Black, white, red all over

SUE BENNETT
Last updated 05:00 23/07/2013
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GIANT SNOWFLAKES: A general view of Val d'Isere, France.

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Something is magical about snowflakes the size of 10¢ pieces falling silently from a grey, cloud-leaden sky. Lying back in a steaming hot tub I look upwards, close my eyes and try to catch the flakes on my tongue.

A few minutes later, a sip of champagne replaces the snow on my lips, the spa springs to life and my aching ski legs are gently massaged in bubbling hot water.

Those giant snowflakes keep falling on Val d'Isere all night, delivering the type of powder that makes skiers and snowboarders think they've died, descended a double black of divine intervention and arrived at heaven on a mountain.

Back on Earth - snow-encased and about minus 2 degrees - the 15 steps from hot tub to hotel lounge are an easy hop and skip thanks to a warm, cuddly bathrobe retrieved from a heated cabinet.

Our suite - the size of a respectable inner-city Australian apartment - comprises an entry lobby, sitting room with double sofas, king-size bedroom, walk-in wardrobe and bathroom with double basins, walk-in shower and deep tub.

From the wraparound balcony, snow-laden mountains frame the view on all sides, criss-crossed in the foreground by the high wires of a gondola, chairlifts and, immediately ahead, a poma.

Nestling in the valley floor is Val d'Isere, one of the most glamorous ski resorts in France. The town, with its stone-clad alpine chalets, reaches out from the centre in three directions and we're in the area of Le Joseray.

For the skier, the hotel has that must-have feature of ski-in, ski-out. From the base of Piste M, a few metres from our ski room, you access Espace Killy's 10,000 hectares of skiable terrain and 300 kilometres of marked runs.

Named after great French skier Jean-Claude Killy, who grew up there, it's an immense skier's playground and includes neighbouring Tignes.

There are vast tracts of off-piste areas, some reached by ski lifts, and many ungroomed but patrolled black runs.

Add to this intermediate and advanced skier's paradise two glaciers, two snow parks and a vertical drop of 2050 metres, and you know why it's one of Europe's great winter destinations.

Val d'Isere comprises three main skiing areas - Solaise, Fornet and Bellevarde - and though you descend through wooded runs close to the base, most pistes are open slopes high on the mountains.

From high up on Solaise we cruise down the Col de Madeleine, with its big bowls of skiable terrain on either side. From the glacier express, we ride the fast Leissieres chairlift, a slightly disconcerting experience for skiers used to chairlifts travelling upwards only.

This one goes up, over and then downhill.

We are deposited in Le Fornet, Espace Killy's quietest corner and home to some splendid areas for gentle skiing. They have a lovely expression - ski tranquille - for the green, or easy, areas high on Solaise and Bellevarde, but most beginners who make it up to these delightfully cruisy spots return by mechanical means.

Val d'Isere is not especially well suited to learners and is often accused of underplaying the ratings of its pistes. There are runs going back to town labelled green and blue, or easy, that would be reds, even blacks, in other places.

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In high season and at the end of the day, a beginner can be wishing they had mastered moguls. But for those who know what they are doing, Espace Killy offers terrain of exceptional breadth, length and depth - literally, with some quite thrilling descents.

There are two famous downhill courses on Bellevarde mountain - Coupe de Monde OK and Face (pronounced "fass").

OK was a celebrated course in the 1992 Winter Olympics but, ranked red, isn't scarily steep and while it can have moguls from top to bottom, when groomed it is bliss on a ski run.

We look towards Face, used each December for the World Cup, from our balcony. For expert skiers, its open terrain puts it in Val's slightly-less-terrifying bracket but it is formidably steep, rocky and icy. Olympic champion Patric Ortlieb's two-minute descent of the 2.94-kilometre course is awe-inspiring.

To access our hotel at the end of the day we take Piste M, a red route that winds its way from the top of Solaise mountain's wide-open expanses before reaching the tree line and, finally, Joseray.

Skis off ... it must be spa and bubbles time.

Val d'Isere is that sort of place - glamorous and reputedly one of the three most expensive ski resorts in France, along with Megeve and Courchevel.

It's a reason resort chain Club Med has many fans, 22,000 of them from Australia each year. The cost of its holidays include everything from accommodation to entertainment, food and wines, ski hire, lift pass and lessons by accredited schools.

At Club Med Val d'Isere there's a sauna, large indoor pool with inbuilt spas and jets, a gym with daily classes, cardio training room, and a spa for massages and beauty treatments plus hairdresser.

It's ranked four-trident (four-star), with a haven of five-trident luxury in one wing. For the five-star-suite occupants, service goes to another level.

Accessed by special lift, there's the oversize accommodation, spa with champagne served from 5pm to 7pm, and a clubby-style lounge - aptly called Le Refuge - where perennially charming manager Guly Peyrachia and his staff serve teas, coffee, superior wines, spirits and snacks whenever you like.

Unlike the rest of the resort, room service including breakfast, and a laundry service is available.

Emerging from this cosseted world, we eat buffet style in the hotel's main dining room. At any given lunch or dinner, the options include dishes such as roast beef with bearnaise sauce, salmon baked in salt crust, paella with langoustines, soups, salads and a multitude of desserts.

At the bar in the main lounge, with a theatre alongside, it's party time each night.

At the 1980s-themed show, staff, known as GOs (gentils organisateurs), get kitted out in Tina Turner-style wigs, play air guitar to George Michael and gyrate like Michael Jackson.

As Thriller pumps out across the auditorium, a bald GO's wig flies off towards the front row. It's my turn to beat it, giggle and leave it to the kids - this is the perfect family holiday.

For more of the real France, go into town, a heady mix of fine shops, great bars, nightclubs and good food. Postcard-pretty, the main street is tree-lined and lit by fairy lights at night. You can also ski straight into the centre.

It's about 10 minutes' walk from the resort but I can't verify the exact timing because, on the one occasion I set out to walk, I take 15 steps on the hard-packed snow road outside the hotel and take a tumble of monumental grandeur.

As I slide to a halt, a saviour appears in the shape of the town's free minibus. I stick to the bus thereafter and it regularly takes me to Chevallot cafe for an espresso and a treat.

From here, it's a short walk to La Fermette de Claudine, a wonderful cheese shop with all manner of varieties, much of it made at the owner's farm in the nearby mountains.

But there are really only two cheeses to be eaten in this, the Savoie region of France - Abondance and the king of the gruyere style, Beaufort.

The writer was a guest of Club Med.

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies to Geneva; from there it's 175 kilometres to Val d'Isere. Transfer options include private car (2hr), minibus or larger bus (3½ hr). See emirates.com

STAYING THERE Stay at Club Med Val d'Isere and the price includes accommodation, all meals, wines, spirits, cocktails, soft drinks, ski hire, lift pass and ski school. The resort village has a large indoor pool, gym, cardio room and nightly entertainment.

Book by September 1 and the price for seven days (the minimum stay) is $2277 for an adult, $1766 for a child aged four to 11, for the 2013-14 season. Flights excluded.

SKIING THERE Val d'Isere is part of the Espace Killy ski region, which includes Tignes. A lift pass gives access to 10,000 hectares of skiable terrain. The top altitude is 3600 metres and the vertical drop is 2050 metres.

Intermediate and expert skiers are happiest here. The longest piste, a black called La Sache, is 10 kilometres. Many blacks are "naturide", ungroomed but patrolled. It's not all bad for beginners. Lifts are free at many beginners' areas.

MORE INFORMATION clubmed.com.au

- Sydney Morning Herald

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