by Mary Novakovich, The Telegraph, October 17, 2017
“Didn’t you come in here a couple of days ago for some hot chocolate?” said the waiter at Le Bistrot de Julien in Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe as we sat down to lunch. “Welcome back.” I don’t have a particularly memorable face, but, as I was finding out, the people of Val d’Arly are an exceptionally friendly and welcoming bunch.
In this small corner of the Mont Blanc mountain range between Aravis and Beaufortain, there’s an old-fashioned ambience in the four villages that make up Val d’Arly. Tiny Praz-sur-Arly is the first you reach after glittering Megève, 5km and a world away. Larger Flumet and its hamlets are next, then our base, Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe. Between Notre-Dame and its neighbour, Crest-Voland, these two have the bulk of the Espace Val d’Arly’s 120km of pistes, so it made sense to choose one of them.
What all the villages share is a very French, family-focused atmosphere – hospitable, chilled out and unpretentious. At their heart, they’re traditional Savoyard farming villages, usually preoccupied with producing Beaufort, Reblochon and Tomme de Savoie cheeses to add to the region’s groaning larder.
On our trip to Val d’Arly, I was preoccupied with getting my ski legs back. My husband, who only last year had swapped his snowboard for skis, was still very much a beginner and needed to ease himself into it. After a warm-up on the easy blue and green runs at the base of Mont Rond in Notre-Dame, we took the chairlift up to the 1,767m summit. That’s when we noticed that the blue runs were more challenging than my husband was expecting. They really were reds in disguise as they wound their way through the woods, and had the effect of knocking his confidence a bit.
But we soon discovered the benefits of Val d’Arly’s broad spread of runs, and how the villages combine to offer pistes for all levels. The following day, our ESF guide, Hervé, introduced us to the much gentler slopes at Crest-Voland, which you can reach by the free shuttle bus from Notre-Dame. What my husband needed were long wide greens where he could get his technique back in a more relaxed way. And Crest-Voland came up trumps. Three long greens run from the top of Mont Lachat at 1,650m, giving beginners the chance to move smoothly into more demanding tree-lined blues.
From the Sommet de l’Espace Diamant in Notre‑Dame and Crest-Voland’s Mont Lachat, you can ski directly into the neighbouring resort of Les Saisies. Along with Hauteluce, Les Saisies is in the Espace Diamant ski domain which also covers the villages in Val d’Arly. This adds another 77km of runs to Val d’Arly’s 120km, plus 120km of cross‑country trails. If you’re coming from Praz‑sur‑Arly (the first resort in Val d’Arly after Megève) there’s a more roundabout way of getting to Les Saisies via Hauteluce, a satellite village and a favourite among freeriders. You just need to extend your Val d’Arly ski pass to include all of the Espace Diamant area. For an additional €49 for a six-day pass, it’s well worth the money.
One thing all the ski areas have in common is the sight of Mont Blanc hulking in the distance. And unlike in more expensive resorts such as Megève and Chamonix, the views of Mont Blanc don’t come at a premium in Val d’Arly. The villages might not have speedy cable cars or gondolas – chairlifts are as sophisticated as it gets – but they’re among the most economical bases from which to explore this part of the Mont Blanc mountain range.
Instead of Megève’s Michelin-starred restaurants, you get cosy L’Equipe in the centre of Notre-Dame, which did a superb Beaufort fondue savoyarde. At Le Bistrot de Julien at the foot of Mont Rond, the cheesefest continued with gooey baked Camembert and tartiflette. And at Le Slalom in the village, the giant mixed grill came with a large bib so the sizzling meat didn’t splatter your clothes. Very thoughtful.
One thing you won’t find in Val d’Arly is anything resembling a buzzing nightlife. Notre-Dame’s outdoor ice-skating rink is the liveliest spectacle in the village, where things kick off every day from 4pm as skaters circle to a loud soundtrack. L’Ambience bar hosts regular live music sessions, and in Crest-Voland there’s a piano bar at Terre Neuve.
Low altitude can be a problem, and there are times when only a limited number of slopes are able to open. Val d’Arly is, however, the only destination I know where you can ski with eagles. During the four-day Festival Aigles à Ski, the birds and their handlers move from village to village putting on falconry displays. You’ll get the chance to share the piste with these wonderful creatures as they soar above you – in 2018, displays run from 5-8 March. And they say the English are eccentric.
Peak Retreats offers seven nights at Le Village in the centre of Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe from £249pp, based on two people sharing a one-bedroom self‑catering apartment. The price includes a standard Eurotunnel crossing with a free FlexiPlus upgrade.
The villages of Val d’Arly
Notre-Dame is full of charm, with pleasing Savoyard wooden and slate houses punctuated by the elegant spire of the village’s 19th-century church. For a small place, there’s a decent selection of restaurants as well as shops selling extremely tempting local cheeses, meats and craft beers. A drag-lift in the village takes you to Mont Reguet at 1,460m, which is connected to the foot of Mont Rond by a chairlift. While there’s a nursery slope in the village itself, the majority of its 30 pistes – five green, 13 blue, 10 red and two black – are accessed from Mont Rond. The ski area is lift-linked to the neighbouring village of Flumet.
A slightly smaller version of Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe, Crest-Voland shares its ski area with its cute little hamlet of Cohennoz. Although the latter is about 6km away, it’s easy to ski between the two villages thanks to the pistes that snake down through the woods from Mont Lachat. Of Crest-Voland’s 28 pistes, eight are green, 11 blue and nine red. You won’t find any black runs, but you can get your kicks at the Waouland snowpark. Both Crest-Voland and Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe work together to host the SkiBob World Cup, held over three days in early February.
Pretty little Praz-sur-Arly, with its 17th-century village church, has the same traditional Savoyard architecture and ambience found throughout Val d’Arly. It has 24 of Val d’Arly’s 97 pistes, with four green, 10 blue and nine red. Children can learn on the Opoual piste, while the more adventurous can try the fun runs and bumps at Waouland snowpark. There’s snowshoeing, dog-sledding, sledging and horse-drawn carriage rides in the village, as well as a weekly Wednesday food market. What sets Praz-sur-Arly apart is the chance to go on a hot-air balloon flight, available year round, where you can take in sublime views of Mont Blanc, the Aravis range and the Swiss and Italian Alps. Come in mid-January for the annual Montgolfiades ballooning festival to see 20 ballooning crews in action over the course of two days.
Flumet is packed with history, including a fortified castle and the hamlet of St Nicolas La Chapelle with its beautiful baroque church. Flumet is made up of two further satellites, Les Evettes and Les Seigneurs, lift-linked to Notre-Dame-De-Bellecombe. The Flumet ski area makes up the smallest portion of Espace Val d’Arly’s pistes – there are 15 runs comprising four green, four blue, six red and one black. Cheese-lovers can check out the Beaufort, Reblochon and Tomme de Savoie on offer at the Coopérative Fruitière du Val d’Arly, a cheese shop and co-op in in Flumet that features a free exhibition about Savoie cheese.
Find other family-friendly breaks at the Telegraph Ski and Snowboard Show this month in Battersea Park, London, with exhibitors from resorts across the Alps and beyond. The Show runs from October 26 to 29. Click here for more information or book tickets.