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Exploring France's small but beautiful ski resorts

Enjoy big slope access without forfeiting the laid-back comforts and traditional alpine charms of small village life.

Published 14 Mar 2021, 08:05 GMT
Skiiers stop to catch their breath while taking in a view of the Grandes Rousses massif from ...

Skiiers stop to catch their breath while taking in a view of the Grandes Rousses massif from Plat de Marmottes.

Photograph by Laurent Salino

Farmhouses, shuttered cowsheds and trees silent with snow: unless you count the whiff of agriculture in the air, there are few signs of life in Villard-Reculas this morning. Having wandered out to the village limits — a walk that took a total of 10 minutes, passing a handful of wooden chalets — I’m waiting, apparently, for transport onto a piste. Pushing the button of an incongruous supermarket-style elevator, which stands alone on the edge of a car park, I squint up into the low-hung mountain mist, which reveals nothing but circling birds. And then, down it trundles out of the clouds: a little box-like lift on rails, which returns itself at a modest rattle into the clouds, depositing its sole rider, as if by magic, among the whizz and hum of a ski resort.

Set in a string of tiny villages tucked into the voluminous skirts of Alpe d’Huez, Villard-Reculas offers a discreet backdoor into one of the world’s largest ski areas. Topping out at 6,940ft, a respectable resort in itself, it has 10 pistes offering 10 miles of downhill fun on a reasonably priced local lift ticket. But, take a swift quad chair up to Signal cable station and quiet little Villard-Reculas opens into the wider Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine ski area; all-in, that’s 155 miles of runs crowned by the 10,925ft heights of Pic Blanc, including the longest black run in the Alps, La Sarenne.

But for now, I’m content to ease in my rusty ski legs on Villard-Reculas’ nursery greens and cruisey blues, which tip out near crooked old billet, La Bergerie. Here, I meet my teenage daughter, who’s been blatting around the local runs all morning with some of our group — the network of easily navigable pistes are confidence-inspiring for young skiers keen to feel they’ve conquered the mountain. “I did a black,” is my offspring’s nonchalant greeting. Warming up under La Bergerie’s rafters, decked with antique snowshoes and bunches of dried génépi (the alpine herb that flavours Savoyard liqueur), we tuck into a tartiflette that offers a welcome back to the French Alps with exemplary, artery hardening indulgence.

It’s hard to imagine Grenoble airport is little more than an hour away, an easy journey whose zigzig final leg summited the sheer granite walls of the Romanche Valley, setting us down on Villard-Reculas’ prettily forested peaks. This area is a summer hub for hikers and bikers while in winter, it’s a boon to skiers who want value-for-money self-catering chalets in pin-drop tranquillity. You don’t come here for the nightlife. 

Back in town, Le Comptoir du Villard serves frothy beers and rich fondues, doubling as the hamlet’s one-stop shop: everything from souvenir Savoie sausages to superb croissants, fluffy slippers, canned goods and novelty marmot teddies; plus ski hire and lift passes from the office next door.

 

Apres-ski cocktails at Le V de Vaujany hotel is one of the best ways to unwind after a long day on the slopes.

Photograph by Michael Voinis

Badge of honour

The teens in our group are more impressed by nearby Vaujany, one of the bigger resorts in the Alpe d’Huez area. It’s part of a cluster of ski-pass-included resorts, including purpose-built Oz-en-Oisans and Auris-en-Oisans, La Garde, Le Freney d’Oisans and the main resort of Alpe d’Huez itself. Vaujauny, which rhymes with Beaujolais (although here you’re more likely to drink a sparkling Crémant de Savoie), is among a handful of resorts that wear the French government-backed ‘Famille Plus Montagne’ badge of family-friendly honour. It’s also one of the wealthiest, thanks to a vast hydroelectric damn fuelling the village’s fortunes. But forget flash and cash, it’s all about infrastructural investment here. 

A call button-summoned funicular makes short work of the Vaujany’s three-tier mountainside arrangement, whizzing us from the mid-station’s accommodation hub to the top station in under a minute. Here, ESF groups (French Ski School) gather each morning in an orderly fashion, and procrastinators distract themselves with a chocolat chaud or an emergency purchase of ski socks in the town’s handful of shops and cafes. Then, at the end of the day, the funicular shuttles our now confidently free-roaming children straight to base level, where access to the municipal bowling alley, swimming pool and cinema complex is all included in the price of the lift pass. For youngsters, there’s also a kids’ club and creche that caters for ages six months up to 11. 

