The last run of the day is often a scrum as everyone hurtles down the same slope in pursuit of an après-ski beer. As the afternoon light faded, I was cruising from the 3,000-metre Col de Thorens down an empty piste, wondering where everyone else was. Val Thorens, probably, or Les Menuires or Méribel. But here in little Orelle, on the fringe of France’s Trois Vallées, you wouldn’t know you were in the largest ski domain in the world.
That’s the beauty of these small back-door resorts: you get a share of 600km of slopes but you’re not in the thick of the crowds – nor paying top whack. And that back door has become considerably easier (and cheaper) to open with the arrival of two new cable cars in Orelle. One whizzes you up from the village to the ski area of Plan Bouchet at 2,350 metres, replacing an older, slower lift. But the big news is the Orelle-Caron cable car that takes you directly to Val Thorens and its 150km of slopes, opening up the highest resort in the Trois Vallées to pedestrians as well as skiers. As the ski season here is currently slated to stay open until 8 May, that leaves plenty of time for spring skiing on high-altitude slopes.
Orelle itself is less a village and more a series of 10 minuscule blink-and-you-miss-them hamlets scattered around zigzagging roads. It’s a sleepy slice of Savoie, its traditional stone cottages mingling with more modern chalets and residences. It’s as far as you can get – economically and spiritually – from the Trois Vallées’ northernmost outpost of Courchevel. Budget, not bling, is the key word in Orelle where an apartment in Le Hameau des Eaux d’Orelle residence, where I was based, costs from €520 in April for a week for four.
To say the accommodation is basic is somewhat of an understatement (bring your own soap, cleaning supplies, etc), and there are extra charges for towels, linen and a final cleaning. But there is an indoor pool, hot tub and sauna, not to mention a decently stocked (and well-priced) food shop and a good restaurant and bar. It’s a 10-minute cab ride from the nearest train station at St-Michel-de-Maurienne (on the TGV line from Paris), and a free ski bus that runs every 15 minutes drops you off at the cable car 700 metres away.
About 20 minutes after I left Orelle’s lower station, I was at the top of Cime Caron, which towers over Val Thorens at 3,195 metres. From here, non-skiers can reach the centre of Val Thorens by using the Cime Caron gondola and two more cable cars – handy for those who might want to check out the restaurants, sports centre, spa and cinema. Instead, soaking up the late-winter sun, I skied down into the heart of Val Thorens.
From here it was easy to carry on towards Les Menuires, where another new cable car opened this season. The old lifts I last took up to Pointe de la Masse a few years ago have been replaced with a speedy gondola that transports skiers and pedestrians in search of stupendous views in just eight minutes. La Masse used to be a bit of a secret, relatively speaking, but that secret is truly out now with the construction of an enormous 360-degree viewing platform at the summit. Along with the now obligatory #lesmenuires Instagram-friendly giant letters facing the mountains, there are artistically arranged metal sculptures highlighting the peaks and glaciers you can see. I spotted Cime Caron where I had skied down earlier. But unlike Cime Caron, where there are only red and black runs, La Masse has beginner-friendly blues, a picnic area and a little fun park for kids. And its 1,000-metre descent is one of the loveliest in the resort.
Méribel was just as easy to explore the following day, as I meandered through Val Thorens across to the 2,850-metre Col de la Chambre and up and down Mont Vallon. By this time the wind was turning fierce, bringing with it the red Saharan sand that was blowing across parts of Europe that week. It was surreal to see pink tinges on white snow. It was just as surreal when, at the end of the ski day when we gathered at Orelle’s little bar by the lower cable car station, I paid €3.60 for a glass of wine. Not quite Courchevel prices.
The wind had calmed down when I queued up the next morning for my first attempt at a zipwire, La Tyrolienne. From Orelle’s highest point, Sommet des Trois Vallées at 3,230 metres, I was wedged into a harness, skis and poles strapped to my back, and off I went. One minute and 45 seconds of a simultaneously exhilarating and soothing whoosh across 1,300 metres to Col de Thorens. At €55 a go, it wasn’t quite in keeping with Orelle’s budget-friendly ethos, but it was an invigorating taste of the high life.
Accommodation was provided by Le Hameau des Eaux d’Orelle and lift passes by Trois Vallées. A week’s self-catering costs from €329 (sleeping four), with towels €10pp, bed linen from €10 to €15 and cleaning kit €8.50. A six-day lift pass costs €330 for adults, and six days’ ski equipment rental from Orelle Sports 3000 (skis, boots, poles and helmet) costs from €105. For more information visit Orelle tourism.