I love almost everything about ski holidays. Wrapping my hands around hot chocolate, watching the pros hurtle down black slopes and waltz in ridiculous 1980s snowsuits that would only be acceptable on the slopes. In fact, the only part I don’t like is the skiing itself.
I put on my first pair of boots at 27: too old to be fearless; too young not to give it a shot. The new activities this season in Val d’Isère make me want to go back to the mountains for the second time, but not a ski pole in sight.
Frederik Van Buynder also has an aversion to skiing. He’s a former racer who retired after a knee injury but struck gold elsewhere: fat bikes. The pandemic has been the perfect time to start his business and buy 13 state-of-the-art e-bikes with tires as thick as the woolly hood of my wetsuit.
I jump on it and soon I’m plowing the snow with disconcerting ease. There are 55km of trails, with off-road segments as well, although we stuck to a quiet scenic loop. As the daylight fades and the sky turns cotton candy pink, we stop to admire a frozen waterfall. “The best thing about fat bikes is how inclusive they are,” says Van Buynder. Unlike tracks, everyone has the same ability. His oldest customer was a 77-year-old man who spent the entire trip at the front of the pack.
The views get even better at my base camp. Le Refuge de Solaise is the highest hotel in France at 2,551 m. It’s ski-in ski-out: you can be the first to tackle the freshly groomed slopes in the morning, then kick off your boots and an Aperol in hand before most are up the gondola.
Inside, it’s chalet chic with reclaimed wood, cowhide rugs, and floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the slopes. The grand mountain views continue into the spa where you can watch the snow fall from the 25m pool, hot tubs or the cozy shepherd’s hut sauna.
There’s a downside to being so tall – and it’s not just that sinking a cocktail will set you back £15. Your only access to the town is via the Solaise gondola and the last lift returns to the hotel at 5:00 PM. This is also exactly why some choose to stay here. “My feast days are over; Luckily I left the afternoon shift behind me,” a Val d’Isère regular tells me, sprawling next to me in the hot tub.
The next day I’m back in the water but there are no bubbles and it’s -1C. Lac Ouillette is where I try my hand at the niche sport of floating on ice. I’m vacuum-packed in an orange drysuit with three huge foam fingers, looking like a cross between a turkey mascot and Tintin. I don’t know who has the worse deal: me or the guy who spent two hours digging a hole in the lake in preparation.
However, from deep within my specialist suit, the water is lukewarm. There is a strange feeling of weightlessness – but I get used to it quickly and switch off for a surreal but totally relaxing half hour afloat.
Lucy in her stylish orange drysuit
There is no way to completely avoid these slopes. In Camille, I have a superb instructor to ignite my enthusiasm. From the gondola, she points out the famous La Folie Douce haunt, which – save for a few women in feathered headdresses picking up glasses – is almost entirely staffed by men. The fact that women are in the minority on the slopes of the predominantly British resort is nothing new, according to Camille. Of the 50 guides she works with, 46 are men. But the non-skiing activities I sampled help correct that. “All the new activities offered by Val d’Isère are necessary to target a new public. The tracks have been dominated by men for years, but women tend to hold the purse strings. A nice spa is no longer enough if they come for the week and don’t feel like skiing,” she says.
I’m in the powder the next day, but not with my skis. Hiking in the mountains on a ski vacation is something few visitors consider. Yet my fitness walk around the Manchet Valley – with its views of the formidable Mont Blanc massif, and joined by a diverse group of fellow walkers, from young families to elderly couples – is wonderfully energizing and empowering. to discover the surroundings of our guide, Yannick. I ask him about other non-skiing activities in Val d’Isère, cursing myself for not leaving time for snowshoeing or dog sledding.
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On my last day, I enjoy a visit to nearby Ferme de l’Adroit, where I find a much better balance between the sexes: 13 Brune des Alpes cows for one bull. The farmer’s daughter, Lucille, runs the charcuterie next door where the products are local or from the surrounding valley. She cuts up huge wheels of reblochon with hazelnuts and sausage to nibble on, and I look for something to wash it down.
The stag and après-ski scene of La Folie Douce seems far away – and I’m more than happy with a ladies’ pint of La Brune des Alpes.
Lucy Perrin was a guest of Val d’Isère Tourisme (valdisere.com). Double Bed and Breakfast at Refuge de Solaise from £317 (lerefuge-valdisere.com). A one-day ski pass costs £53; the fat bike costs £63 for 90 minutes (billetweb.fr/wattsup-fatbike); floating ice is £75 (evolution2.com); and a guided fitness walk costs £8 (centre-aquasportif.com)