A Ski Resort That Loves Families: Valmorel
Not all ski resorts are designed equal. Some appeal to experts, others novices. Some suit those on a budget while others are for the rich. Not many claim to be designed for families, but Valmorel in France does. This traditional style, purpose built, ski in, ski-out resort works hard to make family skiing easy. It has something to offer all levels and ages from novices to old hands and toddler to teen. Families can ski together or split up to pursue their individual interests by day before regrouping later in the day in a pretty, pedestrianised village centre lined with family friendly bars and restaurants. Atout France and French Mountains sent us out to Valmorel to experience first hand its family offer and in this post, in part an advertising feature, we explain why we think families with young kids should consider learning to ski in Valmorel.
Freedom from and with the family
For the first time in a long time I am skiing at my own pace. For the first time in a very long time I am skiing with Stuart alone by my side. Well, at least at the start of the run. We fly over the grooves that are the snow plough’s way of letting you know it’s a new day in the mountains. We are seizing the day. Or at least this part of it, skiing freely and with abandon from the top of the mountain down to the hamlet of Mottet where our children will soon appear as if by magic. The slopes are empty – it is as though everyone else has heard of our freedom and cut us some slack. Or it could be because it’s Christmas Day and everyone else is still in bed.
There is a coffee bar at the bottom of the slope and I am magnetically attracted to it. We sit in almost horizontal deckchairs outside Temple Bar and watch the classes of ski school children bomb home. Pre-schoolers negotiate the slopes with a confidence I never had. Snowboarders weave around them and collapse in a lively heap. Instructors glide in brimming with French cool and the optimism and freshness that blows in with the start of a new season.
Despite there being limited snow this early in the season there is a layer of fine white everywhere, glistening as I listen and watch. My kids buzz in from their different classes, boisterously complaining about nothing much at all, throwing off ski gloves and demanding hot chocolate. We are reunited. I spot a shed roof and draw a heart in it. An appreciation of my surroundings that will last until the predicted snow falls. The artists in the family shake their heads at my crude expression of love till I threaten to write their initials next to mine.
Our arrival in Valmorel the night before happened in a similar flurry of activity. A pine green freshness in the air and a mulled wine aroma in the breeze helped buoy up an already excitable crowd. I screwed my eyes tight and then opened them a little in the darkness to see if anything came into focus on the mountainside. In a red orange glow, dozens of ski instructors curled down the slopes carrying torches. It was an impressive sight, but not nearly as fantastical as the guy doing circus tumbles on a paraglider overhead. If you are in Valmorel any Tuesday in season you’ll be treated to this weekly ski show and torchlight descent featuring instructors from the local ski school. (Although it might not be Father Christmas at the end of the parachute.) Like everything in Valmorel the show is geared to families and families are out in force to watch the spectacle.
Purpose built for families
Valmorel is currently celebrating its 40th birthday. It was one of a clutch of purpose built resorts created in the 60’s and 70’s to cater for the booming interest in skiing in the French Alps. (Check out our post on Flaine, the eccentric aunt of all purpose built ski resorts.) But while some resorts hurriedly threw up concrete blocks to provide the mass market with cheap accommodation and the party crowd with night-time hangouts, Valmorel went down a different route. Architects learned lessons from less attractive resorts and stuck to traditional, low level Savoyard architecture using local wood and stone. They steered clear of clogged roads by making the centre pedestrianised and designed alpine style apartments around the edges of the slopes so people could ski in and ski out from their accommodation.
On our first afternoon we wander a pretty town square filled with arches and alleyways, as well as enticing shop fronts. We pause outside the boulangerie considering buying confectionary mice in every shade of chocolate. We admire the huge cheeses in the fromagerie before popping in to Intersport to pick up our skis.
A place families can relax
The centre of Valmorel feels unusually intimate, village-like and chilled for a French ski resort. People are meandering around rather than struggling with ski boots and poles or trying to negotiate ski buses to the slopes. In the daytime families populate sun terraces while by evening they noisily share brasérades and raclettes. On our visit there’s little of the rowdy apres ski parties that are trademarks of resorts in other valleys. You can let your kids run around without fear of them being hit by a car or someone carelessly hauling skis onto their shoulders. I send our kids back to the apartment on their own in the darkness because they’ve forgotten something. I also send them off on the bus to ski school on their own each morning which gives Stuart and I an extra hour on the slopes. I wouldn’t do that in many other places. Valmorel does makes it easy to be a parent on a ski holiday.
