26th March 2022 | Jane Peel, Villard-de-Lans, French Alps
PlanetSKI is on a mini road trip, visiting some of the lesser-known ski resorts in the Isère region on the edge of the southern French Alps. First up, Villard-de-Lans. We discover some unexpectedly good late season skiing, a village with its place in history and some of the best food we’ve eaten in France – cooked by a Brit! NEW
Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Maybe not.
Some years ago British and Dutch ski tour operators organised holidays here.
Now, however, foreigners are a rare sight.
It’s very much a French affair.
The vast majority of its skiers and snowboarders are from France and particularly Isère.
The region’s capital, Grenoble, which is also the capital of the French Alps, is around 45 minutes’ drive away so it’s a good option for weekenders from the city.
It’s also just 1 hr 30 minutes’ drive from Lyon airport, which is how we arrived.
The base station of the ski resort is around 4km drive from the village.
If you don’t have a car, you can take the free shuttle bus.
The lifts connect you to the pretty neighbouring village of Corrençon en Vercors.
The whole ski area is majority-owned by a sporting superstar.
The French-American former professional basketball player, Tony Parker, bought a 60% shareholding about three years ago, though he’s apparently not a regular visitor.
So what’s Villard-de-Lans like?
A big, big surprise. In a good way.
But before we get on to the skiing and snowboarding we should point out that we thought Villard/Corrençon was in the southern French Alps.
It turns out we were wrong.
It actually sits between the southern and the northern Alps in a place known as the Prealps.
The mountain range is the Vercors massif.
Its appearance is quite different from many other parts of the French Alps,
Some of the rock formations resemble those in the Dolomites in Italy.
There are tree-lined runs, cliffs, and canyons.
And the views are stunning.
But it’s the location that’s proved to be a real benefit this season.
The Vercors Massif likes its weather fronts to come in from the west.
When that happens, the snow dumps on the first mountain range it hits – which happens to be the Vercors.
According to locals, that’s exactly what happened this winter, particularly in the early season, giving the ski area more snow than many others such as those further to the east and south.
So, good news for a late-season visit.
We can vouch for the fact that, despite the recent lack of snow and wall-to-wall sunshine across the Alps, conditions here in late March are surprisingly good.
And the skiing is not even that high. Skiing is from just under 1,200m up to 2,050m.
There’s hardly anyone here.
The French holiday crowds who flock here in February have long gone and the slopes are pretty much deserted.
With no high traffic, even the soft and slushy spring snow doesn’t get too cut up and lumpy by late afternoon.
And the lack of crowds is evident when we stop for lunch at one of just three mountain restaurants.
The ski area is not the biggest you will find in the French Alps and it doesn’t have huge areas of terrain for advanced skiers.
There are 125km of runs and 22 lifts.
But sometimes we would rather blast around empty slopes than fight our way through the crowds on more challenging slopes.
Intermediates and beginners can get around pretty much the whole mountain and snow cannons across the majority of the ski area have enabled many of the lower runs to remain open.
Norbert Fillot, a ski instructor with ESF in Villard-de-Lans told us what he loves about it….
Villard-de-Lans has an interesting history.
During the Second World War it had the only Polish high school in occupied Europe and its students and teachers were deported to Nazi camps.
The village and the wider Vercors area became a base and a refuge for the French resistance.
Whole families of resistance fighters lost their lives and their sacrifice is marked on a memorial in the centre of the village.
A short walk from the memorial we found one of the village’s biggest surprises.
My Little Terroir is a small, homely-looking Italian-British restaurant.
Yes, in France.
It’s run by a husband and wife team.
Chef Mark Lawrence is originally from Brighton, and Marianica Sanna was born in France but her parents came from Sardinia.
“Mark said ‘you’re crazy’ when I said I wanted to open an English-Italian restaurant in France,” Marianica says. “I was also told that if you are in the mountains you have to do cheese. I said I didn’t want to do cheese!”
My Little Terroir opened in 2012 and has become a popular haunt for locals and visitors.
I could have gone for the classic Brit fare of fish and chips but opted for Minestrone del Mare with scallops, prawns, mussels and bulgar wheat.
It was delicious, as were the desserts.
Not surprising, perhaps, from a man who once worked under the great 3 Michelin star chef, Georges Blanc.
Another good reason to spend some time in this neck of the woods.
Next up on PlanetSKI’s mini road tour of Isère is the resort of Les 7 Laux.
We hear it is one for advanced skiers.
Check back for the next instalment, coming soon on PlanetSKI.