I woke with a start when the taxi suddenly slowed. I had dozed off shortly after leaving Geneva airport, amid tower blocks and traffic lights, but now it was dark and the narrow road was flanked by high banks of snow. Sitting motionless in the glare of the headlamps was a hare, its fur perfectly white, eyes shining, ears upright. It looked back quizzically for a few moments, then lolloped off leaving us to follow it – in first gear – as the road twisted and turned up the mountain to the ski resort of La Rosière.
We arrived to find the village silent and deserted. In Val d’Isère, the celebrated resort just up the valley, the streets would be busy with revellers tottering home, but here there were no lights in the windows and the few cars left out on the street were half-buried in snow. A night manager let us into our hotel but everyone else seemed to be tucked up in bed, presumably eager to get an early night ahead of the day La Rosière had been anticipating for more than 50 years – the day that could finally put it on the map.
The village sits high on the northern flank of the Tarentaise Valley – perhaps the most privileged address in the world of skiing. If you’ve ever even dabbled with the sport, you’ll probably have heard of some of the big-hitting resorts it contains. When I drew the curtains of my bedroom the following morning, I looked across the valley to the pistes of Les Arcs, which, together with neighbouring La Plagne, make up the Paradiski ski area – the second largest in the world. Just beyond that is Les Trois Vallées, the largest, containing both Europe’s highest resort, Val Thorens, and its glitziest, Courchevel (a village with a dozen Michelin stars and more five-star “palace” hotels than anywhere in France except Paris). Looking left, I could see Sainte Foy, renowned for its off-piste, then Tignes, where you can even ski in summer and whose slopes join with Val d’Isère. In all, the Tarentaise Valley has more than 1,400km of pistes, over 500 lifts, and a greater range of hotels, restaurants and après-ski bars than any other similarly sized patch of mountains anywhere on the globe.
All of which has left little La Rosière as rather the poor relation. While its neighbours developed fast following World War II, quickly attracting investment from both the state and private investors, La Rosière didn’t get its first, tiny, drag lift until 1960. For four decades it grew slowly, the few ski lifts financed and managed by the villagers themselves, gradually developing a reputation as a cheap-and-cheerful place best suited to families.
“How could we compete with all that?” said Georges Berenguer, my red-suited instructor, gesturing across the valley as we rode the chairlifts up and out of the village. “All we had to offer was sunshine [the slopes face predominantly south] and this…” he pulled a huge smile, white teeth gleaming against a deep tan – the product of winters here and summers in his native Marseilles. “But I think that our warm welcome and mindset of being grateful to see visitors has become really deeply ingrained.”
Halfway up the mountain, we skied past some trees and rounded a rocky outcrop, where we came across a samba band beating their drums, decked out in the bright yellow and green of Brazil. Their colleagues were handing out hot drinks and handwarmers, and an ever-growing crowd of skiers were greeting each other, hugging and laughing. It was the first day of the ski season, but there was more than that – behind the band was a gleaming new chairlift.
Marked out on the plans for the resort as early as the 1960s, this promises to be a game-changer for La Rosière, stretching in two stages for more than 2.3km and rising 865 vertical metres, almost to the summit of Mont Valaisan. At a stroke it raises the highest point of the ski area from 2,390m to 2,800m, adding five new pistes. More important, though, is that it opens up a huge area for off-piste skiing. Previously only those prepared to hike for 90 minutes on snowshoes or touring skis could reach these slopes; now it will take just under eight minutes.
Or it should. I sat beside Berenguer on the fourth or fifth chair ever to make the journey, and we moved at a snail’s pace, stop-starting repeatedly as technicians completed their final checks. I shivered in the cold – in the end the trip took 30 minutes – but Berenguer couldn’t have been jollier, surveying the new domain and pointing out a chamois on the ridge above us, intrigued, perhaps, by the samba beat from below. “We’ve always been a family resort, great for beginners. But now we’ll be able to attract the expert skiers. Parents can leave their kids for their lesson, then come up here.”
When we finally reached the top, no one stopped to look at the view. Instead they immediately tightened their boots and raced towards the waiting powder, wave after wave of brightly clad skiers united by a sense of collective euphoria. This is skiing’s moment of unalloyed joy, the thing that keeps you coming back: body charged with potential gravitational energy; deep, untouched snow falling away steeply before you, the path ahead sparkling in the sun. Berenguer went first and I followed, making fast, wide turns. The snow was so light it felt effortless, both thrilling and somehow meditative – as close as I will ever get to flying. At the bottom Berenguer and I said nothing but clicked our ski poles together, aware that we had shared something special.
