Half-term family skiing in the Haute Maurienne Vanoise

10th March 2018, by Abi Butcher

Azara Chittock enjoying the view to Italy from Val Cenis on her half-term ski holiday

Azara Chittock enjoying the view to Italy from Val Cenis on her half-term ski holiday

By Jon Chittock, dad of Azara, 11

Twenty years of skiing in Alps and I’ve tried pretty much every combination of ski trip, from independent, budget self-catering to luxury packages. Luxury is relative to one’s budget… although I did manage one night in a 5* chalet in Val d’Isère, thanks to Dick’s T-Bar! More recently I have even stayed off-resort and driven to the lifts each morning.

One thing I hadn’t tried though, was a multi-resort holiday, taking the car and driving to a different resort each morning — so for February half-term (16-25 February 2018) I decided to take my 11-year-old daughter Azara to the Haute Maurienne Vanoise for a few turns.

With so many interconnected mega-resorts in the French Alps, there’s a certain “je ne sais quoi” about going to a smaller, more traditional French resort. The downside of a smaller resort is less kilometres of piste, so if you’re worried about the variety of skiing, then head to the valley Haute Maurienne Vanoise and there’s almost a different resort for every day of the week. Sign me up!

Seeing as I was in the mood for trying new things, I opted for the DFDS Ferry crossing from New Haven to Dieppe, I’ve often looked at this route, but never used it for skiing or otherwise. It has its pros but I think it’s safe to say I’ve still got a lot of love for the tunnel.

As usual the French toll roads were excellent and it took us 10 hours (including several breaks) to reach Le Bourget (1160m), a small village near the bottom the Haute Maurienne Vanoise where a friend had rented an apartment for the winter in Gites Maurienne, which was to be our for the week. Having ditched our kit, we drove five minutes further on to Aussois, at 1500m. Aussois is just one of the five resorts in the Haute Maurienne Vanoise; all covered by the Eski-Mo Ski Pass. The Eski-Mo Pass gives you full access to your primary resort for the duration of your pass. It also allows for one full day in each of the other resorts covered by the pass — and because we drove, we skied seven days. That’s a whopping 300km of piste for the bargain price of £168 for seven days. I bought it from Aussois (€183), but it’s a little more expensive from Val Cenis (€215).

There is a ski bus that links the resorts but as we had the car we self-drove. Of course, a downside to this type of skiing holiday, is that boozy lunches and après ski are off the menu, if you’ve got to drive home at the end of the day. As this was a half-term with Azara lack of après wasn’t really an issue!

Having arrived just after lunch on the Saturday we were able to square away ski passes and ski hire that afternoon. After a good night’s sleep, we were raring to go on the first lift on Sunday morning. Parking wasn’t an issue and they were no queues for the fast chair out of the resort.

Jon and his daughter Azara in sunny Aussois

Day One: Aussois

Aussois is south-facing and can be a great sun trap, on Sunday though it was a bit exposed and the wind was howling and freezing cold (it was the week with Siberian weather across the Alps). We had a great day though exploring the lower slopes and found Le Refuge de L’Ortet, a charming little hut with an open fire and light bites menu, very reasonably priced. Watch out though, the owner Gérard, or Ge-Ge, isn’t open on weekends!

Day Two: Aussois

The weather closed in today, so I thought that the north-facing La Norma (also a five-minute drive from our apartment in Le Bourget) would offer better protection, with more tree-line skiing. Either way it was still going to be bleak, so we weren’t in a rush. The roads were clear of traffic and snow, but the valley hid in a dark grey misty cloud and the wind was howling with a very sharp bite. We drove to La Norma, stopped to check it out and decided against heading up the mountain and drove 15 minutes back to Aussois and things brightened up. It was still windy and cold, but the visibility was far more manageable, so we had a good afternoon’s skiing exploring the higher slopes of Aussois.

