Guest Blog: A late season blast in Alpe d’Huez grande domaine
Guest Blogger Stuart Forster visited the Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine ski area in the last month of the season to find out what the French resorts have to offer…
With 250km of pistes and an annual average of 300 sunny days, Alpe d’Huez ski resort has been christened the ‘l’île au soleil’. (Even my shoddy french is adequate enough for me to understand that translates to ‘island of the sun’).
Due to the likelihood of sunshine and the prevalence of south facing slopes I wasn’t entirely sure if an early April trip here would prove a proper ski trip or simply an opportunity to work on my tan.
Thankfully it proved the former, and an introduction that has left me keen to see more of the surrounding villages and outlying pistes in genuine winter conditions. All told, I was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the snow ahead of the close of the ski season on 26 April.
Okay, my expectations were somewhat tempered. Yes, by late afternoon the pistes just above the town of Alpe d’Huez were a tad slushy but conditions were by no means drastic. It just meant a good, late workout for my legs after spending most of my time on the better snow higher up the mountain.
Christian, an ESF instructor and my guide to the resort’s terrain, suggested we meet early each day at Pic Blanc, the resort’s highest lift station (3,300m). His reason being the opportunity to ski down Sarenne (16km and one of the world’s longest pistes) while the spring snow was still pristine. Unfortunately, the joys of completing the run are soon followed by the despair of a long walk back to civilization as the last lifts are only 14km down the run. (A fact often discovered only after one has ventured down for the first time).
Before we set off down the run, Christian insisted we down our skis briefly and take a look from the turret-like viewing platform a few steps from the lift. The term ‘breathtaking’ is often over-used yet the sun-kissed views of the mountains did have a genuine ‘wow factor’ that made me pull out my camera to capture the moment.My elation at the scenery from Pic Blanc contrasted drastically to my feelings when I first arrived at the resort. In terms of skiing, things had looked pretty bare as we wove our way through the hairpin bends that famously torture the Tour de France’s cyclists as they climb towards the town. It wasn’t until we entered the town itself, at 1,860m, that we could see much evidence of skiable pistes. From the town upwards, though, the scenery was white.
The illuminated piste maps near lift stations have been showing Sarenne as closed since the 3rd of April and I soon learned why. Thanks to the sunshine there’s a section, about 100m long, that’s more mountain than piste. However, the early run was, by and large, a breeze. Christian even spotted a group of ibex scampering behind the rocks as we paused halfway down.
For people looking to get away from the crowds there’s also much worth exploring outside the pistes and plenty of guides with local knowledge willing to show what the area has to offer.
The village of Villard Reculas (1,450m high and my personal favourite) is defined by its narrow streets and a peaceful, traditional atmosphere. Accommodation here can cost as little as half the rate charged in Alpe d’Huez, yet Villard Reculas is also linked to the ski resort by lifts at the top of the village.
In contrast, Vaujany (1,200m) has a modern look and chalet accommodation, opening in the autumn, is nearing completion. Thanks to the swimming pool and neighbouring ice rink (landscaped into the hillside so as not to disturb the mountain scenery), Vaujany tends to appeal to families.
In Oz-en-Oisans, a pedestrianized resort at 1,350m, my friends and I put our skis to one side to belly-flop onto Airboards on the nursery slopes, one of a number of alternatives to skiing that visitors can try here. The snowbike proved surprisingly easy to control. By contrast the paret, which looks like a wooden torture instrument that’s been crossed with a carpenter’s plane, proved impossible for me to ride. Giving them a go, however, proved good fun.
All told, I saw and experienced enough variety in the area to convince me that it’s a great spot for an end of season blast for all levels.