It’s around midnight when, stumbling through the doors of the UCPA youth hostel in Val Claret – after missing a coach connection from Geneva airport and wandering aimlessly around the future-retro resort town in sub zero temperatures – I’m suddenly hit by a wave of heat and sound. Inside, a united nations of about 100 voices are in full flight, generating a swirl of German, French, Swiss, Italian and – what’s this? – English, through the packed bar area of the hostel.
Like a saloon in a bad Western, all eyes turn in my direction as I swing in from the cold with a huff and a roll of the eyes. Within a minute, once my Aussie accent has done its work, I’m surrounded by the English crew – a rowdy mix of army blokes learning how to shoot guns while on skis, and a gaggle of young British nurses out for the après as much as the Alps. The cheap beers are flowing fast.
It’s pretty fitting that the British Army should be learning their menacing new combat skills in Val Claret, the ‘upmarket’ end of the purpose-built, high-altitude resort of Tignes in the French Alps. This, after all, is the hallowed spot where James Bond jumped from a plane and landed at 100mph on a beyond-black slope of La Grande Motte glacier in the 1977 flick The Spy Who Loved Me.
The army lads don’t seem to care; they’re excited about having an Aussie in the room and are telling me about a busload” of Australian girls who used to turn up to their barracks each night and, uh, pleasure them in something called a “cold room”. One bloke is telling me: “It was proper timing, mate, we would have just had our showers and everything.” At this point, I decide against revealing my sexual preference to the candid lad.
Sure, it’s a friendly crowd here in Val Claret and a cosmopolitan melting pot, but the games will have to wait – there are some intense runs to master the next day and I’m about as savvy on the slopes as a chicken on skis.
Val Claret is located behind the huge lake Tignes and linked to the super-hip resort of Val d’Isère. There are, in fact, three main villages that together make Tignes: Val Claret, Le Lavachet and Le Lac. The three separate villages sit at different altitudes and are subdivided into quartiers, but Tignes Le Lac and Val Claret are the most convenient bases, with the latter being as close as possible to the main lifts for the Grande Motte and the ridge above Val d’Isère.
The original village of Tignes Le Lac is still the hub of the main lift system. But while Tignes Le Lac is arguably an ugly, concrete slab of a resort, Val Claret is a bit sexier, in a weird ’70s kind of way. If Val Claret was a woman, it would look like Bo Derek with her hair beads in 10, or maybe Warren Beatty in Shampoo. The reason being that the buildings are predominantly early ’70s retro cool – a sort of plaster, fibreglass and darkwood mockery of traditional chalets, pockmarked with ski shops and takeaway dives, all layered with the forgiving balm of night-fresh pristine powder.
Lifts access the Grande Motte glacier, which is a playground almost year-round as the glacier gets perennial coverage – if you ever miss the ski season, Val Claret is the place to come to catch the tail end of the winter action, while in summer it’s a holiday playground of hardcore watersports and hiking. The big plus here is that the snow arrives in November and stays until May.
While Tignes is seen as the slightly easy side of the Espace Killy ski area and many complain that the runs on the Val d’Isère are wrongly graded (reds that should be blacks, and blues that should be reds), there is quite a bit of praise for the Grande Motte glacier, which you get to by the funicular – a supertrain that whisks you up to 3000m in under six minutes. There are heaps of drags and chairs on the glacier to keep the punters happy, a strange little ice museum filled with lame but endearing ice carvings, a decent pub and a blissful long run back to the village.
The opposite end of the valley takes you to the quieter, east-facing slopes with runs down to Tignes Les Brévières on blue, red and black runs (but the blue should be a red).
The great thing about the Espace Killy area is that there are a superb, almost endless, variety of long wide pistes, mainly above the tree-line, with plenty of gentle off-piste slopes where intermediates can get the feeling for powder snow. There’s also a choice of mogul fields for the better intermediate, and a long and very challenging black run down from the Aiguille Percée to just above Tignes Les Bréviéres.
The reputation of Tignes as a big snowboarders’ resort is justified as well, and the people at the UCPA are fairly evenly divided between skiers and boarders. Boarding on the glacier gives way to steep tree-hopping lower down. The lift system relies more on chairs and gondolas than drag lifts; generally the slopes are wide with acres of powder between the runs to play in. You can even get a specific pass for the fun park and half pipe.
Tignes Val Claret may be linked to Val d’Isére by day, but by night it is more laidback. There are a few exceptions; The Crowded House (a rowdy dive at the top of the village near the information centre) and the Fish Tank (more like a nightclub, but without the dancing) in Val Claret are usually heaving and offer up manageably priced bevvies, including doubles for about €5. Most punters (including myself) opt to get in the cut-cost beers at the UCPA before hitting the village at night for the whisky.
It’s at the Fish Tank, a couple of days later, that I’ve managed to placate one of the invading British nurses with a double vodka while I get down to a serious chat with one of the now-trollied army lads who’s still going on about Aussie blowjobs. The nurse’s mates had taken advantage of a free bus that links the three villages at night to let clubbers cross-breed with their neighbours, but have seemingly forgotten that the free bus only runs until midnight. Less competition, I reckon. I could even be in with a chance here. But no, wait, the drunk nurse takes the direct approach and wins by a decent length. Bloody traditionalists.”