Skiing in The Three ValleysThe Three Valleys is an enormous French ski area, the biggest lift-linked ski area in the world, and home to the blockbuster resorts of Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens as well as less famous ones such as La Tania, Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville.
Combining these resorts in a single lift-linked area gives skiers and boarders access to a huge number of flattering cruising slopes for intermediates, challenging ascents and tantalising off piste secrets for experts and a broad array of friendly, easily accessible wide open green runs and gentle blues for beginners. The Three Valleys resorts each have their own identity on and off the slopes but the lifts connecting them are so numerous that it can make sense to search the whole 3 Vallees area for accommodation and grab the best deal.
The Courchevel Valley
The furthest east of the Three Valleys, the Courchevel valley is home to excellent long challenging red runs and possibly the most expensive slopeside coffee in the Alps in Chalet de Pierres. In this valley alone there’s 150km of pistes, 62 lifts and 1480m of vertical between 1260m and 2740m.
Courchevel 1300, the lowest altitude village (Le Praz) is also the oldest village in the area. A collection of rustic buildings from the 19th century, it’s a quiet place with a friendly atmosphere, although it suffers a little from through-traffic climbing the hill to reach the higher altitude resorts. Home to the 1992 Olympic ski jumps, the village remains unspoilt and, when the snow’s good, has some testing runs through the trees above it. Two gondolas rise from the edge of the village – one to Courchevel 1850 and one to Loze, above La Tania and an easy access point to Méribel. Nightlife is relatively quiet and focuses on the Excorchevel, while charming traditional accommodation is provided by the Hotel Peupliers.
Courchevel 1550 is a quiet satellite nestling beneath Courchevel 1850 and bypassed by the road continuing up the hill. Two short lifts from either end of the village take you to the hub of 1850, and the runs back down are simple blues. The advantage of staying in Courchevel 1550 is it’s a fraction of the price of 1850 yet shares its slopes. Nightlife centres on the Chanrossa and a highlight (for some) includes the 2km, floodlit toboggan run from 1850 to 1550. For convenient accommodation is in the Flocons 3-star hotel, opposite the Tovets chairlift.
Courchevel 1650 offers a good compromise of extensive skiing, lively village and not-too-extortionate prices and, for many, 1650 is the best option in Courchevel. The village stretches out along the road that leads to 1850; on one side are slopeside apartment blocks, on the other, individual chalets spread out down the hill. Broad pasture land above the village provides confidence-building slopes for beginners and early intermediates, while higher up the sweeping reds and blues from Chanrossa and Signal provide plenty of challenges for experienced intermediates. Le Ski dominates the chalet accommodation available in 1650, having operated here for over 25 years; the 4-star Manali hotel is the latest smart addition, above the gondola. Social life centres on the British-run Bubble bar with welcoming atmosphere. Later on, the action moves to the Funky Fox.
Courchevel 1850 is the most glamorous ski resort in France and a playground for the world’s shiniest people, glittering celebrities and moneyed Russians. Don’t be surprised to see a Ferrari or two parked up outside the gondola or that the Hotel Strato has a champagne bar in its ski room. Head above the green runs in the Jardin Alpin and the skiing sorts the pros from the poseurs. The long sweeping red run Creux is fabulous to hit mid morning once the snow’s had a chance to soften, while the black M piste is often inexplicably deserted. And the Grand Couloir (and its other off-piste variations) should only be attempted by those unafraid of intense scrutiny from those in the large Saulire cable car as it passes overhead. To give you some idea of the extent of the largesse in 1850, there are fifty 50-star hotels in the whole of France, yet nine of them are in Courchevel. Seriously plush chalets and hotels line the wide nursery slopes from Bellecote to the heart of the action at the Croisette. The scope of chalets available ranges from family specialists Esprit, Ski Total and Mark Warner to top end suppliers Scott Dunn, Kaluma and Supertravel. Nightlife mainly takes place in exclusive nightclubs, such as the Caves, while Kalico provides a more typical Alpine experience.
Located between Courchevel and Méribel, La Tania has carved out a niche for itself as a good-value, family-friendly resort and a good base to explore both valleys. A host of ski-in, ski-out accommodation sits at the bottom of the slopes at 1350m, the majority of which are chalets and apartments. The slopes above the village are tree-lined, and the introduction of a long green run from Praz Juget back to base gives beginners a nice meaty run to progress to. The focal point of après ski in La Tania is the Ski Lodge, home to live bands and happy hours.
The Meribel Valley
The middle Meribel valley is best base if you want to explore all Three Valleys. The trick to getting the most out of Méribel is to follow the sun around the valley and pick your pistes when they’re at their best – miss-time it and you could be screeching over ice or slouching through slush. The Méribel valley is home to 150km of pistes, 50 lifts and 1550m of vertical between 1400m and 2950m.
