With its sizeable collection of high-altitude stellar resorts, 8000km of pistes spread over 300 resorts and some of the biggest names in world skiing, France has justifiable claims to be the doyenne of the European ski scene. While Austria has better nightlife, Switzerland more chocolate box charm and Italy the greatest mountain restaurants, none can rival France's ski resorts strength in depth.
The majority of today's skiers want well-linked miles of pisted cruising and the ski resorts in France deliver in spades; with the Three Valleys, Espace Killy, Paradiski and the Portes de Soleil chief among them. For those looking for more untracked challenges Chamonix and La Grave can be casually added to the list above. The lift systems of the mega-resorts are the best in the world.
The main ski areas in France
Geographically, France can be divided into three main ski resort areas. The Northern Alps, comprising the resorts of Portes de Soleil, the cluster around Chamonix and those humble few straddling the Tarentaise valley - the Three Valleys, Espace Killy and Paradiski among others - are where the best skiing is to be found.
Flirting with the southern Alps and sitting just north of the Col de Lautaret, the majestic dividing point between north and south, are the sometimes overlooked gems of Les Deux Alpes, Alpe d'Huez and La Grave. South of here are the characterful Serre Chevalier and Montgenèvre, though you can ski almost down to the coast at Isola 2000. Southwest of the Alpine range lie the different charms of the Pyrenees.
France's Ski Resorts
Another strong attraction of France is the convenience of most ski resorts to neighbouring airports, the various gateways of Geneva, Lyon, Grenoble and Chambéry into the Northern Alps mean long airport transfers are not an issue. Self-drive holidays are also an easy option and are becoming increasingly popular, particularly with British skiers.
Generally, resort charm loses out to purpose-built convenience in France. There are notable exceptions, like the pioneering chalet-style of Méribel (France leads the way in chalet holidays) and the historic town centre of Chamonix, but the advantages of purpose-built resorts are both altitude and plenty of slope-side accommodation. Most of the major ski resorts have small satellite villages which are often far more charming as well as being a less expensive resort base.
The recent arrival of Canadian resort developers Intrawest has shaken up the French ski market and re-defined the standards of purpose-built resorts with Arc 1950 (in Les Arcs), bringing a touch of North American flair and hospitality. Many of the ugly ducklings of old are being overhauled, either by removing eyesores from the past, as in the case of Les Menuires, or, like in Alpe d'Huez, disguising the concrete with sympathetic wood cladding.
Lunch on the mountain is generally of a high standard in France, particularly if you go for the Plat du Jour, and waiter-served restaurants offer a much better experience. Likewise, most resorts have a good selection of restaurants for evening dining. Leading the way for après-ski are Chamonix, Val d'Isère and Les Deux Alpes. The old bugbear of the French ski school (ESF) is still true in part, though there is now a new generation of forward-thinking multi-lingual instructors and most resorts offer decent alternatives.
Above all, in terms of altitude, snow conditions, lift networks and the variety of the mountains, France is unparalleled. In short, where it really matters, for ski resorts La Belle France comes up trumps.