So, as I was saying, Vars was a very new destination for us. Vars and its companion village, Risoul are new to the UK tour operators and on this occasion it was in a Crystal brochure that we found it. We've travelled often with Crystal and had few problems so we had no concerns.
If you have read my review of our accommodation, Pierre et Vacance L'Albane Apartments, you will know that we found a location that could scarcely be bettered. Doorstep skiing, comfortable and close to everything you could need. So, what about Vars (and Risoul, as we skied them both)? Well, I'll get to that but first, about getting there.
We travelled Britannia from Gatwick and the flight was fine, no more or less than what you would expect of a charter flight. The plane was a Boeing 757 and in good condition, as comfortable as could be expected. The only real complaint was the catering. On the way out there was no tea at all (I don't drink coffee) and the coffee was only cappuccino (my wife doesn't drink cappuccino)! At least they found us a tea and a proper coffee on the way back!
The flight was into Turin airport. Bear in mind that this was the start of the Olympics and you can guess at the chaos. In the end we were able to collect all of our luggage but our skis came off on a different luggage belt, and not the one indicated on the display. In fact it was the one at exactly the opposite end of the luggage hall. If this is an indication of Italian efficiency then I don't hold out much hope for the Games.
Be aware also (as we discovered on the return) that Turin airport is pretty poor by way of facilities. If you are planning to wait until you get there to buy your take-homes, I wouldn't bother. Buy them before you do. The choice of drinks and so on is on the lean side and in fact there is really only one outlet anyway. They also overcharge on the air side as compared with the land side. My wife decided to buy some Olympics souvenirs for my daughter. On the land side, in the official Olympics shop, she bought some chocolate Olympic medals for 8.95 Euros. On the air side, we discovered, they were charging 13.95 Euros!
The transfer was by coach, as usual, but didn't go straight to Vars. On the journey is Serre Chevalier and a number of those on the coach had that as their destination. Now, that isn't a problem so long as it's a simple drop off exercise. Not for us though! Groups were being dropped off at several locations with the result that the journey on to Vars was delayed by well over an hour. We were not best pleased. It was just as well that we didn't also stop at Montgenevre as well!
In total the journey took over 3 hours. They had the nerve to also say that no food or drink was allowed on the coach, a demand we totally disregarded!
The ski area includes Vars and Risoul and the much smaller village of Crevoux. Vars is the biggest of the villages but Crystal's local representative is based in the much smaller Risoul. I gather that's because that's where he lives. Vars/Risoul, being a fairly new destination, has not, it appears, received the full commitment of Crystal. Perhaps they are waiting to see how popular it becomes before arranging full cover.
Having said that, Nick ensured that we had his mobile number should we need help (we didn't) and also arranged to meet us beneath the gondola in Vars midweek to see if there were any problems (there weren't).
The main village, where we were located, is Vars Les Claux. This is the highest village on the Col de Vars pass that crosses over out of this valley and then on towards the Mediterranean coast. Vars Les Claux is at around 1900 metres and so snow cover is fairly well assured.
Below it is the smaller Vars Sainte Marie. This village is served but just one lift, which is situated on the outskirts of the village. Consequently, if this is your base, a hike is pretty well guaranteed.
Risoul is located in the next valley. It is reached via lifts up to the peaks of La Mayt and Razis. Risoul is smaller than Vars but larger than Vars Sainte Marie.
Crevoux is very small and at the moment there is not skiable connection between it and Vars/Risoul. It appears that this is being addressed in the future but if you want to ski there today you need to take a bus. There are about a dozen pistes and five lifts so, maybe enough for a day's skiing but not much more. We didn't bother. However, if you do, one day's skiing there is included in your Vars/Risoul lift pass.
Vars Les Claux
Vars cannot be described as an attractive village. It certainly doesn't have the charm of Flaine or St Sorlin. There is no distinctive architecture. It's pretty much a hotch-potch of buildings, a few old mountain chalets but mostly new constructions varying from fake Swiss to concrete blocks of shops and apartments.
It is, however, quite compact. Twenty minutes will cover it all. We turned out to have struck it lucky in that out apartments were very close to the Point Show shopping mall, which contained all of the facilities we needed. Primarily there is a Spar supermarket, which was useful as we were self-catering. The supermarket is not not open throughout the day. It closes between 12.30 and 16.30. When closed, you can walk further down the village to the main shopping centre where, as well as a lot more shops and bars and also a chemists, you will find a Sherpa supermarket, which is open all day.
In Point Show there is also an ATM in case you run out of Euros. However, credit cards are widely accepted although, even though we are now Chip and PIN in the UK, many French outlets still swipe your card and ask for a signature!
