"Follow the Yellow Banana" shouts my guide, Ben, in his thick French accent. He’s dressed in head-to-toe bright yellow and is virtually impossible to miss, but I still appreciate the sentiment. We’ve just disembarked from the lift at Tignes, and I have to skate through a crowd of skiers to keep up. We’re clearly on a mission here, but I’m not exactly sure what it is. We fl y down one speedy, groomed run after another, swish into a lift queue, board, disembark, and take off once again. Repeat.
Close to an hour later we’ve arrive at our destination: the launch point for our off -piste adventure that will see us skiing and bootpacking from Tignes to the neighboring resort of Val d’Isère. We batten down the hatches on our avy packs filled with all the necessary tools for backcountry travel and push off into a pristine powder field, the jagged knife-tips of France’s southeastern Alps piercing the clouds in the distance.
Tignes (pronounced "teen") and Val d’Isère are located in the southeastern Savoie region of France, near the Italian border. The two resorts comprise the massive Espace Killy, a name given years ago in honor of legendary local ski racer Jean-Claude Killy, who won gold in all three alpine events at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games. The name has since been abandoned for the simpler “Tignes-Val d’Isère,” though there’s nothing particularly simple about this place.
Sprawling miles between its dozen or so base villages, the resort is pretty massive, serving up 90.5 miles of trails connected by 78 lifts. The villages and base areas scattered throughout run the gamut from historic and charming (Val d’Isère 1850’s 17th-century church and stone farmhouses) to Tignes 2100’s high-rises, modern architecture, and glitzy techno bars that pound bass music into the wee hours.
Not surprisingly, Tignes-Val d’Isère is a very international resort, pulling a good percent of its visitors from the surrounding countries, especially Brits, Spaniards, and Italians. And of course plenty of French skiers come for the typical Alps experience: to soak in drop-dead gorgeous views for miles uninterrupted, cruise groomers up to six miles long, and enjoy decadent hours-long lunches at one of the traditional alpine restaurants that dot the resorts.
We’re several hours into our cross-resort off-piste adventure, and I’ve blown through the few delicious handmade granola bars I had stuffed into my jacket as we were leaving our chalet this morning. “Soon,” says Banana Ben, “we’ll be getting to lunch soon.” I shoulder my skis for the 10-minute boot pack to our next descent, hoping I’ll find a surprise granola bar in an as-yet-unsearched pocket. No luck. I gather my energy reserves and trudge toward Ben, who’s already clicking into his skis 10 yards above.
We push off, and I’m grateful for the reprieve of the downhill. We come to a stop at the entrance to a small chute. I sidestep to the edge and peer down. It’s short, but steep, and beyond it lays an untouched powder field that seems to go on and on. My heart is thumping, my hunger completely forgotten. I gingerly tip over the edge, and for a moment, I’m weightless. A couple zigs and a zag and I’m floating through powder, a blank white canvas that seems to extend as far as I can see.
If I’d rate my best ski day up until this point as a 10, I now see why they call it Eleven Experience.
"Little town, it's a quiet village // Everyday like the one before...” The lyrics from the opening song of Beauty and the Beast play in my head as we drive over a quaint stone bridge arching over a small creek.
The twisty-turny ride through the French farming village of Le Miroir brings us nearly to the end of a dirt road. Chickens squawk and scatter as our van rumbles to a stop, and a nimble gray cat slinks behind a terracotta planter as I open the van door and step outside. Chalet Pelerin is the very picture of a quintessential rustic French farm chalet.
I’m met by my Experience Manager, Valentine, whose job, she says, is to attend to every detail of my stay. My bags are whisked off to my room, and I’m invited up to the terrace to watch the sun set over Mount Pourri with a glass of Champagne and a massive meat and cheese spread. Things are off to a good start.