And then it was time for lunch. After about half an hour, we found ourselves dropping below the treeline and down to the little Italian village of La Thuile. At Ristorante Pepita we opted for the “skier’s set menu” – far less humble that it sounds. The waiters brought enormous platters of local dried meats and cheese, homemade truffle pasta and baked apple dessert, all of it washed down with Sardinian beer, wine from the Aosta valley and, as we got up to leave, shots of limoncello served in tiny chocolate cups. We jumped in the waiter’s car to save the short walk back to the cable car, then set off for the long, cross-border ski home.
La Rosière has one thing none of the Tarentaise big boys can match – a ski area that straddles an international border. From the top of Mont Valaisan, hardcore skiers can ski straight down into Italy on a steep backcountry route. For everyone else there are a series of gentle pistes and lifts that pass over the Col du Petit St Bernard – a functional road in summer but buried deep in winter, the border unmarked except for a signpost. If you pause for a photo, consider that if you throw a snowball in one direction it will eventually melt into the Mediterranean; in the other it will end up in the Adriatic.
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The village itself is spread into two parts – to get from one to the other you have to walk for 10 minutes on a snowy path through the forest, whose lampposts give it its local nickname, Narnia. There is no central church square or town hall, no main drag of designer shops – this is a place to ski, not to see and be seen. It’s a legacy of the area’s deep agricultural roots, I learned that night over dinner with Gisèle Gaide, a 66-year-old former ski instructor, hotelier and local historian whose family has lived here for generations. Rather than live in one central village, the 700-strong community is spread among more than 30 tiny hamlets, scattered up the mountainside – from the banks of the Isère River up to what is now the ski resort, 1,000m higher. For centuries the villagers would move between the hamlets with the seasons, taking cattle, sheep and goats up to graze on the high pastures in summer, then coming down in winter to escape the worst of the snow. “We had five houses,” said Gaide, who recalled helping her parents in the fields, sometimes rising at midnight to work the irrigation channels that watered their crops. Was there smuggling too, given the proximity of the border? “Oh yes!” she said enthusiastically. “My grandmother was a smuggler, my son a customs man.”
This semi-nomadic life only ended in the 1970s, when tourism finally began to take hold and the shepherds started to buy cars. Being able to leave their flocks up high but drive back home at night negated the need for multiple homes, and the villagers found themselves with spare houses to sell to skiers. Still, development here has remained small-scale. Until last winter the village had only three hotels, with most other accommodation in chalets and small apartment buildings, all of them built in traditional styles using wood and stone. Most of the businesses have largely remained in the hands of locals. Everywhere you go, the same few surnames ring like echoes: Gaide, Gaidet, Arpin…
Now though, there’s a sense that humble La Rosière is poised for greater things. I stayed at the new Hyatt Centric, a smart four-star hotel with 69 rooms, a spa, a swimming pool and glorious views. It’s the first Alpine hotel for the US brand – and that it is located here says something about La Rosière’s growing profile. New this winter is Hotel Alparena, a sleek spot overlooking the slopes, and the Chalet Aiglon, a sort of gourmet guesthouse. Next winter will bring the Alpen Lodge, a gleaming MGM development with several hundred beds and a large family pool; 2020 will bring an 800-bed Club Med, amid the dense forest just outside the village.
On my last day the mountain was blanketed in thick cloud – up high it was hard to tell if you were moving or standing still. Instead, Berenguer and I headed below the village, slaloming through a forest of birch trees and lapping an old lift called Petit Bois, the only people using it that morning (“Salut les clients!” said the lift operator, happy to see someone).
Later, we turned right and skied across snow-covered fields to the hamlet of Le Châtelard, its wooden chalets clustered around a whitewashed chapel perched on a rocky knoll. We took off our skis and wandered through its narrow alleys, smelling woodsmoke and cows overwintering in the ancient barns. As we waited for the bus back up to La Rosière, Berenguer pointed out an old wooden shed, where through a high window you could just about make out rows of glittering trophies belonging to Manu Gaidet, a famous freeride skier and three-time world champion. Were this Courchevel, you could imagine them on prominent display in the lobby of a five-star hotel. But the treasures of La Rosière remain a little more hidden away. At least for now.