A beginner’s guide to skiing (and the places you need to go)
DESTINATION: Val Thorens, French Alps
Perched high on a snowy cliff, I inhale a lungful of crisp Alpine air. The mountainous landscape unfurls far beneath my ski boots – a sea of peaks painted white with snow.
Up here, there’s no noisy traffic or moaning commuters to spoil the peace and no need to check emails. It’s a rare, precious dose of tranquillity. I feel on top of the world – not only physically being so high up, but also mentally, thanks to all the skiing I’ve done over the past couple of days.
I’m 3,200m high, at the summit of Cime de Caron, a mountain in Val Thorens, France, the highest ski resort in Europe. A cable car and short hike have brought me to this panoramic viewpoint, from where I can see the peak of Mont Blanc to the north and the mountains of Italy to the east.
Far below lies the sprawl of chalets, apartments, hotels and restaurants that make up Val Thorens. Part of the massive Trois Vallées ski domaine, Val Thorens is a resort that continually proves it’s a cut above the rest; in November 2016, it scooped the gong for the Best Ski Resort in the World for the third time in four years. And it’s a worthy winner. Not only is ‘VT’ the most snow-sure of Europe’s resorts (at an altitude of 2,300m), it also has 150km of runs, 31 ski lifts, the world’s highest zip wire and a 6km toboggan run.
Once seen as the poorer cousin of chic Méribel and Courchevel, Val Thorens now boasts an increasing number of five-star hotels, making it a destination that attracts more than just those looking for guaranteed snow. Its latest five-star offering is Hotel Pashmina Le Refuge (Hotel Pashmina), a stylish wood and stone complex on the side of the piste. There’s luxury in spades in each of its 42 rooms and cosy home apartments. Or, if you’re adventurous, you could book into the rooftop Igloo Pod and sleep under the stars!
The hotel’s outdoor terrace glows like a beacon in the sunshine as I carve turns through fresh snow to reach it, skiing right up to its steps.
But the real draw for anyone who wants to do more than just ski lies on the lower floor, in the hotel’s wellness spa; facilities include an indoor pool, hot tub, steam room and a sauna, complete with breathtaking views.
The hotel offers ‘Sprunch’ – a spa and brunch package – to both guests and non-guests every Sunday. For £90, you can load up your plate from a huge buffet of cheeses, salads and fresh fruit, as well as a choice of teas and coffees, before or after enjoying a 30-minute massage bursting with L’Occitane essential oils and natural ingredients.
My muscles are tired from spending all morning swooping down blue and red runs, testing out different sets of skis through ski hire company Intersport (Intersport Rent) – and I can’t think of a better remedy than food and a massage.
An hour later, I’m in the spa, feeling the aches of physical exertion melt away under the deft fingers of my masseuse. Afterwards, the scent of rosemary and lavender still filling my nostrils, I lie back on a cow-print lounger in the relaxation room and sipping a herbal tea, I watch as day surrenders to dusk on the mountain.But indulging in massages and wallowing in hot tubs is not the only way to recharge your batteries in Val Thorens.
La Maison, a restaurant in the heart of the resort, now offers cooking lessons (£62, La Maison Val Thorens). The monthly sessions see budding chefs slice and stir their way through local recipes, including Cantal pork chops and Aligot and rib of beef.
BREATHE IN THE FRESH AIR
Soon again, it’s fresh air I’m after, so I go on a three-hour group tour combining snowshoeing (a cross between hiking and floating) with yoga (£28, Raquette Nature). I strap on the tennis racket-style footwear and follow guide Brigitte Ruff and local yogi Anita Thevenot through the mountains, stopping every so often for various yoga and meditation exercises. Our snowshoes allow us to access deep powder, away from skiers and snowboarders, and the air feels pure – ideal for ‘pranayama’ breathing exercises.
‘Practicing yoga outside at 2,300m altitude means you inhale fresh air, purify the body and connect with nature,’ Anita says, as we begin some poses.
Next, we move to a firmer spot, remove our snowshoes and begin sun salutations. It feels strange going through the moves in my cumbersome skiwear, but I soon get into the swing of it. We finish with seated side twists as the mountains turn from dusty pink to gold in the setting sun.
I can’t help feeling a sense of contentment from the good food, fresh air and exercise that accompanies this vast and beautiful landscape.
ECO TECH SKIS
Environmentally friendly skis are hot right now. Try Lonely Mountain Skis, Idris, Liberty or Grown Skis.
The Cime de Caron is a tourist hot spot.
To miss the queues, get up at the crack of dawn and tackle the mountain while everyone else is at breakfast!
5 REASONS TO SKI
Skiing is one of the best sports for total mind and body wellbeing. Here’s why:
1. The beauty of the landscape
Vast swathes of untouched powder, jagged peaks and trees that sparkle with fresh flakes… The scenery is awe-inspiring and takes you back to nature.
2. It’s a workout
Skiing is weight-bearing so you work your whole body. Ollie Martin, author of Ski Fitness (£18.99, Create Space), says: ‘Skiing uses natural human movements.’
3. You’re outside
Vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight causes health issues. Skiing lets you top up on the ‘sunshine vitamin’, helping to reduce your risk of cancer and boost your immune system
4. It’s multi-generational
Family skiing holidays can work brilliantly. Grandparents, parents and grandchildren can all ski together. Skiing is social and provides plenty of bonding time.
5. It’s fun!
Achieving something new is rewarding and fun. You can constantly learn and push yourself, whether that’s mastering a snow plough or an aerial trick.
BEST OF THE REST
Picturesque pistes to pick
This five-star hotel has the world’s fastest ski lift, plus ice rooms and plunge pools. From €201 per night, Central Soelden
Five miles of ski runs, with dog-sledding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. From €234 per pod per night, Whitepod
An offbeat beauty, this palatial accommodation has hosted the Kennedys. From CA$399, Fairmont