How refreshing to find a resort that puts families first
Skiing with kids can be a bit of a faff. Yes, it’s a great life skill and yes, there’s the added bonus that every minute they spend on the slopes they spend away from their gadgets. (Sometimes with their heads in the clouds and sometimes in the snow depending on their skiing.) But on the downside, ski boots are hard to put on and even harder to walk in if you are small and carrying skis and poles. Different family members have different levels of skill and confidence. Resorts can be huge requiring buses to get around. And adults often regress to children or idiots on the slopes or in the bars. So, coming across a ski resort that put the family and its needs first is as refreshing as our first snowball fight of the holiday.
A reimagined resort
While careful consideration for families goes back a long way, this resort in the Tarentaise mountains has worked extra hard on its infrastructure in the last five years. In 2014 it was recognised in The Telegraph’s World Snow Awards as the Most Improved Family Resort, pipping Les Menuires to the post.
Sébastien Delrue, Director of Valmorel Tourism says the key to their success has been to simplify things, either on the slopes or getting to them, and they are always looking for new ways to do this. “It’s so difficult for a mother or a father to take three sets of skis, boots and the children. Sometimes just walking fifty metres is too far for them. We have to keep everything easy for all the people and we work hard on taking care of a lot of the details. For example you might have a father and older son going off piste, while the mother wants to have some rest and do some spa in the village and the younger son might be going with the ski instructor in the mountains. When the spa is finished they meet and the ski instructor gives back the little boy and everybody arrives at the same place with the logistics all done for them and they don’t have to think about it.”
Something for every age
When you take a family to this resort you can see why it impressed The Telegraph’s award panel. There’s a specially designed Pirate Adventure Area for skiers and snowboarders who fancy having fun with free ski, boardercross, snowcross and airbag. The Village of Pirates is a brightly coloured kids area complete with castle, turnstiles and slides. The jewel in the beginner offering is a long and winding south facing run called Gulli near the village of Doucy.
“With this area you put the skis on, and you go and you are not afraid,” explains Sébastien when I meet him for mulled wine at the resort’s weekly welcome meeting. “And after that you learn to take a lift. When I had my family it was so easy compared to my older son who learnt in other places. You never have to push or slow down, you are just moving and learning with Mont Blanc in front of you and trees everywhere. It’s a wonderful place.”
Sadly we can’t try out the run as not everything is opened yet for the season. We stay higher and ski down easy slopes, sometimes apart and sometimes together. The reduced snow means we get creative. Hannah runs her own ski school for parents next to a pirate supervisor. We are sent off down a slalom course at her command. It’s obvious she learnt a lot in her ski lessons and she’s keen to help me improve, although I’m not sure she’s impressed with my performance.
More than just snow
It’s not all about skiing though. There’s lots to do around the resort without having to grapple with skis or push your foot into a ski boot. The mountain environment is beautiful and exhilarating. With fewer pistes open due to early season conditions I spend one morning getting creative without my skis, exploring other things you can do around Valmorel when the snow is low.
Challenges for different abilities
Le Grand Domaine ski area, which Valmorel is part of, has dedicated beginners areas and runs to suit all abilities including 24 greens (easy), 39 blues, 19 reds (intermediate) and 8 blacks (expert). Nearby villages like Doucy-Combelouvière and St François Longchamp are linked to the town with easy runs making for some great ski days out using the network of 50 lifts. Valmorel’s height of 1400 metres (you can reach up to 2550 metres giving possibilities for runs with well over 1000m of vertical descent) means it doesn’t always have the snowfall of higher resorts, or the snow at the beginning of the season, but piste groomers do a great job in keeping the snow that does fall, and there are plenty of snow cannons on hand to top things up if conditions require. When we go at the start of winter, the limited pistes give us three great days of skiing and I’d be happy to return to tackle the rest of Valmorel’s 160 km of runs.
Exploring by bike
There’s also lots to do off piste other than the skiing. We book an afternoon of mountain biking and find ourselves in the Village of Doucy, picking up bikes from Intersport. Our fleet of five bikes is a mixed economy of machines from powerful electric bikes to Fat Tire bikes. We set off in a chair lift and head off into the forest. The vibe here is completely different from the bustle of a ski resort; it feels like a Sunday afternoon as we take on the bumps and grooves in a peaceful companionship. Peaceful, apart from Hannah. The boys have decided to get her back for her ski school dictatorship by giving her the only regular mountain bike. Check out how she got on in this video.