Azara enjoys a bluebird day on empty pistes in Aussois

Day Three: Aussois

Today was our “bluebird” day, with champagne skiing and sunny Aussois didn’t disappoint — beautifully groomed, superb high piste below the Pointe et Arêtes de l’Eché, basking in the sunshine, we couldn’t have asked for more. Aussois is a real suntrap on a good day and its 55km of pistes have amazing scenery, serviced by five chair lifts and button lifts.

Day Four: Val Cenis

Pleased with yesterday’s stunning skiing in Aussois we decided to hit the road for our first day trip up the Haute Maurienne Vanoise. Val Cenis is a bigger (125km) north-facing resort on the border with Italy which has lots of tree skiing and some big high “motorway” pistes, too. Having closely watched weather, it looked like Val Cenis was going to have the best conditions out of all the Eski-mo resorts and as we pulled into Lanslebourg the weather gods were on our side! The clouds parted and the sun shone through and Azara and I had an amazing view over Lac du Mont Cenis across the French/Italian border.

Today had also decided to visit the Sled Dogs’ Camp above Lanslebourg and ski the world’s longest green run ‘Escargot’… it was fun at the start but towards the end of the 10km run, the pace got a lot slower — snowboarders would definitely have had to walk on a few stretches. But it was good to have ticked Escargot off and certainly a visual treat as it meanders from 2050m at the top to 1398m at the bottom.

Lunchtime baguette on the slopes in the Haute Maurienne

Day Five: Aussois

Snow Day! We woke to find a big dump overnight and heavy snow still falling all the way down the valley. We thought we’d wait for the roads to be cleared and headed out a bit later, and couldn’t believe what a good job the snow ploughs had already done, even on the minor roads, bravo! Seriously puts the UK to shame, but then they are used to a bit more snow!

As we thought, it was a white out in Aussois lower down, but the middle slopes were above the cloud and pretty empty with fresh snow. We made the most of it and rode the top slopes, occasionally dipping into the cloud at the lift stations. We found a quirky, derelict cattle shed, quite high up, just to the side of the piste where we stopped for a baguette and kept out of the wind looking down at the cloudy valley and up and the mighty rocky peaks above. Having started late we skied till the last lift, finally descending into the cloud and back to Aussios to get in the car.

Day Six: La Norma

Finally, we made it to back to La Norma, a complete change from Monday’s weather: this time Aussois was in the cloud and La Norma was clear. From the higher slopes, we could look across the valley and reassure ourselves that we had called it perfectly. La Norma really is a gem, it has some great shelter on the lower slopes and some fantastic high reds right at the top. The black run Arcosses was a work-out; icy and a big mogul field, but with a bit of fresh snow I’m sure it would much more pleasurable. I couldn’t fault the red runs Norma 1, Carrelet and Pracarra and wish we could have skied La Norma’s 65km of pistes for longer.

Jon and Azara enjoyed some great skiing in La Norma

Day Seven: Valfréjus

All week it looked like Saturday was to be a write-off with rain everywhere — yuk! Since it was our last day and we hadn’t been checked out Valfréjus, we thought we’d drive there and take a look even if we didn’t get out and ski.

In the car park though it looked promising, so we gathered our gear and took the telecabin up to the mid station. Miraculously the summit of Punta Bagna was clearing at 2737m and the chairlift whizzed us up to the top. We had a great run down the big blue run and then went up again and down to Pas du Roc. It wasn’t to last and the weather closed in again as it should have been according to the forecast. We stopped for some lunch and did a few more runs in the afternoon but only from Plateau d’Arrondaz down to Valfréjus, mostly in the trees.

On the Sunday we packed up our belongings and headed home, via the ferry once more. Back in our home town of Lymington, Hampshire, we discovered some friends (a family of four) had also spent half term in Aussois, staying in an apartment rented through Peak Retreats — we couldn’t believe we’d missed each other. I’d certainly love to come back to the Haute Maurienne Vanoise, for the family vibe but also to explore some of the untracked off-piste in the amazing peaks above all the ski areas.

For more information on the Haute Maurienne Vanoise, visit haute-maurienne-vanoise.com. To book accommodation in the valley, visit peakretreats.co.uk

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