Jhe last race of the day is often a scrum as everyone races down the same hill in pursuit of an après-ski beer. As the afternoon light faded, I cruised from the 3,000 meter Col de Thorens down an empty track, wondering where everyone else was. Val Thorens, probably, or Les Menuires or Méribel. But here in Petite Orelle, on the outskirts of France’s Three Valleys, you wouldn’t know you were in the biggest ski area in the world.
That’s the beauty of these little backdoor resorts: you get a share of 600km of piste but you’re not in the middle of the crowd – nor are you paying the big bucks. And this backdoor has become considerably easier (and cheaper) to open with the arrival of two new cable cars in Orelle. One takes you from the village to the Plan Bouchet ski area at 2,350 meters above sea level, replacing an older, slower cable car. But the great novelty is the Orelle-Caron cable car which takes you directly to Val Thorens and its 150 km of slopes, opening the highest resort in the Three Valleys to pedestrians and skiers alike. As the ski season here is currently scheduled to remain open until May 8, this leaves plenty of time for spring skiing on the high altitude runs.
Orelle itself is less a village and more a series of 10 tiny hamlets that twinkle and miss you, scattered around zigzagging roads. It’s a sleepy slice of Savoie, its traditional stone cottages mingling with more modern chalets and residences. It’s as far as you can get – economically and spiritually – from Courchevel, the northernmost outpost of the Three Valleys. Budget, not bling, that’s the key word in Orelle where an apartment in the Le Hameau des Eaux d’Orelle residence, where I was based, costs from €520 in April for a week for four.
To say the accommodation is basic is an understatement (bring your own soap, cleaning supplies, etc.), and there are extra charges for towels, linens, and final cleaning. But there’s an indoor pool, hot tub, and sauna, not to mention a well-stocked (and well-priced) grocery store and a good restaurant and bar. It’s a 10-minute taxi ride from the nearest train station at St-Michel-de-Maurienne (on the Paris TGV line), and a free ski bus that runs every 15 minutes drops you off at the cable car 700 meters away. .
About 20 minutes after leaving the lower station of Orelle, I was at the top of the Cime Caron which dominates Val Thorens at 3,195 meters. From here, non-skiers can reach the center of Val Thorens using the Cime Caron gondola and two other cable cars – handy for those wanting to explore the restaurants, sports centre, spa and cinema. Instead, enjoying the late winter sun, I skied right into the heart of Val Thorens.
From there it was easy to continue to Les Menuires, where another new cable car has opened this season. The old ski lifts I last took to Pointe de la Masse a few years ago have been replaced by a fast gondola that transports skiers and pedestrians in search of magnificent views in just eight minutes. The Mace used to be a bit of a secret, relatively speaking, but that secret is now truly out with the construction of a massive 360-degree viewing platform at the top. In addition to the giant letters #lesmenuires now unmissable on Instagram facing the mountains, artistically arranged metal sculptures highlight the peaks and glaciers that can be seen. I spotted the Cime Caron where I had skied earlier. But unlike Cime Caron, where there are only red and black runs, La Masse has beginner-friendly blues, a picnic area and a small amusement park for children. And its descent of 1000 meters is one of the most beautiful in the resort.
Méribel was just as easy to explore the next day, as I meandered through Val Thorens to the 2,850m Col de la Chambre and up and down Mont Vallon. At that time, the wind was turning violent, bringing with it the red sand from the Sahara that blew over parts of Europe that week. It was surreal to see pink highlights on the white snow. It was equally surreal when, at the end of the day’s skiing when we were gathered at the little bar in Orelle near the valley station of the cable car, I paid €3.60 for a glass of wine. Not quite Courchevel prices.
The wind had died down when I lined up the next morning for my first zipline attempt, La Tyrolienne. From the highest point in Orelle, the Sommet des Trois Vallées at 3,230 metres, I was secured in a harness, skis and poles strapped to my back, and off we went. One minute and 45 seconds of an exhilarating and soothing whoosh over 1300 meters to the Col de Thorens. At €55 a piece, it wasn’t quite in line with Orelle’s economic philosophy, but it was an invigorating taste of the high life.
Accommodation was provided by Le Hameau des Eaux d’Orelle and lift passes by Trois Vallées. A week in a gite from €329 (sleeps 4), with towels €10 pp, sheets €10 to €15 and cleaning kit €8.50. The 6-day lift pass costs €330 for adults and 6-day ski equipment hire from Orelle Sports 3000 (skis, boots, poles and helmet) starts at €105. For more information visit Orelle tourism.