The Mall also contains a number of restaurants and bars as well as the usual souvenir shops, sports shops and so on. There were also a number of restaurants within easy walking distance, many of which we tried. I'll cover these later.
But, of course, we had come to ski. Firstly, be aware that the official ski map is largely a work of fiction! It appears to be several years out-of-date and most certainly doesn't include our accommodation nor any of the new routes by which you can reach it. Those we had to discover by exploration! You can get a look at the piste map on the Vars website (www.vars-ski.com).
Be aware also that the grading of the various runs is fairly arbitrary. Runs that are described as Green, Blue, Red or Black can turn out to be very much different than anticipated. There are Blue runs that I wouldn't even consider recommending to a beginner, such as Melezes, especially when it is short of snow. There are Red runs such as Tetras which no beginner would find a challenge. Just be careful and don't take the piste map as gospel.
Vars/Risoul is new to the UK package tour trade and so is really only known to the French and, it would appear, not that well known. I suspect that Montgenvre and Serre Chevalier creams off most of the trade. This has the major benefit that the lift queues are virtually non-existent. In France this is almost unheard-of. It does make skiing a very pleasant experience.
Despite the height of the resort, since this is one of the most southerly in France (other than Pra-Loup and Isola 2000) it does enjoy reliably good weather. I understand it has one of the best sun records in the French Alps. The downside is, as you would expect, that regular deliveries of snow are not reliable. It hadn't snowed for two weeks when we arrived, and it showed in places. Conditions on piste were hard and icy, despite the attentions of the piste-bashers. The weather, whilst we were there, was virtually unbroken sunshine but bitterly cold even so. The pistes never softened up even late in the day.
A number of the main pistes are covered by snow cannons but not all. During our stay, despite the lack of natural snow, I didn't see these being regularly used. Just the odd one appeared to be in action but without any significant beneficial effect. Nevertheless, we didn't suffer too much from this, with a few exceptions that I will mention in due course. Not all of the pistes were open and some of those that were closed were very inconvenient as they eliminated connections that would otherwise have been very useful.
The effect of the variable snow cover on our skis was less agreeable. At the end of the holiday the underside of our skis had suffered more damage in the course of a single week than I think we have ever experienced during the five years we have had them. They are going to need some serious repairs before we will be able to use them again.
The other benefit of this southerly location is that the tree line is much higher than it is further North. Consequently much of the skiing is through the trees and very enjoyable in consequence. However, this does also mean that these pistes tend to be in the shade and so likely always to be icy no matter what the weather.
The lift infrastructure is very much a mixture of new and old. The main 12-man gondola (Chabrieres) is new and goes from the centre of the village and takes you to the heart of the ski area. There are a couple of fast chair lifts in Vars but more in Risoul.
What is also old is the lift pass system. No electronic passes here. You will need passport size photos and a way of displaying your pass for a visual check. My Trespass ski jacket has a built-in pass pocket on the arm but if you don't have something like this then I suggest buying one of the elasticated pouches from any of the local sports stores, which you can wear on your arm. They cost about a Euro.
We were very lucky in that we had one piste (Zakopane a red run) that passes right beside the building. The final 50 metres of this run was where we joined it. It connects with the Sibieres drag lift that takes you up to the top of the Zakopane and Sibieres (also red) pistes. The Sibieres drag lift has the distinction of being just about the fastest drag lift I have ever used. Beginners will find it challenging.
Taking it enables you to avoid the need to ski down into the central village and the main gondola. From the top of the drag lift you can reach all of the other pistes by going up on the next drag lift Sources. If you want to stay close to home, all of the pistes around here will keep you entertained. Especially you can take the Escondus Blue run followed by the last part of the Tetras Red run down to the gondola station.
If, however, you do want to go down directly to the main lifts then skiing on past the Sibieres drag lift will take you onto the green run that runs right through the village. You will have to punt a bit on the flat sections but otherwise there is no need to walk.
There are loads of pistes both in Vars and in Risoul. I'll tell you about a few of our favourites.
The best suggestion is to take the gondola from the main village. At the top you can turn left or right. Right will take you down to the Mayt 4-man lift which is the way that you get across to Risoul.
Left will take you down the Clapier Blue run where you can join the (very) slow 4-man chair (Crevoux) to the beginning of the Corniche Red run or where you can have a go at the moguls field, for those who enjoy that sort of thing. The chair lift takes you over the snowpark with many pieces of equipment for snowboarders (mainly) who want to practice their jumps and handrail-sliding. Half way down Corniche you can divert onto the Mouree Green run (more Blue than Green) which will also get you over to Mayt.
