I was driving through a steep valley in the Vanoise National Park in the French Alps when something in the sky caught my eye. My brain, unable to process what the huge, ragged-looking black thing could be, leapt to the conclusion that it must be a drone, dragging along a garbage bag, so incomprehensible was its size. But, as it passed above me, I saw a flash of orange belly and realized I was looking at a huge bird.
A quick Google search suggested it wasn’t a golden eagle – although they also live there – but a bearded vulture, or bearded vulture, and several breeding pairs inhabit this part of Savoie. These colossal scavengers, whose wingspan can reach 2.8 metres, were reintroduced to the Alps in the 1980s, after being hunted to extinction a century ago. They were then known as “devil birds”, considered to prey not only on sheep (the name translates as “lamb vulture”) but also on young children. Aware of the comparative dimensions of my two sons in the back seat, I understood why. I clicked on the child lock.
Witnessing such a rare and spectacular creature by sheer accident isn’t an ordinary occurrence on a ski holiday – crows and, once in a blue moon, a marmot are as exciting as it gets. But I would have arrived in a quieter and wilder part of the French Alps, and here things are different.
The Haute-Maurienne valley runs from Modane (with a four-hour TGV link to Paris) to the Italian border, and borders the far more popular Tarentaise, home to the mega-resorts of Les Trois Vallées, Espace Killy and Paradiski.
But that’s what’s special about the Alps right next door: Maurienne is relatively unspoilt, sleepy, and has six ski resorts, each offering something very different. And the great thing for skiers is that wherever you stay, you can ski all with one pass.
The setup has something for everyone, but it also has something for every type of skier a person can be. I’m a fairly adventurous snowboarder who enjoys powder, but I’m also a mom and was traveling with my five and eight year olds. My partner loves extreme skiing and we both enjoy finding great little ski resorts. At the same time, I was on a nostalgia trip, having realized that the first place I ever skied on snow – Valfréjus, 1988 – was in the Maurienne. If we could tick all these boxes, it would be a trip.
Witnessing such a rare creature is not an ordinary thing on a ski holiday, but I would have come to a wilder part of the French Alps, and things are different here
It was Easter, on the threshold of spring, yet when we entered Val-Cenis, the largest and most family-friendly resort, there was snow as far as the village. Its 62 runs are north-facing, which means they hold snow, so while there’s no guarantee it will be the same this year – especially given the changing weather and erratic season we’ve had – there it’s a better chance of a good Easter cover.
Like many other families privy to the secret, we were staying in one of the large, clean apartments with pool and spa at Les Chalets de Flambeau, conveniently at the foot of the beginner slopes of Lanslevillard, one of several Val Cenis villages linked by lifts and rides.
Escargot, Familiale: the boys soon knew the names of their favorite races and had identified their favorite stages: chocolate chaud to La Ferme du XXIII, where a glass panel in the floor overlooked a stable full of goats, and La Crêperie des Glaces, or what the kids called the Yeti café after a large plastic statue, serving tasty galettes next to it the amusement park. I have become a fan of an après-ski Grimbergen ‘champagne beer’ in the Aux 2 Mousses. We went tobogganing at night and dined at the Estanco, where old wooden skis and big white shorts hung like today’s laundry for decorative effect; the food, however: Beaufort salad, mustard rabbit with Savoy crozet pasta – it was anything but pants.
The kids made friends and enjoyed the lessons – there was no need to go anywhere else; the family requirements had been met. Yet a desire for adventure tormented me. So, after a few days, I escaped on a solo mission to La Norma, a 30-minute drive away, for a half-day of splitboarding with a guide.
I felt more like a middle-aged mum than a tough nut to crack, daunted by the technicalities, the technique required and the prospect of a 600m climb. But Sylvain Rechu, from Up Guides, put me at ease. As we rode the cable car up, and the rows of jagged mountains appeared as far as Orelle – a resort in the lower Maurienne with a new cable car connection to Val Thorens – I felt the old snow fever rekindle.
