I know this might generate a lot of disagrements but figure thread like this might also provide some useful info to people that are thinking going over to Europe and ski the Alps. In the past I have spent more than few hours trying to figure out how would skiing in French Alps compare to great North America skiing , mainly CA, CO and UT (and WI, IL and MI). Although a lot of info is available on internet, it is still somewhat time consuming to compile all the answers that one might have. Therefore I would try to cover only few areas and hopefully somebody else could expand and extend list of comparisons.
I would start with: ski terrain, ski culture, smells and sights, costs, ski schools, environment/development and getting there. Here we go:
Obviously huge difference here since most of L'Espace Killy skiing is above the tree line. While this fact provides for dramatic vistas it can also pose chalenges on overcast/stormy days when visibility is so poor that just the bravest and the people with deep knowledge of the terrain can have any meaningfull fun. No tree skiing here exept some great runs on La Fornet and La Daille side and back towards Les Brevieres (I did not venture that far). And while the “pistes” (trails) are somewhat marked (if it not groomed, piste is marked with sticks on each side of the trail, spaced 20-30ft apart) it is not ecouraged and/or condoned to ski off piste - your own decision. However it is highly advisable to obtain insurance card that would cover rescue since anything off piste that happens to you would be costly - astronomical. The reason for insurance is obvious: due to the somewhat limited visibility (mentioned above) it is very easy to wander off trail and find yourself in great peril. Cliffs, crevaces and other lurking dangers are plentifull and are not clearly marked. I have to give advantage to American resorts in this area, the trails and off trail dangers and conditions are clearly marked and mostly observed by skiing public.
Ski trails consist of everything that could be skied. However, the span of slope clasification is much different. Some intermediate runs are anything but that, often very narrow, icy and would rather be clasified as advanced “black diamond” runs in the US. Advanced (red marked) runs in Espace Killy might be hard for some of stronger intermediates. Caution is advised before one venture to any terrain based on color coding of the trails. Steep terrain is just that - steep terrain, often in “natural” conditions. I have not seen anything like “Gunbarrel” at Heavenly, long mogul runs, in France they tend to leave mogul maintenance and creation to nature with the help from skiers. Grooming is good but nothing compares to (over)groomed runs at Deer Valley. Some runs off of Siberia Bowl at Squaw have similar physical resemblance of Espace Killy (groomed run in the middle, flanked by wide open powder fields).
IMO, dangers are more present in L'Espace Killy given size and geography of the ski area. Many more people are avalanche equipped, less people wear helmets - no trees I guess ? Size idea ? I would say combine Park City resorts, add BCC (hello Interconnect!) Or combine all Vail Resort property in Lake Tahoe and add potential acquisition targets (Mt. Rose, Sugar Bowl, Homewood). Massive, with all kinds of terrain for all kinds of abilities. Tree skiing in the US rules, though.
Everytime someone tries to discuss different culture, even that being a ski culture, a storm of criticism is heading your way. I’ll take that, for entertainment sake.
In France and Europe skiing is just a winter activity that surrounds winter vacation. It is clear by observing hordes of turists that their winter vacation consist of many more things than just skiing. And resorts tend to oblige and provide a ton of extracirricular activities in addition to great skiing. Great spa facilities, gyms, Polo turnaments, walking tours, dog sleigh rides, culinary tours, shopping - the list can go forever. This very variety of activities can make for a special and memorable vacation for a non-skier as well. On mountain lunches at Espace Killy are on another level. Majority of skiers do not mind stopping for lunch, unbuckle boots, take off the layer or two and bask in the sun. It is deffinitely not “I paid for this, I will use any second that lifts are open” type of attitude that some of American skiers (me) have in mind. Having a glass or two of wine for lunch and having an afternoon off !? Much more relaxed and festive skiing culture prevails on that side of the Atlantic. And last but not least, ski slopes are also seen as a catwalk opportunity in displaying latest and greatest and nicest looking ski apparel. Apparently, for many skiers it is as important how one looks as it is how one skis. Noticed that Russians are particularly fond of Bogner. And they look good (not Russians in Bogner - people in general), not many all black outfits, colors flying everywhere, everything is well thought out before venturing to the slopes. Not many chit-chats with strangers on the lifts either. Last year in Deer Valley I was exposed to whole lifetime of investment strategies from complete stranger. In Val D’Isere once French guy asked me if I understand French since he said some bad words in French and would like to apologize. Hopefully not bad words about me:) Americans are chattier for sure. And like to write long subjective observations that nobody cares about. Wait, what, me ?
Skiing in Europe is often thought of as a very expensive proposition. Well, not really. Most of the Europeans endulge in this kind of winter vacationing and cost for them range from very affordable mass tour options to super extravagant catered chalet stays. Think of that as a Apple Vacations tours to Cancun/Cabo all inclusive resorts - very affordable, conveniet and quick. Things get little bit different for Americans since most tour operators from the US tend to create overly expensive packages that make Europan ski trip very pricey. Other option is to price this trip individualy, like I did, and although time consuming it might yield some substantial savings.
My flight from Chicago cost $850 (ended up using Capital One miles). Skis fly free on Swiss in addition to free first bag. That compared to $550 flight to Reno, plus skis $35 each way, is not much more of $ difference. Flights in this $range could be found through the March ($750-$950). East coast being cheaper and with more options of course. Another cost saving came from the fact that in Lake Tahoe, Utah or Colorado I always end up renting a car. Espace Killy is reachable by shared transfers in three hours from Geneva and it will cost you 130Euros ($180). Once there no need for car, area is massive, well connected via free bus system and compact village provides for great strolls in the evening. No chains to worry, no gas to fill, no rental car counters and costs. There are numerous transfer companies and finding the right one is not a problem. Cost to resorts closer to Geneva are much lower - Chamonix or Megeve is something like $120 to/from.