Chalet Pelerin opened in 2013, the second ski offering from innovative adventure travel company Eleven Experience, based in Crested Butte, Colo., whose focus is on creating custom, off-the-beaten path experiences that go beyond typical vacation travel. The formula is pretty straightforward: The company builds or renovates properties in desirable destinations—from France to the Bahamas and beyond—then kits out each space with the most authentic local décor, furnishing, amenities, and activities.
Almost everything is included—from guided adventures to post-trek cocktails to the organic fruit platter at breakfast each morning. “All of our clients come to Eleven to experience the area and activity in the purest possible way—whether they’re skiing the best snow of the day at one of the French resorts, or bone fishing on the west side of Andros,” says Alex Fenlon, Creative Director at Eleven Experience. “We pride ourselves on knowing how to make the most of every day.”
Skiers are a different breed, though. A typical French Alps vacation might highlight the copious slopeside lodging on tap at Val d’Isère or Tignes, which not only gets them closer to the pistes, but also to the dozens of restaurants and nightclubs that Val especially is known for. But Eleven isn’t going after the “typical” skier.
“Chalet Pelerin’s ideal client is someone who is looking to do a deep dive into the mountain culture of the Savoie region,” Fenlon explains. “After spending a few days with our local hosts and guides, skiing the variety of piste, backcountry, and heli-accessed terrain—and enjoying the cuisine—our clients leave with long-lasting memories of connecting with the region and each other.”
Meals are especially magical at Pelerin. The chef and the kitchen staff are impeccably detail oriented, and the daily menus—sit-down, family-style breakfasts and dinners—are everything you’d expect and more. One night, we feasted on a delicious velouté de courgette (zucchini soup), gratin Dauphinois (a rich and rustic potato dish), perfectly cooked roast duck, a delectable raspberry and pistachio tart with Chantilly cream, and more crusty French bread than anyone should eat in a month. Each bite is carefully paired to French wines by the chalet’s own sommelier. It seems they know skiers pretty well. At least this one.
Pelerin is actually Eleven’s second ski-town location. The first, Scarp Ridge Lodge, is near company headquarters in Crested Butte, a former saloon that retained its wooden Western façade and cowboy vibe. It opened in 2011 as the unpretentious town’s first true luxury accommodation—and also the first to offer an indoor saltwater pool, oxygen-enriched air system, and personalized in-room bar. Then just last year Eleven debuted the Public House Lofts, right on CB’s main drag—three luxe flats that let guests really settle in, but still have access to Eleven’s fully guided ski adventures and custom vacation planning.
“Public House Lofts add more capacity for guests staying in Crested Butte, along with Scarp Ridge Lodge and Sopris House,” Fenlon says. “They are unique in our portfolio; they are on the top floor of a faithfully renovated 19th-century building, above our restaurant and live music venue of the same name. Guests can walk out the door and be in the middle of the action.”
Not to be outdone, Pelerin’s sister property just started taking its first winter reservations in November. Located across the narrow dirt road from Pelerin, Chalet Hibou adds another seven guest rooms in a fully renovated former farmhouse originally built around 1790, more than doubling the capacity for skiers to take advantage of this truly unique travel opportunity. “We have developed them all with the Eleven client’s Best Day Ever in mind,” Fenlon says, “from location to amenities and ambiance.”
When it comes to a destination like the French Alps, that just might matter more than the skiing itself.
Fresh from-the-oven housemade breads with local jams and honey, muesli, fruit, and made-to-order eggs lure me out of my nest-like bed every morning at Chalet Pelerin. On my second day, still happily sore from our off-piste adventure at Tignes-Val d’Isère the day before, our group meets in the ski room to suit up. Today we’re headed to La Rosière, a resort straddling the France-Italy border, for a day of heli-skiing below the upper flanks of Mont Blanc.
La Rosière is best known for its sunny and mellow south-facing pistes perfect for families and beginners to intermediates. Add in 360-degree views of the sprawling Tarentaise Valley and the chance to ski over into Italy for a delectable lunch accompanied by Italian wines, and it makes for a pretty pleasant day.
