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French mountain resorts now offer much more than just skiing

Horse-drawn sleighs, ice diving, snowshoeing - ski towns are a winter playground for non-skiers too

Hot jacuzzi in the snow; ski-joëring involves driving a horse while wearing skis; dog sledding Pic: oreli.b / Lionel Royet-Alpe d'Huez Tourisme / Font-Romeu

Back in the day, winter trips to the mountains meant skiing. Today that has radically changed, and ski resorts now offer many amusements and activities both on and off the slopes. 

Whether you seek communion with nature, cultural refreshment, physical renewal, full-on fun, or just something new, ski resorts have it all.

January is a great month to go; all the Christmas decorations are still up, prices are reasonable, children are safely occupied at school, and there is a good chance of snow. 

Just wrap up warm, because temperatures will be low. Also pay attention to footwear. If your feet are warm and your soles are non-slip, you will be a happy (snow) bunny. Choose from the Alps, the Pyrenees, or the Massif Central.

Read more: How can I get to the ski resorts in France?

Swimming and jacuzzi in the snow

One of the most blissful indulgences is to go swimming, because so many resorts have fantastic sports and leisure centres.

Pools with cascades, bubbly jets, slides, jacuzzis, and tunnels you can swim through in order to bathe outdoors while it is snowing. 

Photo: Hot tub in Avoriaz; Credit: A Baugier

From some of them you can even survey the ski slopes as you lounge in hot bubbles. (Do not worry, the water is very well heated to keep swimmers warm). 

The pool in Avoriaz is outstanding but certainly not the only one in its class. 

For a more relaxing aquatic experience, check out the larger hotels. Even mid-priced establishments have their own pools and spa areas where hotel guests can relax while the crowds exhaust themselves on the slopes. 

Then, refreshed and extremely clean, you can take the cable car or chair lift up to the slopes. This is often free for people not wearing ski boots or carrying ski equipment, meaning you can ride to the top, admire the view, take some pictures and head straight to the restaurant on the piste. 

On a good day, even in January, you can find yourself above the clouds, comfortably installed in a deckchair on the restaurant terrace, soaking up some precious winter rays.

Shop at boutiques, design stores or markets

As the sun begins to go down, this is the moment to do a little gentle shopping before heading to a bar for some après-ski refreshments. Mulled wine, hot chocolate, cold beers and rum grog are all generally on the menu. 

If more serious consumerism grips your heart there are plenty of suitable places to take your wallet for a walk. 

Generally speaking, whether you investigate small boutiques, designer stores, or markets, there is gold in them there mountains! 

As well as foodie treats (particularly cheese and charcuterie) there are local liqueurs and a whole range of Scandi-themed household items and soft furnishings. You can also find cowhide rugs and sheepskin throws.   

Photo: Shop ‘til you drop in Alpe d'Huez; Credit: Lionel Royet

Shopping to suit all tastes and budgets

Courchevel is known as the ski resort Karl Largerfeld once decked out with Chanel cable cars. 

Avenue Montagne in Courchevel is full of designer shops selling chic skiwear made to be seen in rather than skied in, and the jewels to go with them. Brands include Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Dior, Prada, and Gucci. 

It is one of the most glamorous places to window-shop and people-watch; activities which are all the more pleasurable for being free. 

St. Moritz is another high-flying shopping destination, with independent boutiques selling  foodie treats like caramel vodka. 

If your shopping requirements are more down-to-earth, however, head to Samoëns. 

The Wednesday morning market is one of the largest in Haute-Savoie (08:00 to 13:00) selling fruit and vegetables, meat and deli products, fish and bread, as well as clothing, textiles and regional specialities. It is also less than half an hour from Cluses, with all of its large chain stores and supermarkets. 

Culture, film and museums

Alpe d'Huez – easily accessible from Lyon and Grenoble – has an enormous range of activities to enjoy without skiing. 

For lovers of the silver screen, the Festival International du Film de Comédie from 15-21 January, 2024, is a great chance to explore French cinema, from blockbusters to little-known short features. Some of the screenings are even free. What better way to improve your French?

Alpe d'Huez also has an extraordinary church, the Eglise Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, which was inspired by the Winter Olympic Games held in Grenoble in 1968.

Unveiled in 1970, it is unblinkingly modern and features an organ in the shape of a hand, situated behind the altar. Light filters through a series of stained-glass windows, illuminating the womb-like interior. 

And whilst on the culture trail, do not miss the Musée d'Huez et de l'Oisans, which explains the town's strong links to Holland amongst other things.

Ski-joëring with horses, ice diving, dog sledding

Avoriaz is synonymous with skiing but you could probably spend all winter there, never ski a single yard and still not get bored. 

Their leisure centre Aquariaz is incredibly beautiful, and has an indoor jungle and fun slides. It really has to be seen to be believed. 

