Orelle Valley: France's 'secret' ski resort

Little Orelle valley was once the lesser-known back route into the world's largest ski area, but a new high-speed gondola has put this Trois Vallées' satellite on the map for budget-conscious travellers who want to get some serious miles under their skis.

Place du Village du Bonvillard in Orelles.

Illustrated by Alban Perne
By Alf Alderson
Published 5 Dec 2022, 08:00 GMT

From the highest point of the Trois Vallées, the top of the Bouchet chairlift at 10,958ft, I have three options to make it down. There’s the long descent to Val Thorens on a choice of blue or red pistes (or off-piste if I have the legs for it), or the thrill-seeking Tyrolienne, Europe’s highest zip-line that launches riders across a yawning 1,000ft void. Or I can simply ski down into the Orelle Valley.

Having tried the first two options on previous visits here I opt for Orelle, and hooning down the perfectly groomed Bouchet piste a wide, open red that begs you to let rip  it’s clearly the right choice. It isn’t yet 10am, and I have the run almost to myself. When I eventually skid to a halt at Plan Bouchet, I reflect that I’ve arrived in what’s essentially the fourth of the Trois Vallées titular three valleys.

Despite the fact there’s been a ski lift here providing access to the other three valleys since 1989, little Orelle hardly gets a look in. It doesn’t augment the Trois Vallées’ name and only features on its piste map as a small insertion in the top right-hand corner.

But for the discerning skier on a budget, this forgotten fourth valley offers accommodation for a fraction of the cost of such pricey Trois Vallées resorts as Val Thorens and Courchevel, with the same access to the world’s biggest ski area.

Tyrolienne zip line, Val Thorens.

Photograph by Alban Perne

I had based myself way down at an altitude of 2,953ft, but thanks to Orelle’s recent €40m (£35.8m) investment in a brand new 10-person gondola, I’m up above Val Thorens in mere minutes, at the staggering 10,499-foot summit of Cime Caron.

 Such are the views, there’s plenty of traffic from non-skiing panorama seekers, but also lots of options for onwards chairlifts and gondolas deep into the heart of the Trois Vallées. Given such heady fun, it’s a mystery that Orelle isn’t better known. But then it is a slightly confusing place, in that there isn’t an ‘Orelle’ as such it’s an area made up of 10 traditional alpine villages, all stone architecture and winding streets, none of them actually called Orelle  just a region that straggles across steep slopes on the edge of the Vanoise National Park.

Place du Village du Bonvillard in Orelles.

Photograph by Alban Perne

Considering its location, Orelle is much easier to access than the other Trois Vallées resorts. There are two train stations within less than 10-minute’s drive and both have direct rail access from Paris three times a day. Or if you choose to drive, the area’s villages are just a few minutes from the A43 autoroute, with Turin, Chambéry, Lyon, Geneva and Milan airports all within about two hour’s drive.

I plumped for a stay at Residence Hameaux des Eaux, basic self-catering accommodation set above the new gondola where a week’s stay costs around the same as a six-day Trois Vallées lift pass (€330/£286). There’s a shuttle bus to the gondola or free parking for drivers.

Combe de-Rosael piste, Val Thorens.

Illustrated by Alban Perne

It’s a far cry from the glitz of, for instance, Courchevel, but as someone who comes to the mountains to ski rather than sashay around resort bars and restaurants, it suited me perfectly. And Orelle has a modest amount of apres-ski action: there’s one small bar, wryly named The Four Valleys, set in the busy village square beside the ski lift, where you can also find the ski school, kit hire, tourist info and that most essential feature of any ski trip, a pizza van. Meanwhile up on the mountain where all Orelle’s pistes converge at Plan Bouchet, bustling mountain restaurant Chalet Chinal Donat is a win for decent-value, meat focused Savoyard fare and post-run beers.

With just eight marked pistes (four blues, three reds and one black) and one boarder cross racing run, Orelle’s local ski area may not be extensive, but all the descents are long and winding, and with 2,953ft of vertical available, it doesn’t take long before my legs start complaining. As might some people’s lungs this is some of the highest skiing in Europe. The bonus is, of course, that the season runs long here at such lofty altitudes, lasting well into late spring, early summer.

Chalet Monchu, one of Orelle's affordable self-catering options.

Photograph by Alban Perne

Off-piste, meanwhile, Orelle is ideal for first-timers, with runs allowing for a swift return to the pistes if things get tricky. And there’s plenty for more experienced off-pisters. I revel in the fact that the extensive ‘ski hors piste’ surrounding all the marked trails isn’t even tracked out by lunchtime on a day after a fresh fall of perfect powder snow.

And once I’ve exhausted all that Orelle has to offer, I’m right on the edge of the biggest ski area on the planet, where the options are near limitless. A long day’s skiing takes me to Courchevel at the opposite end of the Trois Vallées, and all the way back.

I manage to find fresh ski legs for the return in the inevitable race for the last lift of the day, motivated by the knowledge that otherwise, the two-hour taxi ride back to Orelle would cost more than a flight home. But there are easier pleasures: exciting off-piste adventures above snow-sure Val Thorens; the loud excesses of the Folie Douce restaurant in Meribel; or the long, undulating descent down ‘Jerusalem’ to the pretty village of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville (with a pit stop at Maya Altitude restaurant at the top of the run for the best chicken tikka skewers in the Alps). In short, there’s more skiing here than I could discover in 10 full seasons, and all of it accessible from a little forgotten valley.

More info

A week’s self-catering at Residence Hameau des Eaux in Orelle costs from €329 (£285).  

Published in the Winter Sports 2022/23 guide, distributed with the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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