Where to Stay and Ski in the 3 Valleys
No other ski area gives you so much choice. Les 3 Vallées has 600km (about 375 miles) of runs and over 160 lifts, connecting Courchevel, Meribel, Val Thorens, Les Menuires, San Martin de Belleville, Orelle and Brides les Bains. But with so much to choose from, it’s easy to get distracted, so here’s our guide to getting the most out of your ski holiday.
There are no bad resorts in the 3 Valleys, and it’s easy to ski between them. But some resorts are a particularly good fit for different types of holidaymaker. So which ski resort is best for families, best for charm, best for apres-ski and nightlife, best for early or late season holidays, and best for short breaks? And once you’re there, which runs will suit you best?
Best Ski Resort for Families: Les Menuires
Les Menuires used to be the poor relation of the 3 Valleys’ high-altitude resorts. But it now has powerful new lifts and attractive new suburbs (Reberty looks like Meribel, only with more snow because it’s 500m higher up the mountain). And geographically it’s always been in a prime position because it’s in the middle of the Belleville valley which has the most slopes and lifts of all the valleys.
For families, Les Menuires is especially appealing: all the accommodation is conveniently close to the pistes; prices tend to be lower than in the other resorts; there are great ski schools and runs for all standards including beginners; and there are lots of child-friendly activities to do besides skiing, whether that’s watching a weekly firework display, tobogganing, snow-biking or riding the Speed Mountain Roller Coaster.
Best Ski Resort for Charm: St Martin de Belleville
The world’s largest ski area can do small and classy too. St Martin is the prettiest resort in the 3 Valleys and the only one of its high-altitude villages that was not purpose-built. Stroll around the old buildings next to its church or visit its museum to get a sense of what life was like in this mountain village before the first ski-lifts were built. St Martin has grown and is now more luxurious than rustic, but it’s kept its charm and offers high-quality boutique skiing. The slopes above the resort are also home to some of the best mountain restaurants in the 3 Valleys.
Best Ski Resort for Après Ski and Night Life: Meribel
Meribel lies at the heart of the 3 Valleys and has slopes for all standards including experts, but somehow it’s what happens off the slopes that it’s most famous for. The music, dancing and drinking start in the afternoon at the La Folie Douce near the Saulire Express, or the Rond Point below Rhodos, continue in the bars close to the main lifts and end in one of several night clubs. As many visitors stay in catered chalets that typically offer unlimited free wine at dinner, it’s a wonder than any skiing gets done at all. But if you really do want to concentrate on the skiing rather than the partying, the suburb of Mottaret is 300m higher up the mountain, and is quieter at night but perfectly positioned for exploring all of the 3 Valleys during the day.
Best Ski Resort for Early or Late Season Holidays: Val Thorens
Val Thorens is always the first resort in the 3 Valleys to open and the last to close, with a season that usually stretches from late November to early May. At 2300m above sea level, and surrounded by lifts reaching up to 3000m and beyond, Val Thorens is the highest ski resort in Western Europe and frequently has the best snow. So if you’re booking a ski holiday in December or April, and want peace of mind and a decent chance of being able to ski back to the door of your accommodation no matter what the weather has been like, VT is the obvious choice.
Best Ski Resort for a Short Break: Courchevel
Like all the resorts in the 3 Valleys, Courchevel is a great destination for a week’s holiday, and some of the world’s richest people choose it as their winter base for the entire season. What is less well known, however, is that Courchevel also ticks all the boxes for a ski weekend: it’s easy to get to with short airport transfers from several airports; it has an excellent local ski area on its doorstep with superb runs for all levels, covered by a less expensive ‘Courchevel-Valley-only’ lift pass; and Courchevel’s slopes are almost ‘weather-proof’, with plenty of snowsure north-facing slopes if the weather is warm, but also with the best tree-skiing in the 3 Valleys in case there is poor visibility. And to some people’s surprise, Courchevel also has short-break accommodation for all budgets. If you want to splash out, the main resort, Courchevel 1850, is famous for its luxury hotels, but the lower villages (Courchevel-Village, Courchevel,-Le-Praz, Courchevel-La-Tania and Saint-Bon) are much more affordable.
The Best Ski Runs in Les 3 Vallées
The pistes in the 3 Valleys tend to be graded accurately: green runs for beginners; blues for improving novices and less confident intermediates; reds for those who want to cruise around but also face occasional challenges; and blacks for advanced skiers who want to be tested. And there’s fabulous off-piste too, with ungroomed freeriding between the pistes and longer routes that take you into the backcountry beyond the official ski area.
The Best Green Runs in the 3 Valleys
La Violette in Les Menuires
Les Menuires is a great beginners’ resort and La Violette is a great first ’proper’ run, accessed from a proper lift (the Roc 1 bubble). It’s green all the way as you pass through the centre of Les Menuires and keep going down till you reach the main lift hub at the bottom of the resort, where the Doron lift can take you to another green run (Montagnette). Get these two greens under your belt and you’ll be ready for the blue runs that surround them.
