I was crossing a steep-sided valley in the Vanoise national park in the French Alps by car when something in the sky caught my eye. My brain, unable to process what the huge black raggedy-looking thing could be, jumped to the conclusion it must be a drone, trailing a bin bag, so incomprehensible was its size. But, as it passed overhead, I saw a flash of orange underbelly and realized I was looking at an enormous bird.
A quick bit of Googling suggested it was not a golden eagle – though they live there too – but a lammergeier, or bearded vulture, and several breeding pairs inhabit this part of the Savoie. These colossal scavengers, whose wingspan can reach 2.8 meters, were reintroduced to the Alps in the 1980s, having been hunted to extinction a century ago. Back then, they were known as “devil birds”, considered predatory not only to sheep (the name translates as “lamb vulture”) but small children also. Mindful of the comparative size of my own two kids in the back seat, I could see why. I clicked the childlock.
To witness such a rare and spectacular creature purely by chance is not a usual ski holidays thing – crows and, once in a blue moon, a marmot are about as exciting as it gets. But I’d come to a quieter, wilder part of the French Alps, and things are different here.
The Haute Maurienne valley runs from Modane (with a four-hour TGV link to Paris) to the Italian border, and neighbors the much more popular Tarentaise, home to the mega resorts of Les Trois Vallées, Espace Killy and Paradiski.
But this is the thing about the Alps just next door: the Maurienne is comparatively unspoilt, sleepy and has six ski resorts, each offering something very different. And the great thing for skiers is that wherever you stay, you get to ski them all under one pass.
The setup has something for everyone, but it also has something for every kind of skier one person can be. I am a fairly adventurous snowboarder who likes powder, but I’m also a mom and was traveling with my kids, aged five and eight. My partner loves extreme skiing, and we both get a kick out of finding tiny-but-amazing ski villages. Simultaneously, I was on a nostalgia trip, having realized the first place I ever skied on snow – Valfréjus, 1988 – was in the Maurienne. If we could tick all these boxes, it would be some trip.
It was Easter, on the verge of spring, yet as we entered Val-Cenis, the largest, most family-friendly resort, there was snow down to the village. Its 62 slopes are north-facing, meaning they retain snow, so although there is no guarantee it will be the same this year – especially given the changing climate and the patchy season we’ve had – there is an improved chance of decent Easter coverage .
Like many other families in on the secret, we were staying in one of the large, neat apartments with a pool and spa in The Flambeau Chaletshandily at the foot of the beginner slopes in Lanslevillard, one of several Val Cenis villages linked by lifts and runs.
Snail, Family – the kids soon knew the names of their favorite runs, and had pinned down preferred stop-offs: hot chocolate at La Ferme du XXIII, where a glass panel in the floor looked down into a shed full of goats, and La Crêperie des Glaces, or what the kids called the Yeti cafe on account of a big plastic statue, which served oozy savory galettes beside the fun park. I became partial to an après-ski Grimbergen “champagne beer” in the At 2 Moss. We went night-tobogganing and dined out at The Estanco, where old wooden skis and big white bloomers were hung like latterday laundry to decorative effect; the food, though – Beaufort salad, mustard rabbit with Savoie crozets pasta – was anything but pants.
The kids were making friends and enjoying their lessons – there was no need to go elsewhere; family requirements had been met. Yet a yearning for adventure niggled at me. So after a few days, I escaped on a solo mission to La Norma, 30 minutes’ drive away, for a half day’s splitboarding with a guide.
I was feeling more middle-aged mum than extreme hard nut, daunted by the technicalities, the required technique and the prospect of a 600-metre climb. But Sylvain Rechu, from Up Guides, put me at ease. As we ascended by cable car, and toothy rows of mountains came into view all the way to Orelle – a lower Maurienne resort with a new lift-link to Val Thorens – I felt a rekindling of the old snow-fever.
I asked Sylvain if he thought the Haute Maurienne would install links across to the Tarentaise, too, as was rumoured: “No way!” he said. “People don’t want that here.”
Indeed, this unspoilt haven would have much to lose. At the top we clipped in and climbed away from the network of pistes, zigzagging up into Saint Antoine valley, a beautiful empty canyon of virgin snow. Then came the exhilaration: speeding through foam-light powder for seconds only, but great seconds. Seconds that ticked a box.
Our next excursion was with family to Valfréjus, a small, budget-friendly resort of 23 pistes, which opened in 1983 at the dawn of mass-market skiing. I was eight when I last came, but I felt a faint recognition of the purpose-built blocks at the village base. Certainly the grins on my kids’ faces as they swooped over a ridge run between two bowls were reminiscent of mine and my sister’s at the same age, when we had fallen in love with snowy mountains after months of learning on a Staffordshire dry slope. A nostalgic tear well up. tick.
After a week we moved west, and a very different sort of holiday began. The snow in Val-Cenis had been degrading from frozen corduroy to lumpy mashed potato as the sunny days wore on, but driving 30 minutes to the higher Bonneval-sur-Arc, it felt as if we were rewinding to midwinter. Past Bessans, a cross-country resort with trails ringing a still-frozen lake, the landscapes turned positively Himalayan, and we spotted the bin-bag-bird, then a group of chamois stumbling between gunmetal boulders.
Arriving in Bonneval was like driving into a history book about alpine traditions. Dark wooden chalets huddled against the gnarliness of the landscape, and the stark drama of the Vanoise lay all around. We had rented a modern apartment in an old stone building, whose oversized lightbulbs, underfloor heating and smart black bathrooms showed an appetite for design out of step with the wild setting; more suited were the Himalayan prayer flags fluttering outside the slopeside Rockabar cafe.
Although there were only 26 runs, they offered a good mix. The kids begged to do “the fun run” on repeat, skiing through tunnels and swinging punchbags, striking chimes with their poles and high-fiving giant plastic hands, while my partner was kept happy by a cache of exciting off-piste, pepped up by a surprising extra dump of snow around the top of Bonneval’s highest lift at 3,000m. From there, we could look across the valley and just see the upper chairlifts of Val d’Isère cresting a peak – a wealthy, well-developed world apart, and somewhere I had no yearning to be.
Then spring came on properly. Hillsides turned green, wild crocuses burst into life. The skiing was still good, but we could also go fell-running to the tiny hamlet L’Ecot at the upper end of the valley and hike, spotting frogs and lizards and stopping to paddle in the icy cold streams streaking down the hillsides. Après-ski was idling on our balcony in the sunshine, watching brats scamper across grassy slopes below.
paddling. Sunbathing. Wildlife. Even more boxes were being ticked. It was not just a trip, then, for every type of skier, but for many kinds of holidaymaker, including all the ones that went into being us.
Gemma was a guest of Peak Retreats. Seven nights’ self-catering at Les Chalets de Flambeau in Val-Cenis in a two-bedroom apartment costs from £258pp based on five sharing. Price includes return Eurotunnel crossing, with free Fleximore upgrade for most dates. The writer traveled independently in Bonneval-sur-Arc, staying at Chalet La Cascade. Seven nights in April sleeping four cost from €1,080 (location-apartment-bonneval.com)
Six-day Val-Cenis pass from €127 (valcenis.ski/categories/ski-passes). Lift passes include one day each in the other resorts (including Also) as well as six days in your home/base resort and unlimited Nordic skiing at Bessans. Ski hire was provided by Intersport (intersportrent.com), from €8pp per day including skis, helmet, poles and boots