The first thing I did on arrival at Nira Montana – which, invariably, is the first thing I do when I arrive at any hotel – was to take a swim. Or attempt to. The disappointing 14 metres of the Nira pool was not, however, the impediment to my abilities, rather the array of jacuzzi effects that it features. I managed two faint-hearted, not to say brief, laps of breast stroke before being off-putted by the design, with steps, ledges, nooks and a multitude of buttons and spouts dotted throughout. The only complete lap I managed, in fact, was that in which I circumnavigated the pool trying out each and every function: a subaqua recliner, a gauntlet of jets and even a pad on the floor, which threw me off my feet in a plume of bubbles. It occurred to me that far from this being an inadequate swimming pool, it was instead a feature of design genius; an alpine pool, where space is at a premium, is not for swimming. This pool – effectively one large, multi-function jacuzzi – is an instrument of ski therapy. All those jets and bubbles are designed to soothe weary and worn muscles, many used barely once a year, after a hard day on the slopes.
The hotel is the latest offering from the Nira group, opening a mere weeks before my visit – and to call it new would be an affront to its newness. It’s as if it’s just been unwrapped. The shower in my ensuite was so pristine I was almost afraid to use it, and I found myself wiping down the double-length basin for fear of incurring the wrath of housekeeping. The only thing not new in the hotel is much of its recycled wood panelling, reclaimed as part of the group’s commitment to the environment. One might argue that even its location is new. It is, after all, a new build and in an area not readily familiar with us Brits. Like its predecessor, Nira Alpina in St Moritz, it eschews the beaten piste in favour of somewhere different, somewhere where it might lead rather than follow. In this case, the Italian Alps, in the village of La Thuile.
Where? Well, quite. La Thuile is a sleepy village a short hop from the significantly more populous Courmayeur. It’s what Edmund Blackadder might describe as a ‘tu’penny ha’penny sort of place’. It’s so quiet and indistinct that my in-laws, who visited Chamonix some years ago, ‘dipped into Italy’ and didn’t even realise they were driving into a village when they passed through it. So why would anyone build a hotel there and, more importantly, why would anyone go there for skiing? Well, this is where we, dear readers – and yours truly – might be profoundly ignorant but where Nira, in their infinite wisdom, have nailed it. This is a ski destination that bucks the cliché. You won’t find an Irish bar here, nor nightclub, happy hour, nor any other Bacchanalian excess so commonly associated with this pastime. The only indulgence you’d find in the town – with the exception of the hotel, of course – is Chocolat; a world-renowned cafe and chocolate shop so good it could have inspired Joanne Harris, and whose double chocolate fondue is enough to induce Type II diabetes.
The fact that La Thuile itself lacks any meaningful nightlife is precisely what make it so delightful. Here is a skiing holiday not for the youthful hedonist, but the cultured enthusiast. But what La Thuile itself lacks in apres ski, it more than makes up for in the skiing itself. It is exemplary, and for all levels. A complimentary shuttle from the hotel and an ascent up the cable car from the village to Les Sucres offers a myriad of options; notably the option to ski to France of a morning, without repeating a piste. Armed with our guide, David, we traversed mountain and plain, up chair lifts showing off commanding views of Mont Blanc, a distant Matterhorn and les Trois Vallees, and came within sight of La Rosière. It is, simply, the idea of skiing to France, essentially sightseeing on skis, down undemanding reds, that I found most appealing. And it’s worth noting that such is the draw of La Thuile’s 160km of slopes that Italians staying in Courmayeur ski in La Thuile.