Join an aqua-yoga class or simply go for the fun of it. You can survey the ski lifts as you lounge in the outdoor jacuzzis. A truly breath-taking experience. 

Outdoor activities in Avoriaz include sleigh rides and igloo making, tobogganing and dog sledding, as well as ski-joëring, which involves driving a horse while wearing skis. 

Beginners usually do this on more or less flat ground, but do not worry, the horses will not gallop off ventre-à-terre (gallop at full speed). You mainly just have to hold on, keep your balance and cross your fingers that your mighty steed did not eat too much lunch before taking you for a ride. It is fun, and good for the thighs.

Photo: Ski-joëring - being pulled on skis by a horse in Alpe d'Huez; Credit: Lionel Royet

If you seek thrills, there is also paragliding, ice diving or even glacier climbing available. All of this goes alongside a non-stop programme of amusements and events on and off the snow: fun competitions, markets, and demonstrations. 

Indoors you can go bowling or even enter a whole new world when you play Hado, a game in which everyone wears virtual reality headsets. No, me neither. But I am up for trying it out. 

The climbing wall at the sports centre looks more familiar to me, but in truth this might actually be more physically challenging.

Snowplow after sunset

Many ski resorts also offer rides in their snowploughs (dameuses), driven by the pisteurs or dameurs every evening to groom the pistes ready for the next day. 

These mighty, tank-like machines growl up and down even the steepest of slopes, and there is not a child alive who does not want to ride in one. 

Very often you can see them prowling the mountains after sunset, their lights illuminating the snow before them. Ask at the Tourist Office for details. 

Read more: Highest ski station in Pyrenees definitely to close

Snowtubing, fat biking, snow shoeing

For a slower pace, head to the Pyrenees. It is not as internationally glitzy and smart, which is why presidents and celebrities spend quiet time there. 

Choose a resort like Font-Romeu (practically on the border with Andorra) where you will find a whole host of things to do. 

One of the most fun is 'snowtubing' – sliding down the snow inside a massive rubber ring. One of the world's best inventions if you like to slide but do not like falling over on ice. 

You can also have a go at 'biathlon', which involves cross-country skiing and shooting a rifle. 

Cross-country skis only attach at the toes of the boot so are designed to allow you to lope over the snow at an elegant pace without actually skidding anywhere. 

You do this against the clock, then attempt to fire an air rifle at a target (the challenge is that you will be out of breath) before racing off on your skis again.

You could also ride on a dog sled, or even have a go at driving one, and if you really have energy to burn there is snow-shoeing, driving a snowmobile (great fun), mountaineering in the snow, or having a go on a fat bike. This is a bicycle with fat tyres designed to go on snow. Be warned, they pick up enormous speeds. Experienced riders do not wear body armour for nothing. 

Otherwise, you could go riding, paragliding, hot-air ballooning, ice diving or hiking.

Read more: France sees strong interest in cross country skiing despite less snow

Potter’s wheel, roulette wheel

If the mere thought of all that is exhausting, you could have a go at throwing pots on a wheel. In Font-Romeu in the Pyrenees, potter Viviane Vignaud offers a range of one-off classes and two-day courses. 

It is not possible, she warns, to throw a successful pot on your first attempt as it takes a lot of practice. But she has developed other techniques which allow absolute beginners to go home with their own creations; a bowl or a plate. 

A private 90-minute session starts at €70 for four people. Contact her on 0781 125085 or poteriefr@gmail.com 

There is also a cinema, a casino and the world's largest solar furnace. This amazing gigantic mirrored construction concentrates light onto a focal point which reaches temperatures as high as 3,500ºC. 

This energy can generate electricity as well as power various industrial plants. Definitely worthy of being in the background of your next selfie.

Sledge train, sauna, meditation walks

If you live far away from the Alps or the Pyrenees, head for the Massif Central where the prices are prettier, the pace is slower and there is room to breathe.

You could try le snakeglisse, an articulated train of sledges, or le SNOOC, a cross between sledging and cross-country skiing. Or go snow-shoeing at night. This is a fantastic experience because with the lifts stationary and the crowds happily après-skiing, it is very quiet. 

The snow is lit by flambeaux (like Olympic torches) making the whole experience feel very traditional. 

In Chastreix there are meditation walks in snow shoes, with pauses for yoga, and in Le Mont-Dore you can enjoy the Sylvatorium de Capucin, a signposted winter walk designed to awaken your senses and increase your appreciation of trees. 

In Super-Besse, the leisure centre Les Hermines has a fabulous pool and spa offering sauna, hammam, massages and other wellness treatments. 

In Bourboule, the fun pool Sancy'O has an area reserved for over-18s with a zen pool, a Jacuzzi, a cold plunge pool, three saunas, two hammams, and a relaxing space for drinking herbal tea. 

With all this choice on offer, there is only one option this January. Make for the mountains, any mountains; they all have plenty of activities on offer for people who would rather not tie planks to their feet.

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