Monday , March 27 2023

From ice floating to fatbiking in the snow: there’s more to Val d’Isère than skiing

Lit up by over a kilometre of orange lights, the daunting 1,400 metre piste stretched out in front of me. Taller than Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, the run, called La Face de Bellevarde, starred in the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics and has attracted hardcore skiers and off-piste aficionados to Val d’Isère for decades.

But I’m a ski novice, and thankfully my view of Bellevarde wasn’t from the top of the run. I was perched high in the treetops opposite, in a harness clipped to a particularly sturdy pine tree.

High ropes adventure in the trees at Val D’Isere.
High ropes adventure in the trees at Val D’Isere

This was a tree-top adventure course, with all the ziplines, Tarzan swings and wobbly bridges you’d expect, but unusual in that it opens only as darkness falls, the way illuminated by LED lights. It’s one of many new activities this classic ski destination is trialling to try widen its appeal after Covid shutdowns and the war in Ukraine (Russia is its third-biggest market) saw visitor numbers falter.

“We have enjoyed a good reputation for hard runs and world-class off-piste skiing,” said Benjamin Dubois, technical director of the Val d’Isère ski school. “But we need to attract new people in a sustainable way, and that means offering something for beginners and those who don’t want to ski at all.”

I’d arrived in as low-carbon a way as possible – by train from London, via Paris, to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, then a bus to the resort. Val d’Isère already has Green Globe sustainable tourism certification – for measures including tree planting and the removal of over 100 lift pylons – and added the coveted Flocon Vert (Green Snowflake) accreditation in November.

The resort has also stepped up recycling and energy efficiency programmes in the valley, replacing petrol buses with electric ones and switching piste groomers to biofuel. They are also working to diversify activities offered so that as the snowline gets higher through climate change, there isn’t simply a demand for more artificial snow (snow cannons consume a lot of energy).

Though Benjamin was keen to show me the new kids’ and beginners’ areas high on Solaise mountain, I was distracted by a first glimpse of the frozen surface of Lake Ouillette, the setting, later that day, for my first non-ski experience – ice floating.

This, when the time came, essentially meant donning an orange drysuit and jumping into a frozen lake – the (Nordic-inspired) idea is to spend time simply floating. Initially the thought of hanging around in freezing water left me cold (in many ways), but as I slid into the small watery rectangle that instructor Damien had cut into the ice earlier, the air was filled with the near-musical sounds of icy splinters floating and colliding on the water’s surface. I let go of his arm and felt the suit constrict around my thighs, then flopped into the water and immediately bobbed up to the surface.

At first I and my fellow ice floater laughed at the strangeness of it all, but after just a few minutes, we fell silent and I simply gazed at the mountains and thought of nothing at all. It was blissful.

The next morning I rose early for a much speedier adventure – exploring the valley beyond the pistes on an electric fat-bike. My guide was Frederik Van Buynder, a former World Cup ski racer who, on retiring from the sport in his early 30s, decided to combine his love for bikes and the snow.

E-fatbiking outside Val d’Isère
E-fatbiking outside Val d’Isère

“We started last year and already bookings are growing massively,” said Fred as we made our way out of town on a groomed track towards Le Fornet village. In a ski resort it’s easy to get a narrow vision of the place, but I was seeing a whole new side to it. I marvelled at the huge stone buildings and their intricate wooden roofs, enjoyed the quiet on the mountainside when we stopped for a snack, and got chatting to locals when admiring a waterfall.

“Right now we have about four tracks,” said Fred as we paused at a cafe for hot chocolate. “But it’s my dream that soon people will be coming here specifically for fatbiking.” He is currently working with the resort to plan more trails.

I spent the afternoon meandering around Val d’Isère, checking out the independent stores (I particularly liked Mountain Girl’s upcycled clothing) and local food – including L’Adroit farm, which was next to my hotel and supplies all its milk, cream and cheese.

Lucille of Ferme de L’Adroit cuts a sample of tomme cheese
Lucille of Ferme de L’Adroit cuts a sample of tomme cheese

Owned by the same family for three generations, the farm is open to visitors, who can watch milking, buy its products at the shop or dine on 100% farm food in the restaurant. “Everything here has travelled less than a kilometre,” said one of the owners, Lucille, while selecting cheeses for me to taste: avalin (hard, made only in summer to give it a floral tone, aged for 18 months), tomme (sweet, creamy and light) and valiflette (great for melting). “All cow feed is grown in the valley, and chickens and pigs are fed using leftovers from our restaurant, the local school canteen and the bakers.”

My last morning began on an electric bus to La Daille – the final hub in the Isère valley before Tignes, to try the last eco-tick on my sustainable activity list – a ride on a moon bike.

Resembling a scooter with a giant mono-ski instead of a front wheel, this environment-friendly alternative to a snowmobile (it’s 100% electric and can be charged by solar power) was designed in France and has grown rapidly in popularity in the past 12 months.

man with moonbike on snow
Moon biking is the environment-friendly alternative to snow mobiling

I’d be lying if I said it was easy to master. Going straight was easy enough, but to turn you have to lean hard and fast into corners – motorbike style – to stay balanced. It took 10 minutes of looping the rental shack and apologising to passing skiers before I was released on to the mountainside. But what a revelation: with no petrol engine roar, the experience was exhilarating and utterly silent, fast yet calming.

That evening, before my illuminated treetop adventure, I stood on the platform ready to jump into the darkness. It may not be the “black” most people talk about when they mention this resort but I reasoned, as I teetered on the edge of the spindly pine forest, that here in Val d’Isère green is definitely the new black.

The trip was provided by Val d’Isère Tourism, with accommodation at Victoria Lodge Hotel (doubles from £175 B&B). A one-day ski pass costs €58, fat biking €75 for two hours, ice floating €80, dusk treetop adventure €25, and the moonbike experience €70

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