Happy New Year!!!! I hope you all had a fun night and are enjoying a relaxing day!
As much as we had fun in Rome last Christmas. We did find that there were several chunks of time that we were just hanging around; understandably, it is Christmas and many things are closed. So this year we decided to go for an activity focused Christmas break; and chose to kick off our ski season in Tignes, France.
Knowing that the cost of ski holidays can be high at Christmas, we booked this trip back in July. In doing so we did a lot of research online about resorts that were fairly ‘snow sure’ at Christmas time, before settling on Tignes. And it is a good thing we did! There had not been much snowfall in the Alps in weeks leading up to Christmas. [If you look down the valley behind me in the picture above you’ll note the lack of snow.] Many of the resorts at lower altitudes were barely open; Tignes was only about 1/3 open. Peak season ticket prices were suppose to start the week of Christmas, but due to the poor conditions the resort decided to continue their lower pre-season price.
Tignes – Le Lac was purpose-built as a ski resort following World War II; so there are several lifts and a gondola in the main square. Most hotels are no more than a 10 minute walk to the center. There are some apartments and ‘self-catering’ accommodations a little bit further from town. The slightly smaller village of Tignes – Val Claret is a little bit further up the valley, but also has ski lifts directly in its center and is one of the routes you use to access the glacier. There is frequent free bus service between the two areas.
The resort has a little bit of a reputation for being ugly; not run down, just ugly. I personally didn’t find that to be the case. There is a strip of modern apartment buildings in Le Lac that screams 1970s (pictured below to the left of the gondola cable); and Val Claret rises up out of the valley like a ‘Bond villain’ lair. But I find that kind of cute, and many of the smaller hotels are built in a traditional wooden alpine style.
Just like our trip to Solden, Austria. We booked this one through Neilson Holidays. However, unlike our trip to Solden we used/were exposed to more of Neilson’s services. Neilson arranged our bus from the Grenoble airport to Tignes. They had reps waiting after customs to direct us to our bus. After about a 2 hour drive we stopped in Moutiers for a bathroom break, and some bus reshuffling. I would have liked to straight to the resort, but can appreciate that not everyone lives in an anti-bathroom break road trip family. The whole trip took about 3.5 hours.
The size of the side streets in Tignes did not allow the coach bus drop us off at our hotel, so a Neilson staff member walked us to the our hotel Le Gentiana. We had the afternoon to explore the town and pick up rentals. That evening our rep came by the hotel for the ‘snow briefing.’ It is optional to go; but since large portions of the mountain were closed, we decided to attend. There we learned that one of the local ski schools was offering a free ski guiding session the next day that showed you around the pistes. About every other day our rep dropped into the hotel in the early evening, and we often met with her not because we needed her assistance, but because were in the lounge playing cards. We were very pleased to see her the evening she brought us a refund on our lift pass since the resort lowered the price, but we booked our passes through Neilson prior to our arrival.
Our transfer back to Grenoble Airport was a bit more harrowing. Neilson had us set out at 5:30am (not actually as early as I thought it would be) on a bus with no rep or a bus driver that didn’t speak much English. When we left there was already 8cm of snow on the ground and another 16cm was expected to fall that day. Getting from Tignes to Moutiers to pick up more passengers was slow in the snow; there were a lot of cars in the shoulder attaching snow chains, or just stopped. Our cunning bus driver figured out to take an access road into a town and then back on the highway, by-passing the accident.
While I was definitely frustrated by the delay, and did question Neilson’s planning of our return given the storm; they communicated with Thomas Cook (the charter airline they use) about the delay and held the plane until the buses got there and could check in. I’m under the impression that only one bus didn’t make the flight; and that was because their bus broke down and were definitely not going to be able to make the flight. I was especially pleased with Neilson upon our return and reading the various news stories of stranded travelers. In fairness, most of the airport related problems were at Chambery, and we flew out of Grenoble. (Sometimes there are more than just financial benefits to booking the cheaper airport!)
