Les Trois Vallées, France: The largest and highest!
Updated: May 13
Now fully addicted to skiing in the Alps, our next destination had to be something equally spectacular to our prior experiences skiing around the Matterhorn in Switzerland or the Arlberg area of Austria. As the largest connected ski resort in the world, we chose Les Trois Vallées, France for our 2022 ski adventure and Jennifer's birthday celebration. With 370 miles of ski slopes, 183 lifts, 2300 snow cannons, and forever views across the continent, this place had all the makings of an epic trip. We were not disappointed!
We arrived in Switzerland on the morning of Jennifer's birthday. We had an amazing tailwind which got us from Boston to Zurich in only 6 hours, followed by a quick 1-hour flight to Geneva. From there we made our way via car service out of Geneva and into France, winding through scenic mountains until the sun set, arriving at our final destination of Val Thorens, France. Val Thorens is the highest ski resort in Europe, sitting above the tree line at 7,500 feet and in the eastern corner of the three valleys. Famous for its lively après ski nightlife and myriad of activities beyond skiing, it was the perfect location for Jennifer's birthday bash.
We checked in to the lovely Fahrenheit Seven Hotel on Jennifer's big day and made ourselves comfortable. Situated right in town and adjacent to the ski trails, we couldn't wait to ski down to our first lift in the morning. It had been quite a long day of travel, so we opted for a mellow evening. We explored town, picked up our ski passes so we were ready to go in the morning, and had a tasty meal in our hotel dining room.
We awoke the next morning, fresh and raring to go. Looking outside our window, we could see the early morning sunrise reflecting off the snow-covered mountain tops.
The snow cats were just finishing up their long night of grooming and people were already starting to gather at the bottom of the trails. As we walked outside to put our skis on, we couldn't help but notice the staff was already setting up the bar for the afternoon, with large bottles of Aperol glistening in the morning sun. Little did we know that this was a harbinger of the wild après ski party that our hotel would later host, complete with stumbling partiers falling head over heels while attempting repeatedly to put their skis on after sunset.
The anticipation for the day ahead was palpable, and when we saw the forecast for overnight snow that night, there was a heightened level of excitement about the days ahead. There hadn't been a significant snowfall here in weeks and while the snowmaking and grooming is world class, nothing beats a fresh topping of mother nature's finest powder! Woohoo, can't wait!
This place is so vast that you could ski here every day for a week and still have many unexplored trails. Our mission was to conquer as many as possible and to explore every corner of the Three Valleys. For day one, we opted to stay in the Val Thorens area and see as much of this valley as we could in a day. The conditions were nice, considering the lack of recent snow. Groomed packed powder with some occasional crunch, but no ice to speak of. There is plenty of variety here. The bottom of the slopes near the lifts was crowded and loaded with kids taking ski lessons. We later learned that this was French school vacation week. No wonder it was so crowded down there! And the traffic coming up to the mountain the night before! Now it all makes sense. Well, despite the busy week and the crowds down below, this place is so massive that there was hardly a lift line anywhere.
And once we got away from the beginner slopes and up to the steeper stuff, the crowds disappeared and there was plenty of room to spread out and carve our way down the wide open glorious trails that were before us. We had heard that the Three Valleys is now connected to the "hidden fourth valley" so we made our way over to the Marienne Valley via Orelle. We had now checked the farthest corner of the resort off our list, and it was awesome. We headed back over to Val Thorens and took some fun lower runs that wound throughout the town and the numerous ski-in/ski-out resorts.
Eventually we made our way up to the world famous La Folie Douce (Sweet Madness) bar situated midway up the mountain. We had been anticipating this place for quite some time. This place has a reputation. Known for wild afternoon parties, though we weren't quite sure we wanted to get champagne sprayed all over us by the DJ, (perhaps we are too old for that?), we had to see what it was all about. It is the perfect mountainside party location, only accessible by ski or snow board. We had a tasty lunch at the adjoining restaurant and made our way into the outdoor bar area around 3pm. Things were hopping, and a line had formed outside. There's a strange phenomenon that takes place here. Live musicians play along to recorded music from a balcony overlooking the outdoor bar area. A DJ orchestrates the tunes, and a singer supplies vocals on and off throughout the song. Sometimes enthusiastically belting out a few lyrics from the song, and other times ad-libbing her own lyrics, all the while dancing in front of the crowd.
It's quite strange yet somehow entertaining at the same time and the crowd loved it. Their well-known champagne spraying never happened, presumably due to Covid restrictions, but that was just fine with us. A few drinks later, closing time was nearing and we decided to head down the hill before the raucous twenty somethings all took off downslope at once. That proved to be a good move. In spite of how uncrowded the upper slopes were, at 4pm all those people that are spread out across the mountain are funneling down a few winding trails back to their resorts. We safely dodged errant skiers and made it back to our hotel without incident.
Now it was time for Jennifer's belated birthday dinner, and I chose the lovely Le Vieux Chalet for this celebration. It was a 10-minute walk, traversing across a ski slope to get there. A light snow had started to fall, and the anticipation of a powder day tomorrow was building.
