French Alps: Snow white

Whether you're seeking fresh powder, authentic culture, après ski or unadulterated luxury, the French Alps remains one of the best — and most popular — winter sports destinations in the world. Here's our pick of the resorts

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 25 Nov 2013, 11:25 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 15:15 BST

Best for luxury: Val d'Isère

In from the snow and comfortably stationed beside a roaring open fire, there's chilled Perrier-Jouët Champagne on tap and a steady stream of canapes, while discreet black-clad figures busily prepare yet another gourmet five-course meal.

No, this isn't the winter pad of a Russian oligarch but one of Le Chardon Mountain Lodges' five exclusive retreats in Val d'Isère that have become a favourite with millionaires and celebrities — French chalets have come a long way from shared bathrooms, stodgy food and gallons of cheap plonk.

Situated in a private enclave in the La Leggetaz area of one of the world's most glamorous ski resorts, Le Chardon Mountain Lodges offers a cluster of lavishly appointed ski-in ski-out chalets that take the term 'luxury' to new levels.

The moment you enter the warm glow of a traditionally built chalet with 100-year-old Savoyard wood beams, open fires and floor-to-ceiling views of a snow-covered valley, an unobtrusive army of concierges, hosts and chefs are on hand to furnish every possible essential for a moneyed ski retreat.

With rituals including a bespoke breakfast, lavish afternoon tea, pre-dinner Champagne and canapes before an extravagant evening meal, you might forget you're in Val d'Isère to ski at all — and that's before even contemplating the 18ft-long outdoor swim spa, the sauna and wellness area, or the private cinema and entertainment rooms.

But with an in-chalet fitting service and chauffeur, access to the vast L'Espace Killy ski area couldn't be easier. The combined ski slopes of Val d'Isère and Tignes offer some of the most snow-sure terrain in the Alps, and the stats alone show why fans are so devoted — 187 miles of piste plus 24,710 acres of off-piste, two glaciers, a vertical drop of 6,330ft, 156 runs and nearly 100 lifts that can transport more than 135,000 skiers in an hour. Many of the seemingly leisurely blues and reds are ridiculously steep, narrow and bumpy (in other resorts, they'd undoubtedly be upgraded in terms of difficulty). This perhaps explains why Val d'Isère is considered one of the world's best resorts for experts, even with its relatively small number of blacks.

But perhaps the biggest motivator to survive the countless hairpin bends and lightening-slick drops is the knowledge that no matter how cold, tired and shot you might be, a soothing massage and vat of bubbly is waiting down at the chalet.

Best for backcountry: Chamonix

Mention Cham' to anyone with even a passing interest in skiing powder, and watch their eyes light up. This buzzy ski town is home to some of the planet's fiercest, most scenic runs.

Chamonix lies in a valley, in sight of Mont Blanc. Choose from five ski areas, each with a distinct personality and powder stash. For novices/intermediates, Le Tour and La Flégère are best — the former at the top of the valley, with various cruisy blues. Or take the lifts up to the Col de Balme, at over 6,560ft, and shred its network of red and blues.

A more challenging and scenic option is to take the gondola up Le Grands Montets for a run down the Argentière Glacier. Although it's easily accessible (duck the rope behind the cable car station), crevasses lurk in fresh snow. Take a local guide, though, and you'll weave between stunning turquoise seracs (columns of ice), resembling the inside of Superman's ice grotto.

The other essential run here, accessible via the Aiguille du Midi, is the Vallée Blanche — a 13-mile rite of passage skirting vast, sculpted ice cliffs. 

Best for ski touring: La Grave

If you're serious about shunning pistes for the challenge of butt-clenchingly scary steeps, then this is the place for you. Hidden away in the Romanche Valley, about 40 minutes' drive from Les Deux Alpes, La Grave is an old-school ski touring village where you have to work for your turns.

The only lift here is a solitary gondola up from La Grave village, then a lengthy T-bar up to the top. Once here, your reward is a lifetime's supply of unfeasibly steep chutes.