Indiens in Courchevel-Moriond
Courchevel Moriond (formerly known as Courchevel 1650) is a little bit out on a limb, separated from the rest of the Courchevel valley by a gully, and that makes it a peaceful haven for less confident skiers. There is a maze of easy runs just above the resort with Indiens near its centre: Belvedere, Carabose, Praline and Petites Bosses are the other greens and there are some gentle blues as well. You will have to master drag lifts to get the most out of this area but that’s all part of the learning experience.
Piste des Animaux in Meribel
Innuits, Rhodos, Blanchots, and Foret are all green runs that meander through a sunny corner of Meribel just above Rond Point and Altiport, with plenty of mountain restaurants for hot chocolate stops. But for small children, or anyone who wants to know what a marmot not only looks like but smells like, the nearby Piste des Animaux has got to be the highlight because of the interactive sensory sculptures.
The Best Blue Runs in the 3 Valleys
Biche in Meribel
A true high mountain run, Biche starts at 2740m at the top of Saulire between Meribel and Courchevel. Its bottom is the Saulire Express midstation above Meribel, but you can keep going via the green Blanchot and the blue Lapin pistes all the way into Meribel Village, more than 1300m below where you started.
Jerusalem/Biolley in St Martin de Belleville
Everyone likes Jerusalem, even skiers who normally prefer much tougher runs. It’s a beautiful west-facing piste that rolls down the mountainside between Tougnete and St Martin de Belleville. At its bottom, it morphs into Biolley which continues all the way into St Martin, the prettiest of the 3 Valleys resorts. Both pistes are usually at their best around lunchtime and there are five mountain restaurants nearby, and more in St Martin itself. Le Corbeleys on the Biolley piste is perhaps the pick of the bunch: it’s in an atmospheric old building that’s more than 100 years old and is owned by the grandchildren of the people who built it, long before any ski-lifts were installed.
Bouquetin/Vallons in Les Menuires
La Masse is a high steep mountain, but these two blue runs take you from top to bottom without too many challenges (although you should only attempt them after mastering the easier blues on the other side of Les Menuires). The ride up La Masse from Les Menuires only takes ten minutes thanks to one of the fastest gondola lifts in France, so spend a little time at the top admiring the view which can stretch all the way to Mont Blanc; then follow the blue piste signs all the way down. The route is mostly face north-east facing so best skied in the morning.
The Best Red Runs in the 3 Valleys
Beranger in Val Thorens
Val Thorens is red run heaven, and nowhere is this more true than at the top of the Funitel Peclet, where Beranger is just one of several red pistes (Les Vires, L’Adrien Theaux, Lac Blanc, Croissant, Christine, and Boulevarde Lauzes) that drop down into the village. The pistes cross over one another, so don’t worry which one you’re on: just ski whatever looks nice, then return on the Funitel Peclet (a fast, queue-destroying lift) and do another variant. The runs mostly face west so are at their best in the afternoon.
Combe du Vallon in Meribel/ Meribel-Mottaret
At 2952m, Mont Vallon is the top of the Meribel ski area, and on a clear day there are wonderful views down the valley. It’s north-facing too, so snow quality is usually excellent. Combe du Vallon is the longer of the two red runs that descend from the top. Campagnol is the other, and almost as good, so ski them both.
Col de l’Audzin Val Thorens
Col de l’Audzin is a testing red that curls around the 3200m Cime Caron, so at the top you can admire views of both the Maurienne and Belleville valleys before descending 860m to the bottom station of the Cime Caron cable car. You can use the cable car to repeat the run, or to access its twin sisters, the red piste Cime and the black piste Combe de Caron which is only slightly steeper. But if there is a queue, continue skiing down and bear left till you reach the Boismint lift, which opens up a less crowded part of Val Thorens ski area, with more high-quality red runs.
The Best Black Runs in the 3 Valleys
The Saulire ridge between Courchevel and Meribel
The top of the Saulire ridge between Courchevel and Meribel is a fantastic base for Black run enthusiasts. There are 3 couloirs on the north-facing Courchevel side – the Grand Couloir is the easiest, and the only one that is an official piste, so ski it first, and don’t go near the others if you struggle or if the avalanche warning level and snow conditions indicate they could be unsafe. Instead try the Couloir Tournier on the Meribel side (another official black run) – it gets more sun than the Grand Couloir so it’s usually trickier to ski. Then return to the Saulire ridge and look across to the nearby Vizelle lift on the Courchevel side, because crossing under it you should see the Pylons black run, which is where you’re heading next. And just beyond it are Piste M and Suisse, which are also good testing blacks.