After a long day of skiing, Jennifer's birthday beer was quickly empty, as was mine. We ordered a delightful bottle of red wine from the local Savoie region of France, and some hearty dinner from their eclectic menu. It was delicious and unique. Jennifer enjoyed the duck breast stuffed with mushroom duxelles, and I had the bulgur risotto with scallops. Both were delightful and perfectly suited to the ambience in this classic French ski chalet of a restaurant. But we had one slight regret about our choices. After we placed our order, we noticed a disproportionate number of tables around us were enjoying a very unique offering. After an inquiry with our server, we learned that raclette was a specialty of the Savoie region and of this establishment. It is quite an unusual sight that is both appealing and intimidating at the same time.
Imagine a giant half wheel of cheese,
approximately 10 lbs. in size, turned on its
side with a heat lamp inches away from it.
Now imagine the diners sharing this massive hunk of melting cheese by taking a large two handled knife and shaving the cheese as it melts and spreading it on bread and other things. It was quite a sight to see, and the entire restaurant smelled of this French classic of melting raclette cheese. We only wished we could have tried a sample portion.
After dinner we walked around town through the light snow that had started falling and made our way back to our hotel for after dinner drinks. Our bartender was kind enough to inform us of another French alpine specialty known as Génépi. This traditional herbal liqueur is a cousin to Absinthe and commonly served and enjoyed neat as an aperitif. It was perhaps a bit harsh yet soothing and ever so special as we finished the birthday celebration in such a wondrous place. By now the snow was starting to build outside and we both commented (uncharacteristically) that we could not wait for the alarm to go off early the next morning.
As the sunlight started to appear over the mountain tops the next morning, a glance outside confirmed what we had been expecting. Powder day! Ten inches had fallen overnight, which is just about the perfect amount to freshen up the slopes without making them too challenging, especially without powder skis. We powered through breakfast to ensure we had enough time to accomplish our goal for the day. Today we were going to ski from the Val Thorens eastern corner of The Three Valleys, down into Meribel, back up to the peaks on the other side, and down to Courcheval. And then all the way back to Val Thorens again. In fresh powder! And the trick was to make it back to the lifts at Meribel before 3:30 PM or else we would be stuck with no way to get back to Val Thorens without a long bus or taxi ride. We were up for the challenge!
By now the overnight storm had passed and the sun was bursting through the clouds at the top of the mountains. As we made our way toward Meribel, the powder was luscious and nearly untouched in many places. The trails are well marked here, with signs pointing you in the direction of the destination towns we were seeking. This proved important because there are so many trails and lifts here that using a map to guide you is daunting and difficult. But as long as you know where you want to go, the signs will take you there. Skiing back down to Meribel, we realized that the sun had only burned off the clouds at the top of the mountains. Visibility was about 50 feet max!
As we carved our way down through the powder and the mounds that had been built up by the onslaught of skiers, we were suddenly in a thick fog, or more accurately, a cloud. That took some getting used to and a more moderate pace! Down we went, through the hamlet of Meribel and onward toward Courcheval on the far west side of the resort. We were several hours in at this point, and we were ready for a lunch break and some sight-seeing. Toward the bottom it was so much fun skiing around and through the groups of tiny children in ski school making their way down the trail with their instructor.
Courcheval is a lovely town, actually spread into several sections at different elevations. We stopped in Courcheval 1850 (as in 1850 meters) which was bustling and ritzy and charming and endearing all at the same time. The town was host to several events in the 1992 winter Olympics and will host the 2023 world alpine ski championships.
We walked through town, enjoying the sights of shops, a horse drawn carriage, a charming church steeple, the beautiful little carousel in the center of town, and all the skiers enjoying the fresh pow. We had a nice lunch and cold beer on an outdoor patio in the sunshine that was left behind when the clouds finally dispersed. The service was a bit slow, and we were getting antsy about the time. The clock was ticking, and we did not want to miss the last lift. We followed the signs back toward Meribel, up and down many lifts and trails, and then onward toward Val Thorens.
The crowds were getting thin by now and the moguls they left behind were becoming tricky to ski through and around. Hmmm. We hadn't really pondered that as a factor in our timing, but it was. All this fresh snow was slowing us down! We also didn't factor in the wrong turn we made, in spite of the aforementioned well marked trail signs. Suddenly we found ourselves scrambling to get to that last lift that took us up over the mountain atop Val Thorens. It was approaching 3:30 and we were still heading toward our lift. We were getting worried. I started to think about finding a bus schedule. Finally, we were almost where we needed to be when we came across a ski patroller who had started to pull the rope across the trail. Lucky for us we saw him or else we would have skied the wrong way right past him! We looked down and realized, that's our lift!
We quickly darted past the patroller and his now nearly closed rope and accelerated down the hill as fast as we could. I got to the bottom first and held a place in front of the lift for Jennifer who arrived just seconds later. With no one else around except for us and the lift operator, we boarded the chair and started back up the mountain. I glanced at my watch and...3:35pm! Woah, we just made it! The last ones on the lift without a second to spare! Back to Val Thorens we went, worn out from a full 8-hour day of powder skiing with 27 miles and 22,000 vertical feet covered. Whew!
