The ski resort of Isola 2000 is situated in the Mercantour area of the Alpes Maritimes department in the Southern Alps region. It is part of the Mercantour ski domain. The lift served area extends from 2000 metres to 2603 metres. There are 120 km of lift served runs. The resort features a snowpark. Isola has a good snow record and is normally open from December until the end of April. This offers the possibility of a dip in the Med before skiing in the afternoon.
It is pretty well known that Isola, like Méribel, is one of the ski resorts developed by Brits but unlike Méribel, when I researched the story I drew a complete blank. On the Internet there was absolutely nothing. Nobody locally seemed to know much, some talk of a property developer from the Caribbean who thought he could build a ski resort was all I got. There was one clue, Boumphrey, a curiously named piste in the resort. Fortunately 25 years earlier, French investigative journalist Danielle Arnaud covered similar ground and made the telling of this story possible.
The development of Isola 2000 was unique amongst the ski resorts in the Alpes Maritimes. Valberg, Auron and the other smaller resorts were built around existing communities and evolved gradually. Isola, on the other hand, was a brash, new development that was supposed to bring jobs to the community and rival the mega resorts of the Savoie.
The site of Isola 2000 is situated 16km from the eponymous village. Until 1945 the terrain was Italian, royal hunting grounds, although King Victor Emmanuel preferred a more willing and altogether more succulent prey than the sinewy wolves and bouquetins that roamed the 3,000 meter peaks. He was drawn to the lithe and tanned limbs of the young shepherd girls tending their flocks on the summer pastures.
At the end of the war, with Il Duci: Mussolini shot by partisans to the north of Milan and the king banished, Italy ceded the lands to France. The remains of barracks and supply roads are a testament to blood that was spilt over these mountains. Apart from a strategic value the land itself seemed no great loss. Then Maurice Michaud, who rarely cast his gaze much beyond the Savoie, classed Isola, along with Mollières and Sestrières as three sites in the Southern Alps with international winter sports potential.
Isola, tucked away at 900 meters, had been in slow decline. The migration from land to towns and cities, so slow to take hold in France, had begun to accelerate after the war. The mayor, Charles Romi was worried, soon he would be in charge of a ghost village with little income from taxes. Son of a peasant farmer he was well versed in finance and even looked after the accounts of Nice town hall. Hed watched the development of the new ski stations in the North with interest, the land ceded by Italy between the Col de la Lombarde and Le Mont St Saveur belonged directly to his community, no pesky land owners to negotiate with. As pasture it had little value but with careful management it might just be the solution to Isolas problems.
But Isola needed a developer. Into that part jumped Peter Boumphrey, a British army officer of steely blue gaze. Boumphrey has been compared to Emile Allais, the Olympic skier that did so much to develop the ski potential of French resorts. Like Allais, Boumphrey was a gifted sportsman, hed even represented Britain in the St. Moritz winter Olympics in 1948. What he now wanted was to build his own ski resort, close to an airport, something that would attract the growing number of British skiers. Hed visited the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain, scoured the Pyrenees but in 1965 had still not found what he wanted. Back home, pouring over a map of the French Alps he noticed a large bowl, on the border with Italy high above a little village. He immediately flew out to visit. The first difficulty was access, the road was little more than a mule track up a narrow mountain gorge, threatened by rock falls in the summer and avalanches in the winter. He spent two days on the site, met the other interested parties and was convinced that this was the spot.
There followed 2 years of studies with Michauds CIAM before a plan was presented to the Bernard Sunley Investment Trust. BSIT was a property developer working in the Caribean and London bu thad no exeperience with the mountains. But building ski stations was the new El-Dorado. The Trust created: SAPSI (Société pour le Aménagement et la Promotion de la Station Isola). It then took Boumphrey six months to convince a sceptical Mr Shapland of Bernard Sunley that the project was viable.
Finally SAPSI bought 168 hectares out of the 2,500 hectares of the Isola land. This was an exceptionally low figure, 1000 hectares would be the normal proportion where many landowners had to be negociated with. The cost was 3.5 Million Francs, 2.20 Francs / m2. The land was worth only 30 centimes as pasture. SAPSI also gave Isola a percentage of the lift passes, a stable for 80 cows, an extension for the town hall, a pharmacy and a tourist office. There were also to be cheap lift passes for the residents of Isola. This not too onerous. Then came the negotiations over the road. Here the Mayor was intransigent, the road must pass by his village. Maurice Michaud and the regional tourist board were against the idea, to them it seemed more logical to pass over the 2,300 meter Col de la Mercière and then by Mollières where Michaud planned to build the ski resort of Azur 2000. This route would be longer but would have the advantage of serving both stations and was, according to its advocates, safer There were no avalanche maps of the region at the the time, but you only have to travel the route, or look at the avalanche maps from the CEMAGREF to see that the Isola route wasnt desgined for winter use.
Azur 2000 was never built. From the top of the pistes you can see down into the Merciere valley towards where the station would have been situated. This is now the protected Mercantour national park. Home to wolves and other wildlife.
There are ski touring possibilities in the surrounding Mercantour national park.
With the best snow in Europe at the moment (21.12.2008) right here in Isola 2000, this is a great resort to start and improve powder skiing and boarding. Possibly too much snow, the single road into the resort was closed for over a day by an avalanche dumping 30mtr deep snow across a 300 mtr section of road.
My two favourite off piste sections are both off in the second valley, getting up and over with the new Mercantour bubble.
There is a wide medium-steep section on the left of La Valette chairlift down from the top of Tete de la Cabane - get off the lift walk / trudge upwards on a slight incline heading left following the ridge up (about 80 mtrs vertical) till you're in the top of the bowl section. On the right side of the bowl there's a nice drop off half way down. Danger here is sharp protruding rocks and scree but with good snow cover this is minimal if you are paying attention and skiing safely. Quite a few boarders get scraped up here each season.
Simple, long and easy powder can be had from the Cime de Merlier chair. The snow in parts here is less exposed to the sun due to surrounding peaks, and stays colder than elsewhere. For the top section immediately stay right for a wide easy section, then you will see a crossover where you can ski across onto the left hand side following the crete de Mene ridge top down, and if conditions are right you can drop over into the bowl between the Mene and Merlier peaks on your left, giving you a wide choice of routes in the trees all the way down to either the Mene or Genisserie chairlifts.
Nearest Airport(s): Nice Cote d'Azur
The brand new Chalets du Mercantour development is located in the Hameau area of Isola 2000. Cosy 6-8 person semi-detached, self catered chalet available to rent on a weekly basis during the winter and summer seasons. Have a look at http://www.chaletisola.com for more information.
On the edge of the piste just across from the Front de Neige development is the Cow Club Restaurant that provides good food at reasonable prices but gets busy at lunch time so get there early.
If you are skiing one of the other valleys the only choice is La Vallette restaurant that does a passable barbeque but whose best known feature is the donkey that lives in a stable under the restaurant. Again La Vallette is popular at lunchtime.
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Category: Ski Areas