Spring Snow on the Alps

Val d’Isere and Chamonix are two ski towns at the base of the Alps that offer visitors challenging courses and beautiful icy landscapes well into the spring months. Val d’Isere is known as one of the most beautiful and largest ski areas in the world, and is currently host to the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, which began today and run until February 15, 2009.

Chamonix (see image), about two hours north of Val d’Isere, is also known for great skiing, as well as being the “death-sport capital of the world”– during summer months, mountain climbers flock to the town which lies at the base of Mount Blanc, the highest European mountain west of Russia. GoNomad Senior Travel Editor Kent St. John paid a visit to the two ski villages in late April, finding the scenery and the skiing to be still in full swing. Enjoy an excerpt of the story below:

Booting Up in Val d’Isere

On my arrival in Val d’Isere I noticed immediately that one is there to ski and as much as possible. True there are restaurants, bars and shops galore, but it is the slopes that rule. In fact there are twelve slope-side restaurants alone, but diners are decked in ski gear, a sure sign.

The clop of ski boots can be heard just about everywhere, even in a disco. The resort is actually two as Tignes can be reached and skied on the same pass. The whole package is named L’ Espace Killy, after French skiing superstar Jean-Claude Killy.

Speed is king in Val d’Isere, and the face of Bellevarde seen from the lifts is a constant reminder; many important downhill and giant slalom races have been won and lost on the B.

In fact the 2009 World Alpine Championships will be held in Val d’Isere, fitting since over the last forty years some of the World Cup’s fastest races have been held there.

The beauty of skiing the Val is the amount of terrain available — more than 300 km (186 mi) of piste (slopes) and ninety lifts will keep you busy and if off-piste skiing is your bag, Val has the most options in the Alps.

Val d’ Isere Day Off

It is said that you could ski everyday at Val d’ Isere for two weeks and not repeat your runs. For those who get burning calves and fatigued feet, there are other options in this ski capital, no boots needed.

A car isn’t necessary in the town as a free bus system called the Train Rouge runs the length of the valley. I enjoyed taking it to the nearby village of Le Fornet with its old stone homes built to withstand the over abundant snow fall.

If you want to take a chance, there is a casino in Val. On Mondays a village market takes place and is perfect to stock up on local cheeses, white sausages and wines.

Still, as I could tell by the lines at the Ecole de Ski Francais or the National French Ski School, skiing is king. Still a little hidden time in a hot tub is possible for all.

Chamonix, Steep Adventure

Chamonix is one of the oldest Alpine resort areas in Europe and is situated beneath the Alp’s largest mountain, Mt. Blanc.

While skiing is big, mountaineering also is a key sport. In fact it was climbing the valley’s steep peaks that drew early visitors to the area. Even today tragic fatalities can happen as risk takers are drawn to the surrounding challenges.

That said, Chamonix itself is a most civilized city and also draws well-heeled visitors that like the challenge of good shopping and finishing a huge Savoie style lunch. It has attracted travelers since the 18th century, and in fact the climbing guides set up a guide bureau, Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix in 1821.

There are more than half a dozen peaks that surround Chamonix but the main connection to the slopes, piste and non-piste is the gondola, Auiguille du Midi, a thrilling ride in itself.

The second stage of the lift will take you just 328 feet from the peak of Mont Blanc. Even if not skiing down, the views are stunning.

Skier and day tripper both have the option of heading down into Italy for a lunch. Chamonix’s other ski thrill is the Vallee Blanche, a twelve mile long run. When delving into the more off-beat runs use the vast well trained guides that are well known in the area.