If you go up to the top of Mayt you can from there have a go at the Olympic runs. There is an upper and lower Red run but in practice they join together and you can, given the stamina, do them both in one go. It will take you about eight minutes, depending on your ability. You may be surprised that a run described as Olympic is only Red. Believe me, you will find it a challenge. It is, however, one of the best runs in the resort. It even has the decency to provide a Blue detour on the really tough bit.
The Olympic runs take you down to Vars Sainte Marie. The return is by fast 4-man (Ste Marie) followed by a fast 6-man (Peyrol) lift. The piste map still shows Peyrol as a double drag lift. Indeed, when you get back up to the top, the winding gear of the old drag lift is still there although all the rest of the infrastructure has been removed.
There is another way down to Vars Sainte Marie. You can take the beautiful Vallon Blue run down through the forest. The scenery is spectacular. I took loads of photos on the way. The only problem is the final leg that zig-zags down to the village. Unless there has been a lot of recent snow, don't even consider it. This final section is narrow and gets worn down to bald patches very quickly. Not a pleasant experience!
Our favourite run of all was back from Mayt towards Vars on the Heureux Blue run. Blue it may be but it is huge fun. It's really fast and very undulating. We always looked forward to it at the end of the day when we had been over to Risoul. It's a blast.
From the top of Mayt there is a Green run (Florins) where you will need to blast a couple of the downhill sections so as to avoid having to punt up the other side. This passes around the back of the Razis peak to join Vallon Blue all the way down to Risoul. Vallon Blue can be very icy in places near the top.
My recommendation is not to go down all the way but to stop near the two mountain restaurants and take instead the 4-man Plate de la Nonne lift back up to the top of Razis. The Plate de la Nonne Red run is superb and there are various diversion on the way down so you don't always have to follow the exact same route.
From the top of Razis I recommend you also try keeping far right and take the Pinatiaux Red run along the ridge to the top of the Melezet chair lift. Just past here there are choices of Red and Blue runs to your left that will take you back to where you started or else down into the village if you choose. These are all tree-lined runs.
Alternatively, from just below the two restaurants take the fast 6-man Peyrolles lift. Once again the piste map here is wrong. It still shows this as a drag lift. From the top you can take the exhilarating Coqs Red run or the challenging Epervier Black run back to the start.
The alternative is to work your way across the slopes using variously the Marmottes Green and Chardon Blue runs (often difficult to tell which one you're on as they criss-cross each other several times) to the top end of Risoul. Here you will find several cafes and restaurants that make a less crowded alternative to those down at the bottom of the slopes.
Lastly, try L'Homme de Pierre. To get to there from the main meeting point of the pistes take the 3-man Cesier lift and then ski down right from there to the start of L'Homme de Pierre drag lift to the top. Here you have a choice. I recommend you try the Lac Rouge Red or Clos des Alpes Blue runs down through the tree to the bottom of the Combal drag lift. This is right at the limit of the ski area and tends to be quite quiet, not that Vars/Risoul ever seems to suffer from crowds.
However, you are really here to do the Choucas Red run. This was our third favourite of all after Olympic and Heureaux. On the other side of the lift is another red Aigles but this tended to be in permanent shade and was very icy.
As I said, the piste map is not very accurate and none more so in indicating how you get back to the top of Vars. Assuming you have come down Heureaux towards the bottom of the Mayt chair lift, keep up your speed and head instead straight across the piste and into the trees on the far side. Here you start the Chausee de Cassettes Green run that traverses the slopes through the trees. If you've kept up a good speed you won't have to punt much.
This joins Escondus but instead of carrying on down onto Tetrus, keep to the far right and pass through the tunnel and continue on. You then cross the Grand Ubac Black run and keep on going. Finally you join Sibieres but once again, you need to go across not down.
On the opposite side of Sibieres you will see a couple of small buildings. Pass just below them and you will travel under a new bridge that carries the Sibieres drag lift above you. This is not marked on the map. It takes you finally onto Zakopane and there right below you you see L'Albane.
You would be forgiven in thinking that's it. There is, however, a completely separate ski area that could completely miss you attention. Indeed, if you look at the piste map it isn't entirely clear how you get there. This area is on the other side of the Vars valley, facing the main ski area. The ski map implies that it is always in the shade but this isn't accurate. True, this is the case early in the day but late on the slopes come into the full rays of the sun.
