Alpe d'Huez Review - A Pleasant Surprise
French Alps Ski Holiday by Patrick 'Snowhunter' Thorne
"Meet the man who has located, visited and reported on every kind of snow resort in the world. For all your ski resort information needs, year round, there is only one source. They call him the Snowhunter."
Patrick has been a writer all of his life as well as a year round, professional ski writer since 1984. Patrick has been nicknamed “The Snow Hunter” as he located more than 6,000 ski areas in 80 countries. Since 1998, he has published a weekly bulletin of stories from ski resorts all around the planet (over 5,000 reports).
Over the years Patrick has gained a formidable worldwide client list ranging from Microsoft, AOL, the BBC, Teletext, through to Virgin, Skiinfo and InTheSnow more recently. He has written a dozen books on skiing, received several awards, had his work translated in to more than 20 languages and was named “One of 20 People To know in Ski” by The Times.
Alpe d'Huez Review - A Pleasant Surprise
I’ve visited more than 250 ski areas around the world over the last 35 years and, in one way or another, I’ve liked nearly all of them. People say, “Which was the best?” and “Where would you recommend?” but the truth is the best resorts in my memory always seem to be more about who I was with, when I was there and perhaps what the snow was like before I actually get on to thinking about the place itself.
So if I were to recommend anywhere I’d first want to know what sort of person you are, who you’re skiing with, when you’re travelling before I make a recommendation, which would be hedged with lots of advanced apologies that it might not be as good for you as I thinking it is, particularly if you arrive when the snow is bad, or get put in an apparent next to one filled with students who party all night.
Although if you are looking for all night parties that might be ideal. But over the years I have found things I tend to like in resorts and things I don’t so much.
First of all there’s the feel of the place. I don’t like shiny and new very much. Ski resorts that have been ski resorts for the best part of a century have a certain atmosphere, a certain character, that’s the same the world over. There’s a feeling that the place exists for the love of the mountains and for the love of snow sports and not as a property development up a mountain. I like shops, restaurants and bars that are locally owned and run, and you feel generations of skiers and boarders have passed through before you.
Secondly I like big areas and verticals. Actually I like tiny areas and tiny verticals too, just for the novelty, but when I’m in a resort for week I love the feeling of being able to ski over to another village, a separate ski area each day. What else? Well a short transfer is good – ideally avoiding one of those horrendously busy airports like Geneva on a Saturday, and ski-in, ski-out accommodation (or close to) is always good, and now I’m getting older, comfortable accommodation is a must.
I’m not overly fussed about mountain architecture though. I know I ought to get annoyed about concrete blocks and think traditional chalets are wonderful but again, so long as those concrete blocks are in keeping with the resort’s vibe, they don’t really bother me and sometimes ALL lovely chalets feel a bit fake and theme park like. I’d prefer an eclectic mix. I suppose the resorts I’ve liked the least are those built to a plan especially to meet an imagined ideal but end up feeling corporate and fake.
Alpe d'Huez - The Review
And so, after that rather long pre-amble, I arrive, finally, in Alpe d’Huez and find it ticks all my boxes. I should have come here years ago.
I had feared, from some of the reviews I’d read, that it would be too ugly to look at and too corporate to be able to relax in, and that perhaps explains my subconscious delay, but the reality turns out to be far from it.
I flew in to Grenoble and found it quiet and painless, I was through baggage reclaim and out to my transfer in less than 15 minutes from landing (I should add, on the return leg, I found friendly, efficient staff at check in and security and pleasant, affordable cafes – all making the travel bit, so often these days the worst part of a ski holiday, much better than it so often is).
We were advised the transfer could be anything from 75 minutes if we were lucky with the traffic to two hours if not. We were lucky and the drive was pleasant, ending with the infamous climb of nearly 14km via 21 hairpin bends that has been the most famous of the hill climbs in the Tour de France for more than 60 years.
Alpe d’Huez itself forms roughly a triangular shape on a moderate slope, that triangle peaking at the main base of the lifts. It’s quite a large resort, although you can walk from top to bottom in about ten minutes – or just hop on a shuttle bus. Pistes and lifts follow the sides of the triangle so wherever you stay you can usually walk to the slopes in a few moments, even if you’re not staying slope side.