Exploring by foot
If you fancy something more peaceful than this, Jean-Pascal Simond runs snow shoe expeditions in the valley from outside the Office de Tourisme every week and once a week Florent Espagnac takes people into the mountain environment for a winter hike. “We do a barbecue in a small shelter and cook a meal.” If ski school doesn’t provide enough time apart for your family he also takes children under 12 off in the evening to do night trapping and discover the secrets of the forest.
As a family we love biathlon and the kids were excited about the laser biathlon sessions at the Piou Piou ski area, and of course, there’s all the usual ski resort treats of husky dog sledding, parapenting and Nordic skiing. Back in the warmth there’s a regular Princess and Pirates ball. Older kids may appreciate the DJ’s in the streets. But we mostly eat and drink our way around, trying out restaurants with family friendly cuisine ranging from Mexican to burgers to classic French cuisine and Savoyarde specialities, usually involving cheese. It’s hard to escape the cheese in the mountains.
On a sunny day mid-trip, cheese is far from my mind as I pack the children off to ski school and head off for a hike using the Les Lanchettes chairlift, happily situated on the doorstep of my apartment. The air is thick with possibility as I gaze around a 360 degree vista of mountains. My gaze lands at my feet where a dog leads me to La Vache Orange, a bright bar with a massive terrace. I soon find myself sitting on a white sofa looking out into white infinity with a mountain dog on my lap and I wonder why I normally spend every last moment of my ski holiday skiing.
Extreme sporting fun
It’s not all this peaceful. This village can outsport the best of them. The Reebok Spartan Race at the end of January is a Tough Mudder style snow challenge with 2500 participants at last count. And in February, for the fifth consecutive year, Valmorel will co-host a special 6 stations rugby tournament (think rugby sevens on snow), so you’re unlikely to get the bar to yourself.
Reunited and it feels so good
Sadly all good ski school’s come to an end and we find ourselves skiing together for our last day in the resort. Hannah’s ESF ski instructor has worked hard on her technique and her confidence and her skiing is measured and vastly improved. The boys have unleashed their kamikaze tendencies on their instructor for three days and are now skiing with some element of control.
We gather at the local ‘pub’ – Hotel De Bourg to swap stories and rediscover that we actually like each other as a family. I imagine it was how skiing used to be for families in the past, before fears of cars and stranger danger made you keep them close. Or maybe Valmorel is a blueprint for the future. Safe, easy and designed with a family in mind.
The closest airports to Valmorel are Chambery, Grenoble Alpes Isere or Geneva , all accessible from from UK airports in around two hours. We flew to Geneva from Manchester, hired a car and drove to the resort but there are local companies who can help with transfers if they aren’t provided within your package. From Geneva to Valmorel driving time is between 2 and 3 hours. The most direct route takes you through Annecy where there can be traffic delays. The quickest route from Geneva is via Chambery on the motorway. If you use the motorways you will also need to budget for tolls. If you do rent a car don’t forget you may need winter tyres and snow chains. You may also want to rent a ski rack if you intend driving between resorts with your ski equipment.
While in Valmorel we stayed in a self catering holiday apartment at La Grange Aux Fées. This four star CGH complex has apartments that can sleep 2-10 and a cosy reception area with games and pool table for kids. There are also excellent spa facilities with free swimming pool and steam rooms for all guests. You can rent DVD’s and raclettes, order bread for morning and generally chill out in comfort. Our accommodation was organised by PowderBeds.com, a specialist ski accommodation website, offering a varied range of apartments and hotels in resorts across France and Switzerland, at the best possible prices.
We hired our equipment at Intersport. Situated in the centre of Valmorel, staff were friendly and had us kitted out within half an hour. You can hire everything you need for your stay, including helmets for the kids.
Ski pass prices vary depending on what lifts you use, how long you want to ski for and the time of the week. A family pass covering two adults and three kids is €877.90 for six days. Valmorel is kind to parents skiing with young adults; the child rate encompasses kids aged 21 and under. There is also a special rate for single parent families.
There are discounts for early booking and from 26th March to the end of season kids under 10 ski free. There are also big discounts for weekend skiing.
ESF Instructors operate in resorts across France. Around 100 instructors are available at ESF in Valmorel for teaching. They will grade your child according to their skills and needs and you can request an English speaker. Children over 18 months and under six are welcome at the Piou-Piou Club, a chalet based crèche and snow garden. Over three’s are taught by ESF instructors on gentle paths in the surrounding snow garden. Lunches are available and you will need to book a place for your child in advance.
Disclosure Note: This post is brought to you in a collaboration with Atout France and France Montagnes to help promote winter sports in the French Alps. All opinions, photography, videography, skiing, falling over and lounging around is entirely our own.