming British skiers and skiers from everywhere in the world. And the village became a place, an amazing place where people came from everywhere in the world but remained a village. And I think it’s the big difference as well. And I think that’s why Val d’Isère is such a great place: because it remains a village and you can feel it when you walk around in the streets. And so that’s the second reason why it’s great: first diversity; second the village: third you said it – the snow, the amazing mountains around the area is just amazing.

I’ve been travelling quite a lot as well. I’ve been skiing in Australia, in the States, in Canada, in Norway everywhere, in Italy everywhere. But then I do agree with you that Val d’Isère is the best place for skiing. I’m also a powder hunter, but I haven’t found such a great place in the world to enjoy powder. So I think it’s a good thing, but also for people who are more quiet, like families or beginners, they can also enjoy Val d’Isère and find something for them as well. So that’s three good reasons to come to Val d’Isère and I think we agree together with this.

Peter But going back to the powder, which is pretty important to me and it’s very important for you as well. The thing that really sets Val d’Isère apart for me is the fact that at the beginning of the season, and indeed throughout the season, snow is guaranteed here because Val d’Isère has its own glacier at…tell me the height of it?

Cecile Over 3000 meters of course, like the glacier of the Grand Motte.

Peter Which of course is in neighbouring Tignes.

Cecile We’re the neighbours of Tignes and the ski area is Tignes-Val d’Isère, so we really work closely together. And so the highest point is in the glacier – both Val d’Isère and Tignes.

Peter You’re booking a ski holiday here you don’t have the problem that you do have in lower resorts of: ‘Will there be snow when I go on my holiday?’ There will be snow and this year it is very special snow.

Cecil Yes, as we said before, it’s a great ski area and a great off-piste area as well. Well, first of all, I have to say that you have to be really aware of the danger of doing off-piste skiing – you always go with a ski instructor or you always wear an Arva and also an air bag. If you’re skiing off-piste you have to be really, really careful because the conditions can be really dangerous and especially when there’s lots of snow like we had the last weekend, we had a big dump of 70 centimetres of fresh snow in some places. So you have to be aware to be really, really careful. And yes, indeed, it’s such easy access that it’s amazing.

The bad thing is that many people are rushing into the powder. But if you know a little bit the place or if you have a good ski instructor who can take you and you can enjoy great powder everywhere in Val d’Isère. And access is really easy. You don’t have to walk that much – well last year we were walking a lot because there was no ski-lift. But coming back to what Peter was saying, yes, the access is really, really easy from everywhere, from Le Fornet to Bellevarde to Solaise and in Tignes you have great of skiing, so I can only say you have to come in and try it.

Peter Is it something new for this year? I mean, last year people who lived here actually had a wonderful season, to be honest, because although financially it was disastrous with no tourists, it was wonderful with beautiful snow conditions and people were ski touring, and it was all very quiet and wonderful. But now we’re back to it all in style.

First up is ski racing, which kicks off this weekend, but there has always been recognised by the International Ski Federation as one of the great racing centres in Europe, usually reliable snow at the beginning of the season. And that’s why Val d’Isère traditionally holds some of the biggest races at the start of the World Cup season.

It all begins this weekend with the Criterium de la Premiere Neige, which takes place every year – a huge meeting of all the finest ski racers in the world. Firstly, the men will be racing on La Face, one of the most challenging race courses in the world, were in downhill events they they actually reach speeds of around about 90 miles an hour, which is pretty terrifying. It’s probably the fastest course there is. And then next weekend, the racing switches to the OK, which is Val’s second downhill race course.

Cecile Initially, Val d’Isère was the first World Cup event. Now other places in Europe of races before us in Austria, but we remain a really, really important ski World Cup and this weekend we will welcome the men with a giant slalom on the Face de Bellevarde. And also we will have the woman racing the week after this. And it’s always a great moment in Val d’Isère. It’s really important in Val – we’ve been holding this event for years, for more than 70 years, and all the resort is enjoying this moment because everybody is working really hard to welcome the world’s best skiers. And it’s also the real beginning of the season; the world is looking at us with the media focusing on us, and this year for the first time it will be live on French TV as well. So it’s good news. It’s important, a really important event to show the world that we have snow indeed, because if you look at the race in in Austria there wasn’t much snow. You will see on the TV this year that we have lots and lots of snow in Val d’Isère this December.

Peter Well, it’s certainly looking out the window now. Cecile, you’ve got the best view in Val d’Isère right here and a terrace we’re looking out across. And late afternoon, early evening, the floodlights have come on and the Face de Bellevarde, which is directly opposite, is very special. They’re working on it now and they’ve got floodlights on. They work through most of the night and I have never seen it in such good condition.

Cecile Absolutely. It’s great and the pisteurs are working really hard on it at the moment. And the funny thing is that there has been so much snow that they now have to take the snow away, you know, because when you do races, when they do races, we need to race on the on hard snow and they inject the snow with water, so it becomes like ice. And there’s been so much fresh snow that now we have to clear the snow from the part where there will be the races. A great race to see and it’s a great piste to ski as well. I have to say that it’s one of my favourites, the Bellevarde, to go down. So, yes, I’m really happy.

Val d'Isere December

Photo: © Cat Weakley

Peter Well, I’ve been done the Face de Bellevarde many times, a few times with you, Cecile. I have to say I didn’t manage to keep up, but that’s another story. And of course, at the other end of town, we have the OK – the Oreiller Killy course, which is the other downhill course of Val d’Isère. And that’s where the women race, and they’re getting that in pretty good shape, too, only for the coming weekend…the following weekend?

Cecile I was there on Sunday, but they’re doing a great job the pisteurs, they’re putting on every protection for the ladies who will race there, and it’s also really, really important for us to welcome both the men and the women at the same moment. Because, yes, it is important not to focus only on the men’s World Cup. It’s really important for us that we have women coming from everywhere in the world and also from the States – you know there’s great American skiers. So we’re really excited to welcome the ladies on this great slope that is the Oreiller Killy, and then, of course, after the women it will be our clients who will enjoy it directly.

Peter Thank you very much indeed, and we hope you have a wonderful season and hope you get some good skiing yourself.

Cecile Thank you very much, Peter. I have a lovely winter as well and and everybody have a lovely winter too and hope to see you soon in there. Care.

Peter If you want to know more about Val d’Isère, check out www.welove2ski.com as well, of course, as the resort’s own website www.valdisere.com

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to peter@actionpackedtravel.com. And by the way, we just like to mention that if you take up our special offer to buy Water To Go bottles, we do earn a small commission; this helps with the production costs of the podcast. Until next week, stay safe.

 

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