Back at the hotel, we decided to have an après ski drink and an appetizer before heading out to town for dinner. As we sat down, we noticed a crew at a table nearby enjoying a plate of charcuterie, one of our favorite things to nibble on in our travels. The local meats and cheeses are always so delicious! With no need for a menu, our server took our drink order and we pointed to the platter across the room and uttered,"Charcuterie."
She acknowledged with a nod and was off to place our order. A few minutes later she returned with our drinks and a huge platter of meat, but the cheese was conspicuously absent! Oops, something went wrong. The local Savoyard cheese was half the pleasure of this treat, so we both smiled and said, "Fromage?" pointing again to our neighbor's platter. A few minutes later she returned with a massive array of eight different cheeses that could have fed 10 people. As we chalked it up to a miscommunication, it became glaringly clear that this appetizer had become our dinner! Oh, well, c'est la vie, we ate as much as we could and headed out into town for some fun.
As we walked into the center of the village, a crowd had started to gather at the edge of the hillside. Curious, we approached and realized that we had stumbled upon the weekly Torchlight Decent that we had read about. Serendipity! A parade of snowmobiles carrying torches was heading up the mountain. The people on the snowmobiles then dismounted and headed down the trail - we watched as around 100 Val Thoren ski school instructors and ski patrol slowly descended on skis and boards as they held their torches in the air.
When they reached the bottom, each of the drivers dismounted with torch in hand, then made their way into the magic carpet ski lift, rising up towards us and then exiting into the crowd cheering for their arrival.
Everyone was yelling and clapping and the little kids danced around in awe! Then to our surprise, a fantastic fireworks show began! With the backdrop of the snow-covered mountain, the multicolored explosions lit up the sky and the ka-booms echoed back and forth across the valley. It was quite the show and the crowd loved it!
The next day was a day off from skiing to explore and try out some alternate activities. We chose to go on the Cosmojet! What is a Cosmojet, you say? Well, we didn't know either, but it sounded like fun! It turns out that this is a red plastic sled with a lever on each side that you pull up in order to depress a metal lever into the snow for steering or braking the sled.
This, combined with a bobsled style chute down the mountain, was the Cosmojet. We grabbed our sleds and boarded the Gondola up to the top and let gravity do the rest. It looked so simple and easy, but let me tell you, dragging a couple of metal levers through snow is not a particularly effective method of steering or slowing. Couple that with soft new snow and you end up with a wild ride! Yes, we crashed into the walls. Yes, we flipped upside down. And perhaps there was a minor collision with another Cosmojetter!
Halfway down the trail, we came across exactly what we were looking to do in the late morning.
We weren't really sure where to find it, but we knew it was there somewhere, and low and behold we cosmojetted right into the Igloo Village! Part bar, part restaurant, part hotel, this village made from ice and snow sits slope side with chairs and tables set out in the sun to enjoy a refreshing cocktail break. Inside, the bar with ice carvings is on full display where the friendly bartender will happily tell you about the local Savoyard craft beers they have available.
We dragged our bright red sleds off the trail and mingled with a group of Norwegian college buddy snow boarders that were enjoying their spring break. After the igloo refreshment break we made our way down the trail and it was off to lunch. There are some awesome trailside restaurants sitting along the bottom of the hill and we found a gem. The sun was blazing through the cool winter air making it perfectly comfortable to enjoy a beer and a sandwich on the outdoor patio.
After lunch we wandered through town, poking into shops and taking in the sights and tempting smells of the outdoor market. Of course we also had to stop in for a drink at the highest bar in Europe, the Frog and Roastbeef Pub! The winter Olympics were taking place so we enjoyed our drinks while watching the latest mixed double curling match.
Our final day in Val Thorens was spent skiing to all the small corners that we had missed on the previous days. It was a glorious, sunny day and the conditions remained fantastic from the recent snow.
We skied up and down winding trails to the quant villages of Menuires and St. Martin de Belleville, passing mountainside watering holes and restaurants.
The warm sun was softening the snow and exposing the rocks on the mountainside. Having achieved our goal of getting to every corner of these three massive valleys, we headed back to Val Thorens for our final activity.
We skied down to the gondola, then up, up, up to the Flying Bee double zip line. We attended a short safety briefing, then strapped our skies across our backs and snapped into our harnesses. 1-2-3 "Go!" and away we went, 215 feet above the pistes below and a one-mile journey. "Woohoo!!!" spontaneously erupted from each of us as we careened down the wires, achieving 2Gs of force at the braking point at the bottom! Wow that was exhilarating!
Val Thorens and Les Trois Vallées had certainly lived up to their well-deserved reputations. We had quite an adventure and did so many things, it is hard to imagine what else remains to be done. But we will be back again for sure. Next time, para gliding? Heliskiing? Dog sledding? We can't wait to come back!
As the sun set behind the mountains of Val Thorens, as we often do at the end of a trip, we pondered what we may have learned. Well, it seems that charcuterie as we have come to know it in the USA is something altogether different here. It turns out charcuterie translates to delicatessen in French. And if you don't look at the menu and simply utter the word, you will receive an enormous 75 euro platter of meat - and no cheese. Duly noted for next time.
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