Much like at Tignes-Val d’Isère, my day at La Rosière starts by chasing Banana Ben from lift to lift until we arrive at the heli pad at La Thuile, on the Italian side (heli-skiing isn’t allowed in France). Up here, at a little over 7,000 feet, the valley views are expansive in every direction—it’s white against a deep blue sky for as far as the eye can see. As the whirr of the copter get louder, we pile our avy packs in the center and huddle on top in preparation for the bird to land. On our guide’s signal, we crouch-run over to the cabin and climb in. Ben hands me a set of bulky earphones and gestures to my seatbelt. I’ve just clasped it shut before the pilot slowly lifts the bird into the air.
Between the almost deafening silence beneath the headphones and the brightness flooding into the cabin, I’m nearing sensory overload. We’re at eye level with the knife-tipped peaks; the whole world below looks like freshly whipped meringue. We touch down on a ridge and shimmy quickly off the helicopter, huddling over our gear once again. As the bird flies off, I slowly stand up and survey the current situation.
“Mont Blanc,” motions Ben with his ski pole. The iconic massif, while dramatic with its spiky lesser peaks all neatly lined up, looks unfamiliar to me from the south, not nearly as immense as I had imagined it. “Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit,” he air-taps each summit with the tip of his pole. “I guide climbers here in the summer.”
We click into our skis and follow Ben as he cuts across the ridge through untouched boot-top powder. The season so far in the Alps has been a good one—far better than in the States—with nearly 200 inches having fallen through late January 2018. The snow is soft and forgiving. When we get to an open powder field, Ben sets us loose. This is pretty low-angle terrain, floaty and pure fun. We take our time getting to our pick-up site, some 3,000 vertical feet below.
Our second and third drops are full of this same brand of joy. This isn’t Alaska-style heli steeps, to be sure, but the views, the snow, and the lighthearted vibe can’t be beat. On our last drop we ski all the way down to lunch at Chalet Eden, where we stash our boots in the ski room and shuffle into the cozy, wood-laden dining room in oversized slippers. A trio of giant meat and cheese plates are waiting.
Read more: Powder Playground
Full of homemade pastas, breads, and tiramisu as light as today’s powder, we head back to Chalet Pelerin, stuffed and happy.
The snow has an eerie blue hue to it as we set out after dark along the trail up to the Alpage. The rather icy and rutted pathway is uneven and slippery, making it difficult to navigate even in the snowshoes I’d borrowed from the ski shed at Pelerin. It’s a mild evening, a lovely night for a walk under 2018’s first of two blue moons.
It takes about 40 minutes to lazily snowshoe the two miles to the Alpage, a quaint two-story cottage hung with charming string lights with a fire blazing in the pit out front. “This used to be a sheepherder’s hut that we completely renovated,” explains Eleven Experience host Jack Griffiths, a.k.a. Griff, as he fishes frosty cans of beer from the snow pit and hands them out. We slide onto banquettes dug out of the substantial snow drifts around the fire pit and nibble warm appetizers from the kitchen.
The Alpage is yet another offering that makes Eleven Experience so unique. Here, deep in the silent forest above Le Miroir, guests are treated to a night of merrymaking—a homemade meal of Côte de Boeuf with crozets gratin (traditional square pasta made from buckwheat flour), tartiflette (another deliciously cheesy potato dish), and the most amazing crème brulée I’ve ever tasted amid wonderful company in a space that’s straight from the page of a French country living coffee-table book. As the twilight deepens into night, Griff climbs the chunky wood ladder into the rafters and tosses down costumes from the dress-up trunk. Masks, beards, princess dresses, fuzzy animal suits, and hats tumble down from above, and everyone scrambles to find something that suits the mood. Griff strums the guitar while we all sing along, knowing that nights like this only come around every once in a blue moon.
Originally published in the December 2018 issue of SKI Magazine.