Valloire: Great white yonder

Another of the 50 sculptures that dazzled visitors and skiers alike during the annual international competition.

Another of the 50 sculptures that dazzled visitors and skiers alike during the annual international competition.

  • Empty slopes and a thriving number of microbreweries are unexpected finds for Nicholas McAvaney on a trip to the ski slopes of Valloire.
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I feel like I’m in heaven, carving up nearly boot-high fresh powder from an overnight snowfall at the peak of the mountains high above Valloire in the French Alps.

All my troubles are blown away as I speed down a seemingly endless red run towards the valley between two peaks in the Galibier Thabor ski area, which also encompasses the village of Valmeinier.

Zig-zagging down the Selles piste, my friends and I follow our guide, a French former national skier. Suddenly, she comes to a skidding halt and points sternly across the valley. “Look, chamois,” she exclaims, drawing our attention to three little deer-like creatures traversing the side of the mountain. We pause for a few minutes to watch the delightful animals bound around the snow foraging for food, before continuing on our serene trip across some of the 150km of slopes in the area.

Below, Valloire brims with excitement as entrants prepare their magnificent snow sculptures for an annual international competition. But that will have to wait, as the pristine conditions beckon and I urge our guide to continue.

Congestion on the mountains in Western Europe is a growing concern for skiers and resort managers alike, but Galibier Thabor benefits from wide runs and an abundance of less demanding pistes closer to the villages, drawing school groups and families away from the peak. So our skiing is unimpeded during our three-hour excursion.

In need of fuel, we stop at the delightful Les Meregers restaurant, part way down Le Crey Du Quart. It’s as cliched an alpine restaurant as you could imagine, with teddy bears tucked into every nook and cranny. I wolf down a pizza and hot chocolate, as our guide reveals that she’s postponed her honeymoon just to spend the ski season here. “I love to ski,” she explains. “I’ve skied all my life. I do this during the winter and then move back to La Rochelle for work in the summer.

“I can honeymoon any time, but the snow is perfect right now, I couldn’t resist.”

Valloire is home to Galibier Brewery, which I’m surprised to discover is one of hundreds of microbreweries in the French Alps. It’s also the perfect place to wind down after a hard day on the slopes, as I discover on a short tour.

They produce three award-winning brews in the tiny factory, and as the owner puts it: “Galibier is educating locals in the proper taste of beer.”

We spend an hour discussing malts, hops and yeast, and the benefit of conditioning the beers in brown bottles, before testing their produce. It’s the Alpine brew that I find most satisfying.

The brewery is on the banks of the river that carves through Valloire, a delightful village that is all charm and no pretence. It’s a practical location for skiing, with a weekly market, variety of restaurants and a number of clothing stores, which are my saving grace after I discover I’ve split my ski trousers.

Embarrassing exposure avoided, we head to Chez Fred for a traditional fondue dinner and a chance to discuss the day’s skiing. But I find our conversation is dominated by the enormous, creatively lit sculptures along the road outside that form the entries in this year’s international Snow Sculpture Contest. Fifty sculptors from around the world have been carefully carving the compacted snow throughout the day and night with chisels, saws and their hands.

Their sculptures range from a giant bust of Serge Gainsbourg to the Tower of Babel, and even a merry-go-round.

As the various winners are awarded their prizes, a loud crack precedes an explosion of colour with a brilliant fireworks display.

I gaze upward at the dancing lights and smile at how magical and vibrant the small village appears, a world away from the tranquility at the top of the mountain before us.

• Nicholas McAvaney travelled to Valloire in the French Alps as a guest of Valloire Tourisme (www.valloire.net).

Packages are all bookable via the website and start from 113 euros per person, for three nights self-catered accommodation and a three-day lift pass.

Fly to Geneva, Lyon or Chambery with a choice of airlines, or take the Eurostar direct to Lyon.

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