La Masse in Les Menuires
There are four black runs on La Masse – Lac Noir, Masse, Dame Blanche and Rocher Noir. They are all good, and all at their best in the morning. The main Pointe de la Masse lift is fast so if you’re staying in Les Menuires, it’s feasible to do all of them, and a few reds as well, before a well deserved lunch. There are three mountain restaurants on La Masse; Le 2800 at the very top has the best views but it can get crowded on a sunny day so book ahead.
L’Eclipse in Courchevel Le Praz
L’Eclipse, the black run coming down from 2240m Chenus all the way to Courchevel-le-Praz over 900m below, is 3km long and has an average gradient of 30%, making it one of the steepest downhill runs on the world cup circuit. It’s also the best black run in the 3 Valleys to ski in poor visibility because its second half snakes through the woods. Nearby is the Jean Blanc piste which is another tree-lined black. And if the weather clears up, Lanches and Dou de Lanches are two more black runs in the same area, although they are higher and more exposed. All the runs face north or north east and tend to have good snow despite their modest altitude.
The Best Freeriding ‘Between the Pistes’ in the 3 Valleys
Warning: all freeriding is potentially dangerous, and the best way to stay safe is to hire a guide. Always make sure you have the right equipment (transceiver, probe, shovel and mobile phone) and have checked the avalanche warning level and the weather forecast. Always ski slowly and in control, and with a friend.
La Masse Liberty Ride in Les Menuires
At the top of La Masse above Les Menuires is an official, avalanche-controlled Liberty Ride area. Come here when it’s first opened after a heavy snowfall and you can be up to your waist in powder, but it’s also high and north-east facing so the snow quality deteriorates slowly. There is also lots of unofficial freeriding between the pistes lower down La Masse, but that is not avalanche-controlled, so is more dangerous.
The Creux Noirs Freeride lab and Vizelle in Courchevel
The Creux Noirs Freeride lab is a high north-facing avalanche-controlled area on both sides of the Roches Grises black near the top of the Courchevel ski area. It’s reached by traversing from the Saulire ridge that separates Courchevel and Meribel then hiking or skinning up the mountain for about 15 minutes. At the bottom freeriders have a choice: the Chanrossa chair to their right accesses lots of ungroomed terrain but it faces west so be prepared for icy moguls; whilst the Marmotte lift on your left accesses the more north-facing black runs on La Vizelle which all have ungroomed freeriding to their sides.
Bartavelle, Mont Vallon and Cote Brune in Meribel
Mont Vallon is the highest point in the Meribel valley and a long way from the centre of Meribel, so ski over to it via the official ‘Challenge Zone” around the Bartavelle piste under the Roc du Tougne lift; it’s east-facing so at its best early in the day. But this is just the aperitif: the north-facing area between the Combe du Vallon and Campagnol pistes on Mont Vallon is the main event. It’s not avalanche-controlled and you may have to pick your way around cliffs, streams and other hazards, so you really should ski it with a guide but plenty of freeriders don’t and live to tell the tale. Try at least two different variants before moving onto Cote Brune, which is only two lifts away and offers similar high-altitude, ungroomed and unpatrolled terrain between the Lac de la Chambre and Venturon pistes. You can plot your route down whilst riding up the Cote Brune chair, taking care to avoid anywhere that looks avalanche-prone.
The Best Guided Off-Piste Expeditions in the 3 Valleys
La Masse to Le Chatelard via Vallee des Encombres
La Pointe de la Masse above Les Menuires is the starting point for three great off-piste expeditions that mountain guides can show you: the east facing descent to Lac du Lou (see below); the north facing descent around Le Teurre into Les Yvoses and down to Le Bettex; and the north-west facing descent into the Vallee des Encombres that ultimately reaches the small hamlet of Le Chatelard about a mile away from Saint Martin de Belleville. This takes you the furthest from the official ski area and is well worth the short taxi ride or uphill hike back to St Martin.
Val Thorens to Pralognan-la-Vanoise
This is a long itinerary for ski tourers which crosses two glaciers (Glacier de Chaviere and Glacier de Polset) so you need the right equipment and fitness levels. The route starts from the Col de Thorens and ends in Pralognan. From Pralognan you take a taxi to Bride les Bains, then come up in the bubble lift to Meribel.
Lac du Lou from Cime Caron
You can descend to the frozen lake in the Lou valley between Les Menuires and Val Thorens from La Masse (see above), but the classic route starts from Cime Caron, allowing you to have a warm-up on the eponymous high north-facing black run, which has plenty of unofficial (and unpatrolled, so take care) freeride areas to its side. When it’s time for the main event, take the Col de L’Audzin red run that curls around the top of Cime Caron but peel off to the left, briefly heading into the Maurienne valley, then swing hard right. The refuge by the lake is a great place to stop for some refreshments. You re-enter the Val Thorens ski area near the Plan de L’Eau lift, or you can continue down Boulevard Cumin into Les Menuires.
Author: William Micklethwait