There is really only one way to sample what this area has to offer. From the main area where the gondola departs you need to take either Les Claux 2-man chair lift to the right of else the Adroit drag lift. Be aware that Les Claux is a very odd lift. It goes in both directions. You join it in the middle and get off at either end depending on which way you go. You cannot get on at the top at either end, only off.
From here ski down the Plans Blue run to the bottom of the valley to join yet another two-way 2-man chair lift (Peynier) that is exactly the same as Les Claux. These are the only lifts of this sort in Vars/Risoul. I've never seen this kind of lift anywhere else. The lift takes you up to the top of the Peynier peak. The views from here are stunning, worth it for this alone.
Here there are any number of runs back down, rated blue and red, plus a single black run (Ecureuils). However, none are covered by snow cannons and so are entire susceptible to the amount of snow that falls. The Melezes Blue run that descends from in front of the mountain restaurant right at the top was a nightmare when we were there. However, the rest were a delight and we were glad that we made the effort to seek them out.
There are many bars and restaurants out on the slopes. The good news is that none of the ones we tried should be avoided. We had lunch at Les Cassettes, close to the Mayt lift and, despite the temperatures, ate out in the sun on the terrace. Horizon at the mid point of the Olympic runs is also recommended.
In Risoul, the two restaurants near the start of Peyrefolle are good, especially the older one which is the higher of the two. In Risoul itself I rcommend choosing one of the restaurants higher up the slope, reached via the Marmottes and Chardon runs. Here they are less crowded. They also avoid the wind problems caused lower down by the surrounding high buildings. Having said that however, we did eat at La Chouette and enjoyed it despite the cold.
Be aware that Apres Ski for us means eating out, not boogying the night away. Sad to say, we are far too old for that! There is, however, a Disco if you go for that sort of thing.
Our first night out was at a brand new restaurant, called the Apres Ski. It's right opposite the Point Show mall and advertises itself as a creperie. They specialise in savoury and sweet crepes but we decided to have a typical Alpine Fondue. So new was the place that the cushions for the built-in benches had not yet been delivered! Nevertheless, the meal was delightful and good value for money. The place is also a find (this being France!) in that it is non-smoking throughout. We would have gone there again had there not been so much else to try.
Our next evening out was at the restaurant of Les Escondus hotel. Thi sis only a couple of hundred metres down from our apartments. It offers accommodation for those looking for hotel accommodation and has the unique additional feature of a squash court. If we had known this we would have taken our racquets. There was no need to book ahead even though the restaurant was mostly full of their guests but then again we did arrive around 7.30pm, early for French diners. The restaurant is very big and can probably seat around 100. The meal was very good as was the service. The meal came to a total of 58 Euros.
Next we tried La Taverne du Torrent. This is another couple of hundred metres below Les Escondus and was the furthest we walked to eat during our stay. The Torrent was obviously intended to refer to a stream that runs alongside the restaurant but on our visit was notably short of water! The restaurant is quite small and is clearly a family concern. It's also obviously very popular, not surprising considering the quality of the food and the wine list. This meal was more expensive at 75 Euros but not unreasonably so.
Our fourth outing was closer to home. This time we tried Le Relax in the Point Show mall. We had decided to indulge in a Hot Rock, a heated stone that they bring to your table and upon which you cook your own slivers of various meats to exactly your own taste. We were lucky to get a table as it turned out that Hot Rock normally needed to booked in advance although nowhere did it say so on their displayed menu! However, in their case the rocks were not heated in a special oven as is usually the case. There are heated electrically at your table. The meats were excellent and cooked beautifully. All told the meal came to 64 Euros.
Our final evening took us for once in the opposite direction. Although our apartments are near the top of the village there is still more even further up the road towards the top of the pass. It is clear that Vars is expending and a whole new construction site is evident right at the Your are leaving Vars sign. Just before you get there a number of new shops, apartments, bars and restaurants have already been completed. One of these is L'Ecuelle. At just under 100 Euros, this was our most expensive experience but the food was very good and so not begrudged. Once again the place was pretty well full by the time we came to leave so our arrival at 7.30pm was wise.
Despite the shortage of fresh snow, we very much enjoyed our visit to Vars/Risoul. The accommodation could hardly have been bettered. The range of skiing was just right with enough variation to avoid the boredom of constant repetition. The lack of crowds made the ski lift scrum experienced at other resorts an welcome omission. We never even got close to sampling all of the potential apres ski.
If there was a problem it was in the transfer between the airport and the resort. The unnecessary delay caused by having to detour to Serre Chevalier was annoying. I haven't yet complained to Crystal.
Would we go again? I think so. Having said that, we rarely ever return anywhere we have visited since there is so much left to see and experience. Could I recommend Vars? Most certainly.