Planning a skiing holiday in France?
Whether you are looking for a non-stop party or a family friendly atmosphere, France has the perfect winter resort for you. Samantha David lists the differences to look out for
Deciding to go skiing is one thing. Actually finding a resort that is perfect for your needs is infinitely trickier: all promise endless snow, mulled wine and blue skies; all of them have ski schools and lifts. How are you supposed to tell the difference?
In France, one of the first decisions is: Alps or Pyrenees? Obviously, living closer to one than the other will count, but if both are equally accessible to you, what are the differences? Generally speaking, skiing in the Alps is fast and furious, fashionable and fun. The Pyrenees is more chilled, more family-orientated, more authentic and less self-conscious.
Many resorts in the Alps are connected by ski lifts and cable cars so you can ski over several hundred kilometres of mountain. For beginners and intermediates, the number of ski runs available in the resort will not matter as much as it does for experienced skiers who are always seeking a new challenge.
Resorts in the Pyrenees have plenty of skiing but slopes are often less crowded, so beginners can learn at their own pace without fearing imminent physical contact with an adrenaline junkie.
For most skiers, what is often more important is the overall atmosphere. Frenetic or chilled? Trendy or come-as-you-are? Resorts that offer challenging snow parks attract a more energetic, adrenaline-fuelled crowd than resorts with land art and beginner trails.
Nightlife is also another clue. Not everyone goes skiing to ski. Increasing numbers of people go to party. The ‘La Folie Douce’ chain, for example, has venues in Avoriaz, Méribel, Alpe d’Huez, Val Thorens, and Val d’Isère.
Each is built on the slopes, usually just beside the cable car, and contains a high-end restaurant, and a cheaper canteen, plus bars and an all-day club atmosphere – with sun-bathing, drinking, music and dancing on a terrace overlooking the slopes. Many people take a cable car to the club for lunch, party all afternoon and take the last cable car down to the resort – to plunge into a vibrant après-ski scene.
Not all resorts in the Alps are party central, however; there are quieter, more family-friendly places (Les Saisies, Ardent, and Reberty 2000, for example) but as a rule the Pyrenees offers smaller, more relaxing, resorts with quieter bars and restaurants.
By the numbers
Pay attention to those numbers tacked onto the end of resort names. ‘Les Arcs’ in the Savoie might sound like one resort, but it is actually five separate places.
‘Arc 1600’ was the first ski resort constructed in 1968 above the market town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice and connected directly to the town’s railway station by a funicular railway.
The architecture is very Sixties and prices are realistic (because it is so easy to take the funicular down to Bourg-Saint-Maurice). ‘Arc 1800’ was built in 1974 and is the biggest of the ‘Les Arcs’ resorts. ‘Arc 2000’ was built in 1979 and optimistically named for the turn of the millennium.
It is small, quiet and compact, perfect for experienced skiers wanting direct access to the slopes.
It can, however, be closed during bad weather, a problem less likely to afflict west-facing ‘Arcs 1800’.
(Incidentally, the higher resorts are ski in/ski out, meaning you can put your skis on at the door of your accommodation and ski down to a lift, and ski back down to your door when it’s time to go home.)
The newest development (finished in 2008) is ‘Arcs 1950’ which is set around a high street designed to reference a waterfall, tumbling downhill in a series of twists and turns.
The architecture of ‘Arcs 1950’ references traditional low-rise chalets, and even the pedestrianised village centre – which you can ski down – is designed to look as if it grew organically.
The shops, bars and restaurants in ‘Arcs 1950’ are beautiful but prices are higher than in stations at lower altitudes.
All ‘Les Arcs’ resorts are linked by the Vanoise Express to the 425km Paradiski area, which includes La Plagne and Peisey-Vallandry. The same valley is also home to the ‘Espace Killy’ (Val d’Isère and Tignes) as well as ‘Les Trois Vallées’ (including Courchevel, Méribel, Val Thorens, etc), making it one of the most densely skied valleys in the world.
The Pyrenees has its own charms. More resorts are real towns, and because they are smaller, the welcome is personal.
A personal favourite is La Mongie, a small resort at 1800m which offers skiing and lounging about in the sun. There is no ice rink, no swimming pool, no prestigious spa. There are two mini-marts, a handful of gift shops, some bars and restaurants and a selection of ski hire places. No nightclub, no disco, no party vibe.
This is the place where children can either learn to ski or just play in the snow. Adults can stretch their legs in the sunshine while contemplating the slopes, and once you do get round to strapping a pair of planks to your feet, you’ve got over 100kms of pistes to explore. On a good day, you can see the Spanish border.
If you really cannot stand the easy life any more, you could always take the cable car up to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre on the summit above the resort. NASA had a telescope installed there in 1963 to take photographs of the moon in preparation for the Apollo missions.
Failing that, a short drive will get you to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, where there are supermarkets, a casino, an 18-hole golf course, and a spa.
For a Pyrenean resort which offers yet another spa, and is directly accessible by train, try Cauterets.
A real market town, it has access to the ski slopes via a fast cable car, and you can rent a locker and leave your equipment up on the slopes, meaning you do not have to tote it all up and down the mountain every day.
For families, St-Lary is hard to beat. It has 100km of ski runs including the challenging 3.6km Mirabelle run, but is also well-equipped for children, with a snow kindergarten, a special park for six to 12-year olds, a toboggan run and a recently refurbished area for beginners.
So when choosing a resort, rather than looking at pistes and snow, try considering either a) a purpose-built resort or real village/town; or b) party central or chill zone. But don’t forget to check out off-piste activities and amusements.
And if you are opting for self-catering, remember that unless there’s a large hypermarket nearby, you will pay a fortune for groceries.
Cut accommodation costs
Skiing can be an expensive holiday, but one way of bringing costs down is booking your own travel and opting for hostel-style accommodation, available in many resorts. Modern hostels offer family rooms, washing machines, restaurants, and wifi as well as communal kitchens and dormitories, and breakfast is usually included.
The International Youth Hostelling Association (fuaj.org) has properties in ski resorts. The Auberge de Jeunesse Chamonix Mont-Blanc offers bed and breakfast plus free shuttle rides to the slopes starting at €23 per night (minimum of two nights).
They offer two-day packages from around €60 including one night in the hostel and a ski pass. There are hostels in Chamonix, as well as Chamrousse, La Clusaz and Les Deux Alpes.
The-backpacking-site.com has useful lists, while French association UCPA organises cheap sports holidays for people aged from six to 55 years-old.
The website ucpa.com offers a week’s skiing from €730 per person including accommodation, ski pass, equipment, lessons, and leisure activities.
More companies are offering skiing holidays for solo travellers. These are not romantic ‘singles holidays’, but holidays for people whose nearest and dearest do not like snow sports.
French website copinesdevoyage.com organises ski trips for women travelling solo. Travellers book to go on a planned trip which becomes definite once enough people have signed up. UK sites include solosholidays.co.uk, friendshiptravel.com and solotravel.org but many mainstream travel companies also offer ski holidays for solos.