La Grave's sinister-sounding name is apt — various skiers have perished here over the years in its notorious couloirs (narrow gullies with steep gradients). And yet there is a mellower side to La Grave, if you know where to look. Book a stay at the The Skiers Lodge and ask guide Pelle to take you out over the back, into the Vallon de la Selle. A 40-degree chute here takes you into the deserted valley, where the only sound is a trickle of water from the stream, leading you into the chocolate-box village of St Christophe. The après beer that waits in the village bar will be the best you've ever had.   

Best for value: Les Deux Alpes

Perched at the top of a scenic col (the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks), overlooked by the Écrins peaks of the Southern Alps, Les Deux Alpes is affordable and offers lots of terrain. Its buildings may not be the prettiest, but its scenery will certainly excite you.

Its 130 miles of pistes are best suited to beginners/intermediates, with the lower slopes above the village awash with green runs. But take two cable cars up to the glacier and you'll find a host of blues and reds, including an epic run from the top to Mont-de-Lans, a 1.4-mile vertical drop.

In the village, the lively nightlife includes Smokey Joes, the Polar Bear Pub (for wood-stove cosiness) and local favourite Pub Windsor.

Unwind in the spa at the atmospheric yet affordable Côte Brune or splash out on the Chalet Mounier

Best for beginners: Les Arcs

With around 125 miles of terrain to choose from, there's something for everyone at Les Arcs — in particular, newbies, with easy access to the slopes almost from your apartment door.

There are several purpose-built villages to choose from, scattered over the hillside above Bourg-Saint-Maurice. Each has its own character, although those at lower altitude, such as Arcs 1600 and 1850, can suffer a lack of snow. The newest, Arcs 1950 and 2000, have the most modern facilities, although car-free 1950 offers atmospheric, traditional-style, wood-fronted apartments overlooking a village whose stylish bars and restaurants include La Table de Lys.

Near your apartment, you'll find two lifts up to a set of gentle blues. Take the Bois de l'Ours chair lift from 1950, and a series of cruisy blues leads to Arc 1800, where you can stop for lunch.

If you've little ones, Ski School Arc 1950 has a dedicated area where they can learn the ropes under an instructor's watchful eye. Or, if they're still too young to hit the slopes, then why not book them into the Little Cariboo's Club, where they can play in safety while you rack up some miles. 

Best for Snowboarding: Morzine/Avoriaz

Snowboarders, there are two reasons why you'll love Morzine, and the first one lies behind the doors of Chalet Christophe. Perched beside the road between Morzine and Avoriaz, it's home to a treasure chest of the latest Burton boards, giving you the opportunity to test some seriously sexy hardware during your stay.

Head up to Avoriaz, which is lift-linked to Morzine, and you'll find the Burton Stash park hidden away in the woods. Each of its jumps, rails and other features are made from wood and other natural materials, creating an adventure playground for flexing your skills.

Back at Chalet Christophe, you can chill in one of seven funky en suite rooms, each equipped with Xbox games consoles. The hardest part of your trip will undoubtedly be deciding which board to ride next.

Best for racking up miles: La Plagne

Atmosphere, convenience and the chance to clock up some serious mileage. These are just three reasons to put La Plagne on your list this season. This whopping resort is actually made up of 11 little villages — some of which were purpose-built in the 1960s. We'll leave you to decide which one to stay in, but we suggest you go high if you're after good snow.

With an obscene 140 miles of skiable terrain to explore, it's best to grab a guide, as they'll show you the best spots. If the snow's good, make sure they take you to the glacier, so you can tackle the untracked stuff leading down to Les Bauches. 

Best for convenient cruising: Flaine

Don't be put off by the concrete bunker that greets you on arrival. To unenlightened eyes, the resort buildings may look like something from a Soviet-era suburb, but this craggy grey monstrosity was listed as one of France's most important historical buildings in a 1991 survey. Whatever.

What's beyond doubt is the sheer amount of skiing on your doorstep. Flaine forms part of the Grand Massif, one of France's largest linked ski areas, with nearly 165 miles of skiable terrain spread over 133 runs. One ticket gives you access to neighbouring resorts like Samoëns, Sixt Fer à Cheval and Les Carroz, further down the valley.

Flaine itself is tucked away in a vast natural amphitheatre surrounded by craggy peaks, with all sorts of runs spilling down into the central base station. 


Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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