Are you going skiing in Europe? Check out my recent ski trip in Val Thorens, France before you book your destination.
Many months ago I signed myself up for another whopper adventure - skiing in the French Alps.
On Saturday 12th January 2019, that trip began, coming all the way from my Irish home town of Carlow, right up into the snow white heart of the French Alps. Val Thorens. The highest ski resort in Europe.
I went as part of a fifteen strong group, many of which also went last year and are seasoned skiers. I made my debut on the slopes exactly one year ago with the same group of friends. Anyone who goes skiing knows it’s by no means a glamorous holiday. You’re up early to fuel yourself, to hit the slopes when the lifts open, skiing for the day and wrecked in the evenings before you head for a tipple or two. But it’s so worth it. Aprés-ski is part of the fun and a nice reward for a demanding day on your joints and limbs!
My trip was booked as part of a group booking through directski.com and covered flights to/from Dublin/Lyon, the coach transfer from/to Lyon airport, our accommodation at Le Tikal in the town of Val Thorens. My ski lift pass and ski gear (skis, ski boots, and poles) were also included in my package. I also opted to go for ski lessons every morning, which meant getting up a little earlier and being ready to hit the slopes for ski school at 9 am every morning from Sunday through Friday.
We flew with Aer Lingus, departing Dublin on Saturday morning and landing in Lyon Airport just over two hours later. Not long after, we boarded our coach to embark on the journey up the mountain, stopping halfway for a pitstop we began seeing iced mountain tops. My excitement levels gradually went up from here! After a couple of toll bridges and motorway roads, we were soon making our steeper descent up the snake-like roads through the towns and valleys to our final destination.
Ears popping. Temperatures dropping.
For anyone afraid of heights, this kind of a road trip might have you clutching for a sick bag, as over the edge of these roads are steep drops to the valleys below. Kudos to any bus drivers doing this route!
After about 3.5 hours we had arrived. Nice weather. Clear skies. Sunny and still bright with very little snow falling. A skiers dream. But would this be the case for the rest of our stay?
We quickly got out, stretched the legs and made our way into the reception of La Tikal to check in and dump our stuff in the rooms.
We had arrived.
Le Tikal has self-catering apartments with multiple sized rooms. I was sharing an apartment with 5 others. Anyway, enough about the boring stuff.
It was time to grab my ski gear and take a look around the slopes, which were literally outside our apartment complex! Yes, you can ski right out onto the piste! Awesome.
Tip: Wear your ski socks when you go to get fitted / to collect your ski boots.
I got my ski gear at Skiset Goitschel 3, just 5 minutes walk up the town from La Tikal, on the right-hand side of the road.
Go downstairs to get fitted and collect your gear. Queue up and firstly you’ll step onto a gait measurement machine where the ski shop assistant will measure your feet length, width and volume (how high your arches are), and your weight. This determines the boots you’ll need and any weight adjustments needed for your skis.
You can opt to upgrade your skis to two or three different levels from the standard ones. For anyone beginning or just skiing on the Green slopes, sticking with the standard skis is perfectly fine. If you are going off-piste (what does that mean? We will get to that later :) ), or looking for more control with your skis you can step it up a notch with Intermediate, Advanced or Premium versions. Basically, the materials the skis are made from, the angles and sharpness of the edges and the size of the actual ski have a great effect on the control, speed, and flexibility of the skiing. But only a seasoned skier would notice anyway or want to upgrade. My skis were the basic, entry level white, green, and blue skiis by Fischer and I’m pretty sure I had the exact same ones last year!
Your ski poles are supposed to be at 90 degrees to your body so that you won’t be overstretching or reaching downwards either.
P.S. You can also rent out ski goggles and helmets. What happens if you ruin the gear you’ve just hired? Don’t worry, there’s an insurance option when you go to check-out your gear. Alternatively, your travel insurance (which you should always take out on a ski trip!) may cover the gear should anything break or go missing. It can and does happen.
After collecting the ski gear and marching back to the apartment to fit them on again to get used to, it was time for a little drink to christen the ski trip. Where else would an Irish man go on a holiday, other than the local Irish bar. The Shamrock. Be prepared to pay €8-12 per drink here and in similar prices in most places. It ain’t cheap. It’s France’s highest ski resort, up 2300 metres from sea level! The drink has to make it up that mountain too. And. Well. Supply & demand.
There are two ATMs side by side just up from Le Tikal, left hand side. :) You'll need at least one!
Food is generally more expensive up here also, with your average main course in a mid range restaurant costing you about €18-25. If you’re doing it on a budget, then bring your food from home country and pack your lunches every day. This will save you time and money. Also, there are some supermarchés (French for guess what?) around, you can make use of them for fresh bread rolls and the every day essentials.
Sunday brought Day 1 of ski school for me and the first morning skiing for the rest of our group.
My ski school was Prosneige and I went for the Classe 1 option when booking it. The Beginners option is literally for first timers, which I did last year and gets you to a certain point. I was ready to up my game after mastering the Green and Blue slopes last year, finishing off my trip with an easy enough Red slope on the final day. So this year, Classe 1 was a wise choice. I won’t lie, Day 1 of ski school seemed like a complete waste of time and was very repetitive in what I learned/attempted last year, with beginner skiers in my group. As the day went on this got frustrating but I guess the school has to filter out the different levels and that takes a day’s observation...