The beauty of La Thuile’s skiing is that it’s as quiet as the town; queues at chairlifts are non-existent and its extensive piste options give one almost sole command of the mountain in places – it’s as if skiing in La Thuile was designed for a skier such as myself; certainly no expert, more comfortable wafting down a slope than feeling the need to cheat death on a vertical descent. But I mentioned that it caters for all levels. Following a heavy carb lunch, David suggested Route 3 for a bit of a challenge. “Isn’t that a black run?” I asked, conscious of something Nira Montana’s sommelier warned me as an enthusiastic amateur: ‘Avoid Route 3’. “There are no black runs,” David replied, “only white ones.” Very droll, David. Ten minutes later, scoffing at the smugness of his wit, I was doing 70 mph on my back and entering a spin, skis flailing behind me, as I took the quick way down the steepest descent I’ve ever encountered. Route 3, it transpires, is a course used in the world championships. It was, too, the quickest way back to town (the more leisurely red closed for lack of snow) but there’s always the minor ignominy of taking the cable car back down at the end of the day. My preferred choice, though, if only for the glorious view of the valley village as one descends back to the home comforts of the hotel.
And this is in Italy? But La Thuile sounds French, you say. Ah, you see, it is. Or, should I say, it was. La Thuile is in the autonomous Italian region of La Valle d’Aosta. A place geographically Italian by modern boundaries but rather more French at heart. In fact, if you really wanted to curry favour with the locals you might bid them ‘Bonzor’, for they consider themselves neither French nor Italian, really, but Valdostan, with their own language, culture and cheeses, and its capital, Aosta, is well worth the day trip from the hotel.
Situated on the original ‘carrefour d’Europe’, the town marks the starting point of the ancient crossing point of the Alps. Valdostans still do it, popping over to France to catch a film or a grab a bite to eat – and soon to be made even swifter with the imminent opening of the new cable car over Mont Blanc. The drive there follows the river Dora passing more medieval hilltop castles than a verdant Welsh valley, and Aosta itself is a feast of history; a Roman Praetorian town, its original gate marks the start of the pedestrianised town centre. But that gate is a mere a appetiser for what’s to come. A standing wall and much of the seating arc of the original Roman theatre looks majestic against the mountain backdrop and, possibly for the first time in any Italian town, the cathedral is eclipsed by the site adjacent to it: the world’s only accessible subterranean portico, it is, literally, a buried trove of Roman architecture below the city streets.
The region is a trove above ground, too. Not least the home of the Pope’s summer house, the Valle D’Aosta is a notable wine-making region, nestling nicely as it does up to Piemonte, with many indigenous grapes seldom available outside its borders. The Nira, naturally, stocks a sensational cellar, itself offered as a location for an aperitif and an opportunity to choose one’s wine for dinner. Its cellar notwithstanding, being the area’s only five star hotel, the restaurant, Stars, has already become a draw, and the bar offers a range of Prosecco aperitifs to whet a worthy appetite after a day on the slopes. They are, too, aware of their position in the town and are keen to reveal its secrets as much as they’d like to keep guests to themselves.
One such secret does suggest a night out more fitting for a skiing holiday; a snowcat to Lo Riondet, a mountaintop chalet restaurant specialising in local raclette, jugs of vin rouge, grappa and the most curious concoction I’ve tasted; a carved wooden receptacle seemingly more Incan than Italian, from which pours forth a powerful pick-me-up, laced with liquor and shared among a table by its multiple spouts. We called it ‘the tortoise’ and it did, for one night only, provide the hangover we felt necessary for the slopes the next morning. There is something synonymous with mountains, it seems, that requires the odd wild night, even in the quietest village.
Nira Montana offers a ‘Ski Without Borders’ package – La Thuile is the ideal location for ski lovers, with 160km of slopes ranging from nursery to advanced. Espace San Bernardo covers 80 pistes in France and Italy, linking the French resort of La Rosière with La Thuile. An international pass provides access to all 38 lifts, enabling guests to ski either side of the border in the presence of Mont Blanc and Rutor glacier.
Prices start from €193 per room per night for a minimum three-night stay on a double occupancy B&B basis, with daily international ski pass for both guests. For more details visit niramontana.com.
Geneva Economy Light return fares with SWISS start at £86 from London City, £80 London Heathrow and £58 London Gatwick. For more information, visit www.swiss.com. Flights from Manchester (via Zurich) start from £225.40 and £189 from Birmingham (via Zurich).
For more information about the Valle D’Aosta, visit www.aosta-valley.co.uk.