Related: “It’s still as beautiful as ever”: the changing face of the French Alps
I asked Sylvain if he thought Haute Maurienne would also install links via the Tarentaise, as they said: “Absolutely not!” he said. “People don’t want it here.”
Indeed, this pristine paradise would have a lot to lose. At the top we hooked up and broke away from the trail network, zigzagging into the Saint Antoine valley, a beautiful empty canyon of virgin snow. Then came the exhilaration: hurtling through the foam-light powder for only seconds, but great seconds. Seconds that ticked a box.
Our next excursion was in family in Valfréjus, a small economic resort with 23 slopes, opened in 1983 at the dawn of mass skiing. I was eight when I last came, but heard faint recognition of the purpose-built blocks at the base of the village. Certainly the smiles on my children’s faces as they plummeted over a ridge between two bowls were reminiscent of mine and my sister’s at the same age, when we’d fallen in love with snow-capped mountains after months of learning on a dry Staffordshire slope. A nostalgic tear welled up. TIC Tac.
Arriving at Bonneval was like stepping into a history book, dark wooden chalets huddled against the gnarly landscape
After a week we moved west and a very different vacation began. The snow in Val-Cenis was degrading from icy corduroy to lumpy mashed potatoes as the sunny days wore on, but driving 30 minutes to the high Bonneval-sur-Arc, it felt like stepping back into the thick of the snow. winter. Past Bessans, a cross-country ski resort with trails circling a still frozen lake, the landscapes turned positively Himalayan, and we spotted garbage bag bird, then a group of chamois stumbling among gunmetal boulders.
Arriving at Bonneval was like stepping into a history book of alpine traditions. Dark wooden chalets huddled against the gnarled landscape, and all around lay the rugged drama of the Vanoise. We’d rented a modern apartment in an old stone building, whose oversized lightbulbs, underfloor heating, and sleek black bathrooms displayed an appetite for design out of step with the wild surroundings; more fitting were the Himalayan prayer flags flying outside the slopeside Rockabar café.
Although there were only 26 rides they offered a good mix. The kids begged to do ‘the fun run’ repeatedly, skiing through tunnels and swinging punching bags, hitting the chimes with their sticks and high-fiving with giant plastic hands, while my partner was made happy by a series of exciting off-piste runs, enlivened by an astonishing extra snow deposit around the top of Bonneval’s highest lift at 3,000m. From there, we could look across the valley and see only the upper chairlifts of Val d’Isère atop a peak – a wealthy, well-developed world apart, and somewhere I didn’t long to be.
Then spring came properly. The hillsides turned green, wild crocuses came to life. The skiing was still good, but we could also take a downhill run to the tiny L’Ecot village at the upper end of the valley and hike, spotting frogs and lizards and stopping to paddle in the freezing streams that cascade down the hills . Après-ski was lounging on our balcony in the sun, watching the marmots scamper on the grassy slopes below.
Paddling. Sunbathe. Wild animals. Even more boxes were ticked. It was not just a trip, therefore, for every type of skier, but for many types of vacationers, including all those who have become us.
Gemma was a guest at Peak Retreats. Seven nights self-catering at Les Chalets de Flambeau in Val-Cenis in a two bedroom flat costs from £258pp based on five shares. The price includes the round-trip Eurotunnel crossing, with free Flexiplus update for most dates. The writer traveled independently Bonneval-sur-Arc, staying at the Chalet La Cascade. Seven nights in April sleeping four cost from €1,080 (location-appartement-bonneval.com)
Six-day Val-Cenis ski pass from €127 (valcenis.ski/categories/ski-pass). The ski passes include one day each in the other resorts (including Aussois) as well as six days at home/base station and unlimited Nordic skiing in Bessans. Ski hire was provided by Intersport (intersportrent.com), starting at €8pp per day including skis, helmet, poles and boots