èIt is one of those days that skiers dream of: deepest azure skies, crystal-clear sunshine, and glittering slopes laced with a fresh layer of overnight, powdery snow.
I’m swishing down the Sarenne, said to be the longest black run in the Alps, and I feel like I am flying. The 16km piste is virtually empty; soft, wèhite clouds are spraying up behind me, and the views of the surrounding Grandes Rousses peaks are breathtaking.
Welcome to the mighty Alpe d’Huez ski domain, located just 50km south of Grenoble in the Isere region of the French Alps.
I may be skiing in Alpe d’Huez, but crucially I am not staying there: I’m based in Vaujany, one of five villages scattered around the bigger, better-known ‘parent’ resort.
Vaujany is an undiscovered hamlet of only 300 inhabitants which swells to a mere 3,000 in high season, and it has only been a resort for 25 years.
Smaller, charming ski resorts
Each winter we UK skiers pack our boots and head in droves for the big name destinations, the ‘Mayfair’ resorts of Val d’Isère and Verbier and Méribel.
But we are missing out on this new breed of ‘backdoor resorts’. The charming, smaller ski villages that are tucked away on the outskirts of these larger resorts and that offer access to all the same skiing, but often at a fraction of the cost and with heaps more charm.
Discovering Vaujany: a cheaper way to ski
Vaujany as such is tinier, quieter and far more pretty than the purpose-built Alpe d’Huez, lined with ramshackle, ancient wooden chalets, cute bars and atmospheric restaurants frequented by locals.
It is included in the Alpe d’Huez ski pass but visitors can also just buy a pass for Vaujany and its neighbouring village of Oz en Oisans and enjoy a fabulous week’s skiing.
Indeed, many of its annual visitors eschew the full Alpe d’Huez domain pass, which costs €248 for six days, and opt for the cheaper Vaujany/Oz ski pass at just €161, then pay for extra days to access Alpe’s 250km of slopes.
On our first day we enjoy a giant ski-around with Pascal Le Clech, director of the Vaujany ski school, and his entertaining English colleague Wendy Chant.
We swoop down Bartavelles, a gloriously wide, corduroy-striped red run, Vaujany’s best-kept secret slope; we bob about off-piste among the trees below Mont Frais and beside Le Dome, another gorgeously groomed red.
There is plenty to detain us in the Vaujany ski area, but on the second day the 16km of the Sarenne beckons irresistibly, and we venture into the wider Alpe d’Huez territory.
La Folie Douce
Not only does staying in Vaujany mean we can access the same skiing, however; it also means we don’t have to miss out on fun après.
La Folie Douce, the famously rocking après ski joint which exists in such fancy destinations as Val d’Isère, Méribel and Megève, has an outpost on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez too – so we can enjoy major après attractions without having to stay in a major resort.
We head there following an afternoon of whizzing around more reds and cruisy blues beneath the towering Pic Blanc, then quaff champagne and have an obligatory dance to the lively music in our ski boots.
Cheaper chalets for those in the know
Home for our stay is Chalet Saskia, owned and run by Ski Peak, a British chalet operator which specialises in Vaujany and which is opening up the resort to more and more Brits.
The chalet is roomy and hugely comfortable, but the food is particularly outstanding. Marcus, the New Zealand chef, treats us to deliciously creative, experimental, combinations of flavours. Think raspberry and red pepper sorbet, and ‘beer and chips’ where the ‘beer’ is really a Guinness ganache with white chocolate cream on top and chip-shaped shortbread biscuits on the side.
Notably, the accommodation in these smaller resorts is often cheaper than in the bigger ones. Chalet Saskia is priced from just £790pp per week, including half-board accommodation and regular in-resort transport to the slopes.
You would pay a premium of at least £200 for the equivalent in Alpe d’Huez, and far more in the likes of Val d’Isère.
Ski holiday: insider’s guide
Vaujany seems to cast a spell on everyone who visits. Ian Gemmell, a fellow guest in our chalet, has similarly been coming for 17 years, together with a group of six other retired Brits.
They have skied Méribel, Breckenridge in Colorado and Verbier, but keep returning to this lovely, little-known resort.
“We just discovered it by chance and have been coming back ever since,” he says.
“The skiing is terrific – there is no complicated bus system to get you to the lift, and the lift takes you up into the ski area much quicker than in Alpe d’Huez itself. There is also rarely a queue.”
His group also highly values the fact that the resort is quiet – if you are seeking thumping night-life, then Vaujany isn’t for you, but at the same time this means that the slopes are not rammed with other skiers, all battling for space on the snow.
There is slightly gentler, après entertainment at Arsene’s pub, as well as several traditional restaurants such as La Remise which serves up scrummy, well-priced mountain dishes.
It even has a 25m indoor swimming pool, an ice rink and a brand new ten pin bowling alley.
There are a few downsides, however: you are stuck if you miss the last gondola down – unlike Alpe d’Huez, you cannot ski back to the resort and have to rely on a series of lifts to return you home. Being small, it also doesn’t have a doctor, so if you crock your ankle, you have to go down the valley to a bigger town.
Vaujany in many ways represents what skiing used to be like, rather than what it has become. It is all about the mountains and the snow, rather than ritzy shops, over-priced cocktail bars and humming après. It has an authentically French, undiscovered, unspoilt appeal – just don’t tell too many people.
Prices start from £990 per person including flights and transfers, and from £790 per person for seven nights accommodation on a half board basis. For more information visit Ski Peak
For more information on Alpe d’Huez click here Alpe d’Huez Grande Domaine Ski
Five of the best secret ski resorts
La Tzoumaz (Verbier)
Just over the ridge from Verbier but fully-linked in to the Verbier ski area. Pay half the price of inflated Verbier prices for everything from accommodation to beer.
St Martin de Belleville (Three Valleys)
A far more charming, Brit-free, authentically Savoyarde alternative to the better-known Three Valleys resorts of Méribel, Courchevel and Val Thorens. Crystal Ski have good deals here.
Tignes Les Brevieres (Espace Killy)
Forget Val d’Isère and Tignes proper. This outlying, fully linked-in hamlet has lively après-ski joints, locals’ restaurants and some gorgeous designer chalets.
Abondance (Portes du Soleil)
Home to the famous Abondance cheese, this sleepy, traditional village rivals the bigger Portes du Soleil resorts of Morzine and Chatel, with a regular, free shuttle service linking to the mighty 650km ski domain.
Sainte Foy (Espace Killy)
A genuine hidden gem, handily located just 15 minutes from Val d’Isère and Tignes, as well as Les Arcs and La Thuile in Italy. Excellent for ski safaris that embrace several resorts, while also offering empty runs and top off-piste and itself.