Ski holidays in France are back and here in Tignes we have been deliciously spoiled with bluebird skies and near-perfect snow conditions all week. Uncrowded slopes assure that luxuriant serenity that comes with less-frenzied January skiing; and skiers, snow groomers, lift operators – everyone – seems to have a cock-a-hoop spring in their step. Even cabaret dancers at La Folie Douce in neighbouring Val d’Isère donned sequin costumes emblazoned with sparkly Union Jacks at the weekend to welcome Britons back in style to the French Alps.
There’s cause for celebration all round. “I have been waiting a while to propose – it had to be right. I didn’t want to do it at home or on another dog walk. Now we are here, it is unbelievable,” Nick Cole, a 34-year-old property developer from Kent told me.
“The sun is shining and the slopes are quiet,” said Cole, on the terrace of Le Panoramic, the world’s highest Michelin-starred restaurant, next to the Tignes funicular top station at 3,032m. With such a euphoric, Dolby-Surround panorama of alpine peaks prancing harmoniously around the dazzling-white glacial summit, how could anyone possibly say non?
“We had originally booked for January 2021 but Covid killed that off, so we rolled everything over to this year. Last week, waiting to see if the border would really open, was incredibly stressful.
“I wanted to propose a year ago and I wanted the moment to be special, with all our best pals around, so I waited and waited … “. Nick and his now-fiancé Kay Hills, 28, flew into Geneva with 12 friends on Sunday and transferred seamlessly by minibus to the superlative Chalet de la Cloche, a sumptuous four-star catered chalet in Tignes with spa, private chef, house staff and drivers.
Nick’s table reservation for 14 at Le Panoramic was one of 280 reservations cancelled in the 24 hours following France’s shock ban on 18 December. Lift and border closures, and a mire of changing travel rules the last two winters has shattered ski resorts in France. “None of us escaped. A lot of British-run businesses – ski instructors, restaurants, bars, transfer companies – lost all their holiday bookings and are really depleted” explained Sarah Summers, 34, a former Navy helicopter mechanic from Liverpool who has lived in Tignes since 2015. An expert skier, Sarah is now a mechanic for the resort’s vast fleet of piste bashers, skidoos and 4WDs. “Low ticket sales meant we didn’t get our annual bonus. Even the French guys I work with are completely made up to have Britons back.”
During a regular winter season British skiers account for 25 per cent of visitors to snow-sure Tignes and 42 per cent to sister resort Val d’Isère. Tignes typically welcomes 16,000 snow enthusiasts from the UK over Christmas and New Year alone, but the recent festive break saw a 10 per cent drop in total occupancy (15 per cent in Val d’Isère) because Brits were banned. For both resorts, these traditionally heaving two weeks account for some 10 per cent of the winter season’s business.
Since January 14 double-vaccinated British skiers have been allowed to get their French corduroy fix again. Under-18s enter France under the same vaccination status as their parent or accompanying adult, with everyone aged 12 and older providing a negative lateral-flow (antigen) or PCR test no older than 24 hours to enter France.
Flying down pristine slopes in Tignes this week has been an emotional homecoming for passionate skier Rosie, 64, a retired civil engineer from Bath, and husband Phil.
“The moment we knew we could enter France again, the car was packed and we were off. The last time we skied was in Tignes in March 2020 when the resort closed.
“We’d gone to bed before the lockdown announcement. That evening a group of lads moved into the apartment above us and had quite a party. Next morning I was about to go upstairs to complain when my husband said ‘the resort has closed’. The lads had had to drink a week’s booze in one night as they would be going home the next day without even putting their ski boots on.”
Rosie and Phil’s 13-hour trip by car from Bath to Tignes, through the Channel tunnel, this week was not without hiccups either.
“Eurotunnel rejected my husband’s paperwork because the booking included his middle name and his negative Covid test certificate didn’t. It was sorted quickly – I removed him as a passenger and re-added him minus middle name – but it was very stressful,” explained Rosie.
Except for mask-wearing – obligatory from aged six on ski lifts, in lift queues, restaurant terraces until seated and all indoor public spaces – Rosie and Phil have not found Covid-19 restrictions in the resort particularly onerous. “We’re surprised how normal it feels. It is wonderful!” Rosie told me over al fresco coffee and yet another soul-soaring mountain view.
Lifts and the funicular are operating at full capacity, and lines are minimal. The one-way queuing system and hand-sanitizer dispensers in lift-pass offices feel pretty run-of-the-mill these days, and lift operators don’t seem to control rogue mask-wearing. Ditto for the French pass sanitaire (soon to become a pass vaccinal for anyone 16 and over, possibly by 22 January pending a definite decision Friday) which anyone older than 12 and two months needs to use the lifts. From my experience, resort ticket offices aren’t likely to check your health pass when selling you a lift pass, but the local gendarme definitely conduct random spot checks.
Tignes and Val have definitely upped their testing game too. For UK families needing to test single-jabbed children for the 24hr pass sanitaire (currently applicable to 12-17 years, but accessible only to 15 years and under with the upcoming pass vaccinal), daily tests at centres in Tignes and Val d’Isère can be booked in advance online – although prices frustratingly fluctuate between the two popular resorts. A lateral flow test costs €25 (£21) in Tignes – in Val the prices almost doubles to €40 (£33). PCR tests follow a similar pattern costing €44 (£37) and €74 (£62) respectively.
It is also a big relief to see pharmacies in both resorts issuing a pass sanitaire (€36/£30), valid for the duration of your stay, to single-jabbed teens who have recovered Covid-19 in the last six months and may struggle to get a ‘certificate of recovery’ in the UK and want to avoid the cost of testing daily.
As British skiers trickle back to Tignes, renewed confidence in a bumper season is cautiously growing. At Le Moose in Tignes Le Lac, British trio Charlie, Gary and Adam are itching to share the bar’s sharp new terrace facing the frozen lake. Suites are filling fast at this season’s hottest new ski-ski-out hotel Diamond Rock, while 26-year-old Mancunian mixologist Kate Dabrowski is rebooting the ingenious cocktail-masterclass business she created late last year in response to the pandemic.
Within seconds of last week’s news that French ski holidays were back on, retired business owner Tim Sinclair-Wilson, 64, from Winchester, was on the phone to British-run, tailor-made ski holiday specialists Peak Feeling, giving his brief. Two days later he was flying high on fresh corduroy and hot-tub chilling at Chalet Ramo with 10 other retired-gentlemen friends.
“We’ve enjoyed vigorous exciting skiing, a good lunch, and are all knackered now. I mean, what else do you come skiing for? It is so good for the soul.”