Lift tickets are much cheaper in Espace Killy and considering how much ski area is available on one ticket therefore a much better value. 8 days Espace Killy ski pass cost me $400 and that includes ski insurance. Buying individual days in CA, UT or CO would be more expensive. Deals such as Epic Season Pass might and will reduce the ticket window cost but still it is much more expensive for 7-15 day traveler category. Oh, and 8 day pass includes day at a really spectacular Aquasportif Oxygen wellness center and a day or two (not sure) of skiing at the nearby Les Arcs.
Cost of on-mountain food ranges from $14 to infinite (some fine magnum champaigne available on the mountain !). Very good lunch is around $15-$20. I would say comparable to the US, maybe bit cheaper considering that no tipping in American amounts is expected. Large Beer $8 (.5l), glass of hot wine $5.50. Restaurants are simply spectacular and provide great food and people watching opportunity. Deer Valley, Snowbasin are somewhat similar in this category, although more expensive. CA resorts have long way to go, and as I recall CO is not a gourmet paradise either.
Hotels range from very basic to very extravagant. No cheap motels here. Very basic studio/1 bdrm. efficiency with cooking utensils, TV, spacious clean bathroom range from $450-$800 for a week (tax inclusive). I had Le Fornet apt. for 10 nights for $670, and it is much better than a lot of places I was staying in CA, CO or UT in that price range. Place can sleep 4 but 2 adults is more realistic. Tignes tend to be cheaper (I met people that paid $430 (320Euros) for 6 days ski pass (Tignes only, supplement pay for Val D'Isere) and 7 nights (4 person per apt.), bus transportation from Prague included, some ski club. School holiday periods are more expensive, not by much (~20%, accommodation, same pricing for lift tickets) but crowds, from what I've heard, might be an issue. Grocery store costs are about the same like Whole Foods (more expensive than Safeway), except Cherries - $65 for a kilo ($30 per lb.). No cherries for me. In the case of ski equipment rental it would cost $200-$250 weekly for a very nice set, something that would be in the upper/higher range of ski rental here (Cham 97 ie). Buying ski clothing is not a great idea given cost, but selection is mind rattling. US is heaven for buying good ski clothing at a very affordable price. Plug for Stoic Gear.
Overall, although Val D’Isere is considered one of the more expensive resorts in France I did not find it prohibitevely expensive. Word has it that Chamonix might be somewhat cheaper or Austria or Italy - it is still something to be found out.
I was thinking about taking some ski lessons and/or guide but decided against that since I had so much fun on my own. I inquired about the prices and ski school is about $80-$90 for a group lesson (4 hrs.) I find this to be a very good price point comparing to most CA, UT ski areas (Alta might be cheaper). One big difference here is that at least dozen ski schools are allowed to operate on the mountain. I do not believe that Vail Resorts, Talisker or KSL would allow anybody but their instructors to legally offer their services on “their” mountains. I think this is something where Espace Killy is better positioned since competition can and does provide better quality and cost for a user. BTW, restaurants on the mountain are also owned by different operators rather than resort operators. In few words - American resorts can learn a thing or two about market competition from “socialist” France. All languages are spoken and if one fancies to have a ski lesson in Japanese - it could be arranged. Kids ski schools are much much cheaper, day care facilities better - I have interest in this since my 4 and 6 yr. olds are ready to start sharing ski trips with me (and wife if I can convince her that cold and snow are not a radioactive hazards).
Smells and sights
Being in the center of the Alps, Val D’Isere provide for some spectacular scenery. It is also very history rich area and there are houses that date to XII century. It is in this area that Hannibal (not the one from the movie) crossed the Alps on the way to the siege of Rome. Elephants and all.
Food is spectacular and one must try Fondue, Raclette and Tartifflete, cheese Beaufort, liquor Genepi (absinthe comes to mind) and great selection of wines. Culinary heaven for foodies, on mountain as well as off mountain. Skiing is so good and demanding that indulging in great French food would not add few pounds to your athletic frame. Overall, CA, CO and UT have a long way to go in this category but hey, maybe only Italy can compete with French, so nothing to worry about US !
Espace Killy is centered around old village of Val D’Isere and also consist of Tignes area. Tignes is an eye-sore of a kind since it is built in the sixties to replace intentionally flooded community of old Tignes (on the bottom of the lake now). There are some improvements in beautification and more environmental considerations are raised in resort developmet. There are no real estate developments once beyond the base of the resort and car traffic is restricted. As I understand, special care is given to the area since it is part of some sort of national park and provides unspoiled beauty to both summer and winter vacationers.
Getting to Espace Killy
Delta and United (NY and Washington), and Swiss (from NY) fly non stop to Geneva and it is possible to reach Geneva via connecting flights throughout Europe. Grenoble, Chambery and Lyon are other airports but for North American traveler it might provide better options flying to Geneva. Then there is another 170km (100 miles) bus/van ride to Espace Killy. It is 2/3 highway with 1/3 being somewhat tricky and treacherous mountain road especially last 30 miles or so from Bourg St. Maurice, which is also the nearest train stop to have service to Paris (5 1/2 hrs.). I have decided to fly to Geneva and did not use any of the other options mentioned here.
So, get your passport and get ready to ski Espace Killy.
Sorry for lengthy post, but obviously you don't mind it since reading it this far.