Méribel has always insisted on chalet-style architecture – unlike many French resorts which seem to have paid scant regard for appearances, especially those built in the 1960s and 70s – and the obedience has paid off. Méribel has earned a very loyal and large band of British followers, who wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else. For beginners, Altiport, above Méribel village is the area to head to, while the blues and reds below Tougnete (on the shadier side of the valley) are great for mileage-hungry intermediates to progress to. Fast chairs whisk you back to the top for more, barely giving your legs a chance to recover. The best challenges in Méribel are from the Mont Vallon gondola at the head of the valley – both on and off piste. The Combe Vallon, when groomed, offers 750m of warp speed vertical; mogulled, it’s exhilarating, if you like that sort of thing. There are two main options for staying in Méribel – plump for a chalet in Méribel which, if you pick well, will be slopeside or served by a minibus; or opt for an apartment in the slightly soulless but incredibly convenient Mottaret, 250 metres higher than Méribel and about 2kms up the valley. The list of Méribel chalet specialists is endless. Après ski is lively and kicks off at the Rond Point’s happy hour by the home run, then proceeds to a string of British run bars, incuding Jack’s and the Doran. If you’re staying in Mottaret, forget it.
The Belleville Valley
Home to the highest resort in the Alps and the cheapest resort in the Three Valleys, the Belleville valley hosts both Val Thorens at an ear-popping 2300 metres and Les Menuires, a convenient resort of mainly apartment blocks. Further down the valley is the unspoilt small village of St Martin de Belleville, which offers easy access to Méribel and Les Menuires. In this valley alone you can ski a staggering 300km of pistes, ride 64 lifts and enjoy 1830 metres of vertical.
Val Thorens ski area is extensive with 140km of pistes served by 30 lifts and, thanks to the resorts height at 2300m, very snow-sure. It also neighbours the Three Valleys’ biggest secret – the fourth valley, towards Maurienne, which is accessed from the Cime de Caron. Fantastic reds and blues sweep down into Val Thorens and the only downside is their high altitude – when bad weather crawls in, there are no trees to retreat to. Val Thorens is good for beginners with free nursery slopes accessed from the heart of the village and the blue runs just above the resort are friendly enough to progress to without losing confidence. For intermediates, Val Thorens is a goldmine to be cruised all day and we defy anyone to cover the same run twice. Having said that, the snow condition on the red Col run are often the best around, so you’re allowed to repeat it. For serious challenges, head off piste with a guide. In a high, purpose-built resort you’d expect apartments to dominate, but Val Thorens also has plenty of hotels – the Sherpa is a good bet – plus chalet-style developments. The action off the slopes starts in the British-run Frog & Roast Beef and continues to the Red Fox. Or you could peel off for a bite to eat – there’s a host of good restaurants, all covered by the resort’s ‘Practical Booklet’.
Les Menuires has 160km of mostly intermediate and advanced skiing served by 28 lifts. In a break from the Three Valleys tradition, the majority of visitors to Les Menuires are French seeking slopeside convenience and lower prices. The pistes served by many fast lifts, span out below the Méribel ridge and Val Thorens. For beginners, there are dedicated nursery slopes, and when the snow’s good the spread of blue runs for beginners to progress to is impressive, including those from Val Thorens. Intermediates and more advanced riders shouldn’t overlook the runs on La Masse – consistently quieter than the rest of the valley and home to some fantastic flattering fast red cruises. The accommodation in the village is dominated by apartment blocks, while the satellite area of Reberty, slightly up the valley, has the choice of hotels and chalets. There are plenty of bars, and the Perdrix Blanche does great pizza.
St Martin de Belleville sits in a sunny spot several kilometres down from Les Menuires and is the most traditional of all the Three Valleys villages, centred around a string of bars, restaurants and chalets at the bottom of the home run. Fast lifts take you to the slopes of Les Menuires or to the Méribel ridge, from where the Three Valleys are your oyster. It’s not a great destination for beginners as nursery slopes are limited, but for intermediates looking for a relaxing base, it’s ideal. The only downside is the slopes above the village get the full brunt of the afternoon sun; snowmaking keeps the run open but conditions can be sketchy. To lay your head, there are several three-star hotels, plenty of chalets and some apartments, while après ski is very quiet – the Dahlia is popular as the slopes close.
Getting to the Three Valleys
The Three Valleys ski resorts in the south of the Tarentaise region are well-served by the Lyon, Chambery and Geneva airports, each less than three hours away, and easily accessible from Moutiers train station. The Three Valleys are easily reached by train with direct trains from London (via Eurostar) to Moutiers, then a short transfer by bus or taxi to the resorts all of which are within 25km of Moutiers.
A number of specialist airport transfer companies offer prviate or shared transfers from main airports direct to your accommodation in resort. Click on the links for more information: Getting to Courchevel, Getting to La Tania, Getting to Meribel, Getting to Val Thorens, Getting to Les Menuires and Getting to St Martin de Belleville.