On the verge of ordering a couple of beers in the local après-ski bar, La Buvette, my boyfriend and I realised that neither of us had any Euros on us and credit cards weren’t accepted. Kicking ourselves, we apologised and made to leave but the bar lady casually waved off our lack of cash, insisting that we simply return the following day and pay then. Pouring our beers, she also dished out a vast bowl of crisps for us before returning to her conversation with her only other guests, the lift operators.
This kind of trust and hospitality is rare anywhere in the world but I’ve certainly never experienced it in a ski resort. However, La Thuile surprised me on many levels when I visited it earlier this winter. Despite its French name, its location 5 miles from France as the crow flies, its shared ski area with France’s La Rosière (the Espace San Bernardo) and the fact that it’s known among Italians as “little Siberia” for its frequent snowstorms, La Thuile is quintessentially Italian. The grand old buildings are hewn from great pieces of rough stone and timber with traditional Aosta Valley stone roof tiles, the pizzas are feather light, the ski instructors are nut brown and the lifts could do with updating. There are even Roman ruins to inspect and a resident Master Chocolatier, Stefano Collomb, whose sweet creations are so famous that La Thuile has been an official “City of Chocolate” since 2009.
La Thuile basked briefly in 1980s ski glamour when Italy’s glitterati flocked to what was then the fabulously modern Hotel Planibel at the base of the ski slopes. As heydays go, it was shorter lived than neon onesies: the VIPs quickly migrated to the less Siberian Courmayeur, replaced by families and budget travellers for whom the now faded Planibel complex and utilitarian base village may not be glam but are convenient and inexpensive.
However, thanks to MPS Puri, CEO of the Nira Hotels & Resorts chain, it would appear that La Thuile is set to return to those glamorous days, having welcomed its first 5★ hotel, Nira Montana, in December. Unashamedly stubborn, Puri likes to select off-the-beaten-track locations for his stylish boutique hotels. Thus, Nira Alpina in St Moritz is huddled against the base of Corvatsch mountain in the hamlet of Surlej – the resort’s only ski-in/ski-out hotel, it’s also a 10-minute drive from central St Moritz.
Happily, you stand to benefit from Puri’s stubbornness: aware that La Thuile is no St Moritz or Courchevel, the definitively 5★ Nira Montana is (currently) available at distinctly 4★ prices. It’s a strategy we saw when Altapura opened in Val Thorens (2011) and the Chedi in Andermatt (2014) – the first 5★ in a resort simply can’t charge top-notch prices when there’s no competition or the trappings that luxury travellers look for in a ski resort: swanky shops, Michelin-starred restaurants, spas, Bentley ice-driving circuits, fellow rich and beautiful people to look at, etc. In the case of Altapura, two other 5★ hotels opened in Val Thorens the following winter, enabling the swanky trio to demand higher prices and resulting in the entire resort being generally brushed up.
For a man who doesn’t ski, Puri has an excellent nose for great places to ski. There’s little doubt that Corvatsch is a better ski hill than Corviglia, the mountain at whose feet St Moritz’s other luxury hotels lie. And, if you don’t mind the odd storm, La Thuile offers some superb skiing. If you do mind the weather, you can usually nip across the border to France to find warmer conditions. Together with La Rosière, La Thuile lays claim to 150km of pistes, including two storming black pistes, numbers 2 and 3. The latter, which reaches a gradient of 73% in places as it plunges 800m into town, will test the world’s best from 20 to 21 February 2016, as it welcomes the Women’s World Cup Downhill and Super G.
Skiing with the larger-than-life local ski instructor, Carlo Ceffa, I came to share his passion for the skiing off the Argillien Express chair: a web of red runs in a secluded, ruggedly beautiful valley tucked away from the main slopes. Another favourite is the red piste 7, an 11km-long descent from the top of the resort, Chaz Dura (2579m), which winds gently through the San Bernardo bowl down into forests all the way into La Thuile – a stop for a drink and/or lunch on the sunny terrace of the Lo Riondet mountain hut along the way is a must. Heading across to La Rosière, around the San Bernardo Pass, there are fabulous high-Alpine powder bowls and couloirs to play in, and the fun of being able to pop over to France for lunch (go all out Savoyarde at the cute L’Ancolie at the base of Les Eucherts). Furthermore, you can treat yourself to some reasonably priced heli-skiing, with prices starting from just €50pp for one heli-drop (based on a group of four) with HeliSki La Thuile.
While Ceffa concurred that the arrival of Nira Montana is superb news for La Thuile, he also echoed what several locals mentioned: that their brand spanking new 5★ is disappointingly unpretentious. Built in traditional Aosta Valley style in a residential area a 5-minute walk from the centre of town, the unobtrusive three-storey timber and stone building blends in pretty subtly. Once inside, it’s all about low-key luxury: timber reclaimed from local farmhouses lines the walls, chunks of tree trunk serve as tables and oversize leather armchairs lit by hand-crafted Foscarini copper lamps beckon by the intimate bar.
Silver birch trunks separate a cosy trattoria, which serves delicious pizzas fresh from a wood-burning oven, from the smart, double-height dining room. The 55 bedrooms and suites are warm and stylish, each with a private balcony or terrace, espresso machines and free wi-fi. The spa features two saunas, a heated pool with various water massage stations, a hammam and a crack team of therapists. Best of all, however, is the Thai lady who takes up residence in the boot room as guests return from a day’s skiing to bathe and massage your feet. Although the edelweiss gin and tonics served up at the bar come a close second …
I have little doubt that Nira Montana is the first step in an exciting new direction for La Thuile. The presence of a 5★ hotel can’t fail to encourage local properties to pull their socks up, although I hope that it won’t result in too much jazzing up of
local restaurants like Lo Tatà, Pepita and Taverna Coppapan, which are heart-warmingly rustic, authentic beauties. For the moment, however, I say just enjoy an authentic Italian town with great skiing, inexpensive restaurants and a fabulous, 5★ hotel at 4★ prices.
Words – Gabby Le Breton