“I like it here,” says Wendy Chant, an ex-pat Brit manning the desks at ESF Vaujany. “It feels local, in a good way, but it’s all there for those who want to get out and ski the wider area. And it works, mostly, seamlessly,” she says with a smile. Keen to ski as much as we can in the time we have, we board the boat-like Vaujany-Alpette cable-car, which summits a granite cliff, sailing over a stomach-drop ravine before landing in a landscape of perfect switchback peaks. Just below, in the Montfrais area’s greens and blues, the teens gun through jumps and tunnels in a little snow park, backdrop to another buzzing ESF hub. So neatly navigable is the Montfrais network that the grown-ups kick back with a chilled rosé de Savoie on the sundeck at Les Airelles, while the older children whizz by on repeated independent runs, the tempting scent of cheeseburgers finally bringing them in from play. 

Two cable-cars further up, we reach the region’s heights at Pic Blanc, and a spider web of red and black runs. Losing some of the hardcore to La Sarenne’s monster length, most of us make our way to Marcel’s Farm, a 1.2-mile run in the heart of Alpe d’Huez, with banked corners, rails, a modest half pipe, a tunnel and, this being deep alpine agricultural country, a cow slalom course. A new, four-season toboggan run at nearby Les Bergers station, meanwhile, makes more of this pastureland topography, with riders wearing VR goggles. Not content with almost giving herself whiplash on what equates to a mountain rollercoaster, my teen then topples headfirst down a mogul run, taking out a piste fence in the process.

 

Skiiers about to hit a red slope in Villard Recula, France.

Photograph by Villard Reculas

Above the clouds

Just as well the views are so soul-stilling. What Alpe d’Huez lacks in the tranquil, tree-lined charms of its smaller satellite villages, it makes up for in views — from Plat de Marmottes, a temperature inversion floods the valley with a lake of fog, making fjords out of the mountains. After a few ESF sessions, the kids — even my tumble-shaken teen — are happily tackling runs in the clouds.

We pootle around, from hamlet to hamlet. Riding up to Oz-en-Oisans fox, marmot and chamois tracks lace the snow between stands of pine trees below the chairlift. It’s certainly wild — the views are untouched off-piste, trees, rocky crevices and frozen waterfalls that our instructors point out as great ice-climbing spots. Oz is a no-cars affair, with Samoyed huskies on offer as transport through the hamlet’s forested fringes. 

Back in Vaujany, Chalet Saskia awaits with its hot tub, sauna and balcony bedrooms with peak panoramas. The 10-bedroom property, within staggering distance of the funicular, also comes with a huge games room, movie den and hot chocolate on tap. We barely see the children. This is surely a blessing for Rebecca and Tim, the British couple sharing the chalet with our group, who have left their own offspring behind in search of a quiet ski weekend. “We love the relaxed village atmosphere here,” says Rebecca. “But there’s plenty to ski, too. La Sarenne, of course, has to be done.”

Saskia’s dinners — a multicourse, communal affair — are a cut above classic chalet dining, with such thrills as homemade alpine berry gelato and jewel-like amuse-bouches. However, Saskia now has some competition in the recent opening of Le V de Vaujany hotel, whose IDA restaurant delivers the sort of bistronomic cuisine you’d expect from a chef recently arrived from Paris. With its subtle Eastern aesthetic, pool and spa, Le V wears Vaujany’s affluence more visibly. But of course, as is the way of things around here, it’s discreetly packaged in a wooden chalet exterior that says farm country not flash. Which is, we decide, exactly how we’d like our ski trips to be from here on in.

The views from the pistes of La Tzoumaz are crisp and spectacular.

Photograph by Melody Sky

How to do it: 

Ski Peak offers a three-night stay at 10-room Chalet Saskia in Vaujany from £435 per person, half-board, based on two sharing a double en suite room. A seven-night stay at Chalet Le Regain in Villard-Reculas costs from £152 per person, based on six people sharing three-bedroom chalet.
A six-day adult lift pass for Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine costs from £250; a six-day adult lift pass for Oz-Vaujany costs from £163.
A return from Gatwick to Grenoble (an hour away) with EasyJet costs from £47 return, or by direct Eurostar, £168 return.      

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the European ski season. For the latest advice, visit gov.uk

Published in the Winter Sports 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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