Day 2 (Monday) of ski school was looking more promising but we didn’t really get going until 10am and I felt pretty much held back by one particular family who wanted to stick together although they were definitely not able for our classe. We did manage to get onto some nice Blues and the instructors had another opportunity to filter out people, moving some up and some down.
Day 3 (Tuesday) was much better and pushed me that bit more. With great weather on Tuesday and Wednesday I really had the time and weather conditions to learn more and put the skiing into practise during the evening ski session.
Later on Tuesday, we skied down a Red slope from Folie Douce into the back of the Red Fox pub. We had a few drinks there and the craic was 90! (Irish phrase for “fun”) before walking/skiing home later that night. What a sight that was indeed! Thankfully we all made it back to our apartments safely :)
Ski school Day 4 (Wednesday) saw a casualty in one of our classe, with an older Israeli guy spraining his knee, coming down a nice fast Red slope on Orelle, only to fall on the flat section! This caused a 45 mins hold-up while we all waited with him for the Ski-rescue medic to ski down with a stretcher to bring him back to Val Thorens. Luckily, his daughter was with him. She was able to keep in contact with him and ski back to meet him later after our lesson.
Being Wednesday, it was our fancy dress night with Bowling on the cards to have some fun and bring out the competitive edge in people. Val Thorens has a good bowling complex with a bar and is pretty close to some of the hopping spots, like Frog Bar and the infamous sweat box Café Snesko…where people are up on tables and they light the bar on fire every hour or so! Madness.
Day 5 (Thursday) was an epic day of skiing. Although not the best in weather conditions and visibility was only ok, we managed to only have three in our classe and our instructor, Milan, brought us over the mountain and into the legendary Courcheval resort. Littered with evergreen trees, nice slopes and some breathtaking views, including the airport (as seen in a James Bond film), Courcheval was definitely one of the highlights of my Lessons and of the entire trip this year. Our instructor Milan was super kind and stayed with us for extra time to do the trip from Val Thorens to Courcheval and back. Hats off to Milan and Prosneige ski school. Thank you.
Day 6 (Friday) was our final day in Ski school and we also only had three of us for the lesson which made it ideal for more one-to-one tuition and we were going off-piste a lot. “Off-piste” basically means skiing away from the designated slopes, which are marked by colour coded poles on the left and right of the piste. Green = Beginner/Easy. Blue = A little harder/Moderate. Red = Harder/Difficult. Black = Advanced/Hardest/Steepest (There are steeper and more difficult slopes beyond a marked Black slope but they would be for the pros and crazy people! :) ). We ventured up to La Masse to do that run and managed to get in my first Black slope also. Later that day I did another short Black slope from Plein Sud down via La Folie Douce (The famous bar & venue on the mountain…Read on to find out more about here)
We finished up just after 12 noon and made our way back to Prosneige to graduate from Classe 1 and grabbed a hot chocolate with some local liqueur in it to warm up. It was quite sunny but much cooler and a little cloudier than the previous days, so conditions fairly ok for skiing.
Had my lunch and went out for what would be the final runs of the ski trip (nostalgia as I write this).
Skiing with better skiers than you helps to bring you on a level, but don’t get too brave. Accidents can happen. And I had a bit of a fall, attempting a little off-piste jump off a Red slope which ended up with me landing 2 metres further than my skis planted in the ground, flipping over on my head and being panned out for a sec. Checked myself to make sure I was still alive, breathing and that all my limbs were moving. Gave the guys a thumbs up and began my search for the skis. Landing in snow off-piste without your skis can be challenging as you’ll easily sink down a foot or two especially if there has been fresh snow for a few days. Got back onto my skis and made my way back to the group to ski on. A little shook, I won’t lie.
Our final day was upon us. What better way to end our awesome ski trip than with a toboggan ride down the mountain. In the dark. With headlamps! It was absolutely epic. Great fun! Tough on the arms pushing yourself along the flat sections and tricky enough to control once you get going but my god was it some craic! You can get a little hurt if someone bashes into you so proceed with caution. After about 1 hour we had finished the toboggan course and had a hot mulled wine, some cheese and salami on the mountain (when in France…). Try out the tobogganing, and do it at night…well worth it! To learn more about this, check out Cosmojet (the longest toboggan ride in Europe!)
Saturday morning was a 4.30am rise to make sure the bags were packed and ready to disembark Le Tikal. Waiting for that bus back to the airport, in the cold, with your heavy luggage, after a tiring but fun week on the slopes is the worst part of your ski trip! Just after 5am our bus picked us up and we hopped aboard, directly back to Lyon airport. Our trip was coming to an end. For more about skiing in Val Thorens, message me on Facebook or Instagram/Twitter, I'd love to hear about your ski plans! Enjoy.
P.S. I'll have some video footage ready soon, loads of GoPro action to filter through and edit. :)