Alpe d'Huez - The Skiing
The ski area is very big. More than that it is very varied and home to some of the longest lift-accessed ski runs in the world. The lift served vertical of nearly 2100 metres places Alpe d’Huez in the world top ten for vert and the 250km of runs is also amongst the world’s biggest ski areas.
Stretching up to a lofty 3300m, Alpe d’Huez itself is high for a resort that pre-dates WW2, at 1860m and the slopes stretch high above as well as down below it. The highest terrain is glaciated and sometimes open for summer skiing and boarding, so snow cover is not normally an issue.
The hub of the ski area is at the peak of the triangle with lifts radiating off in all directions – drag lifts serving local training runs, a combination gondola and chairlift accessing a huge beginner’s zone as well as the main fun park, and a high capacity funitel that marks the first leg of the ascent to the Pic Blanc, the area’s highest point.
But you need not go all the way to the top to find numerous epic downhill. The ski slopes connect Alpe d’Huez to a selection of small traditional villages in the valley below and wonderful long pistes carve down first across open mountain side then down through the trees to resorts like Vaujany and Oz en Oisans – great places to stop for an espresso or a beer.
The slopes closest to the resort can get busy in peak season so if you’re looking for a quieter area try the off-the-beaten-track slopes over above the hamlet of Auris en Oisans. Here there a lovely rolling blue. Green and red pistes and even an impressive vast black mogul field down from Signal de l’Homme which very few people seem to venture over to so you’ll probably have it to yourself.
There are 123 runs in total of which the most famous is Sarenne, ‘the world’s longest black’ at some 16km in length, descending from Pic Blanc. Some doubt has been cast on whether such a long run, which, even with 2000 metres of vertical, mathematically means the average gradient can’t be that steep, could be realistically classified as black? When I actually skied it that question did not enter my head, I was more taken by what a superb run it was and hope it just went on and on, mostly at a perfect pitch, and well away from the main ski area so you have a glorious feeling off being ‘away from it all.’
But looking back I suppose it was more realistically red-blue in its upper sections, green at the bottom – a return path through the forest. I was skiing it smooth and groomed, a mogul field or two might have upped the grading, but as I say it was such a glorious run I care little what grading they give it.
Those who prefer it steep and powdery have plenty of opportunities too, the Tunnel descent is one of the more infamous on the list of scary slopes in the Alps and there are numerous off piste itineraries to tackle with a guide.
Alpe d'Huez - The Resort
Alpe d’Huez has that ‘real resort’ feel I love and mentioned above. It has a busy central area centred on Avenue des Jeux, where there’s an ice rink, swimming pool, quite large supermarket and a good selection of small boutique style shops, cafes, bars and restaurants.
Venture further from the centre and you’ll find many more restaurants and bars – there’s a good selection. Most are friendly, affordable and family run – this is not a resort for snooty Michelin starred style eateries, although that’s not to say the food in the best of them is not of a very high standard.
The range of restaurants is wide with superb creperies, plenty of places to get a traditional fondue or tartiflette, but also several sushi and Asian fusion outlets.
Alpe d'Huez - The Accommodation
We stayed in Le Cristal de l'Alpe, a very comfortable new four star property with spacious, well-equipped apartments and a good location in the heart of the resort, but only 50m from the nearest ski lift up to the main hub of lifts and runs, itself only a 200m walk from the property (so you have to decide whether to bother getting the lift or just walk straight there).
Along with the all-important bakery delivery service in the morning for your fresh-daily baguette and choc-au-pain there’s a large and comfy lounge area and a great swimming pool with hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms.
Better still there’s a wonderful Centre Ô des Cimes Spa d’Altitude where the dedicated team offer an extensive menu of facial and body treatments – a great way to round off a perfect ski day.
So let’s recap
Alpe d’Huez is a resort oozing character and skiing heritage but without the bland, anonymous developments and high price tag of some of the world’s other well known resorts.
Though it does not shout about it as loudly as some, it has one of the world’s biggest ski areas and biggest verticals served by an efficient lift network which equates to glorious long runs that intermediates can comfortably tackle, although there are super steep slopes and off piste options to keep the most demanding experts happy too, and a great beginners’ zone for first timers.
It’s easy to reach, has a relaxed atmosphere and great dining and apres ski options too and whilst once the preserve of the budget market, properties like Le Cristal de l'Alpe have raised the standard available so you can stay here in great comfort too.
I’ll be back.