Le Gentiana is one of the traditional wooden alpine hotels in Tignes. The rooms are compact (impossibly clean); and once we thought about where to put our stuff (instead of letting it explode out of our suitcases like a uni student home on break), there was plenty of space. We chose Le Gentiana based on its Trip Advisor reviews, which were overwhelmingly positive. And after staying there the reviews are fairly accurate. Yes; the rooms are a little dark, and the boot room only has a single bench (but no one cares if you put them on in the lobby). Halfway through our stay the heavy quilted bedding was replaced by a fluffy duvet.
We stayed ‘half board’ (breakfast & dinner); and I think the whole hotel was that way for the week. The food was absolutely delicious! Every night was a four course dinner (except Christmas Eve); plus ‘meat,’ cheese, and seafood specialty nights. Of the 30 some odd courses we ate, I think there was only two that was didn’t care for.
The hotel is about a 5 minute walk to the main gondola and lifts. I wouldn’t exaggerate, I hate walking in ski boots. There is also a small swimming pool, two jacuzzi, a sauna, and a steam room on the lower levels. We didn’t use any of these on our trip, but other guests were pleased with them.
The Tignes and Val d’Isere ski areas are linked to form the Espace Killy ski resort. As previously mentioned, the snow conditions weren’t great (except for the day we left). And while the amount of snow isn’t under the control of the resorts (and they did make snow); we still felt a little underwhelmed with the resort. We felt they missed opportunities for grooming. Plus, the ski runs are very spread out. This may have been exacerbated by a large portion of the pistes being closed; but we felt that in each area that we were in we kept skiing the same few runs over and over.
While we stayed in Tignes, we ended up skiing mostly on the Val d’Isere side, which hosted the men’s downhill events in the 1992 Albertville Olympics. The link is pretty speedy using the Toviere gondola in the center of town and then a short ski over. To get to town of Val d’Isere you do have to take the gondola down, unless you brave the red run into town that they are intentionally icing over for a women’s downhill ski event. Overall, we found the Val d’Isere side to be a little bit less icy (a relative term), and with more easy cruising pistes.
There were even some people decked out for the Christmas festivities:
Normally, if we were going to ski in one area primarily, that is were we would stay. But I quite liked the town of Tignes, and getting over to Val d’Isere didn’t really take up much of the ski day. Val d’Isere is a much bigger town than Tignes, and while that does provide more varied night life and dining options; for Christmas time Tignes felt cozier.
For Christmas Eve the Ecole du Ski Francais does a torchlight procession down the black run into town.
The equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce was there to pass out free hot chocolate and mulled wine. Following the procession Cirque Eloize performed. Their show Tag was designed for Tignes, and the Christmas Eve performance was the first time it was performed. There were a few technical difficulties with the show, and I don’t think performing outdoors in the cold was good for the performers.
Tignes has a few things to offer those that don’t ski. The lifts in the center of town make it easy to get into town for lunch and visit with non-skiers. There is also a playground in the center of town, along with a public swimming pool (which you get free admission to if you have between a 2 and 16 day lift ticket) and a bowling alley. You can also buy a pedestrian lift pass and can visit with skiers at the top of the mountain.
Since we stayed half-board there isn’t as much to report on this front. Except for the exceptional quality of food at Le Gentiana. On the mountain we did find the food to be expensive. A meal in the self-serve restaurant was around 15 euros. We don’t get very hungry while skiing, so we usually split a panini at the snack bar. In the town of Val d’Isere there is La Cabane. Prices there were more affordable; with a large panini, medium chips, and soda for around 12 euros. Between Hubs and I, we refered to it as ‘The People’s Chippy.’
La Cabane has been sued several times by the homeowners in the apartment building you see to the left, including British millionaire Lindsay Owen-Jones (former head of L’Oreal), for the crowds it attracts and the smell it produces. We were there on quite warm days, and didn’t find it smelly. Why not just have a standing order with La Cabane to deliver lunch to your apartment every day?
We enjoyed our trip to Tignes; and despite the snow conditions were glad it was how we chose to spend Christmas. However, it is hard to give it a 100% endorsement. Maybe the little things that bothered us about the resort wouldn’t have if the snow had been better.