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 (the Val d'Isere and Tignes ski domain), Paradiski (Les Arcs and La Plagne) and the Portes de Soleil chief among them. These are truly massive ski areas in the world. It was once said that if you took any US state in which there is skiing - whether it's Colorado, California, Utah or Vermont - and combined all of that state's separate ski areas into one theoretical ski area, it would still be smaller than a real lift-linked ski area in France - the 3 Valleys. Whether this is really true or not, the fact that it was often cited and believed gives some idea of the scale of the French ski areas.
And the large French ski areas are not just sizeable in two dimensions. They have huge verticals too. You can ski 2000m (c. 6,600 feet) verticals, on piste, non-stop in Les Arcs, La Plagne and Alpe d'Huezs. For those looking for more untracked challenges, the off-piste meccas of Chamonix and La Grave can deliver even larger vertical drops for freeriders and backcountry ski tourers.
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 (part of the Franco-Italian Via Lattea), 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. Geneva Airport is also host to several specialist transfer companies which provide private or shared transfers to the French ski resorts, such AlpyBus, GVA Transfers and Mountain Rescue Transfers. 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 high-altitude convenience in France. There are notable exceptions, like the pioneering chalet-style of Méribel (France leads the way in chalet holidays) and the old spa and mountain towns of Chamonix and Saint Gervais. The historic centre of Val d'Isere was also preserved (although it was a close-run thing). And France can do 'rustic charm' like La Clusaz; 'basic mountain village charm' like Val Cenis; and 'luxury charm' like Megeve. But on the whole the advantages of high-altitude, snow-sure, purpose-built, mega-resorts with plenty of slope-side accommodation prevailed.
Most of these altitude purpose-built ski resorts however have smaller lift-linked villages below them which are more charming and less expensive. So below Flaine there is Samoens; below Avoriaz is Morzine (and low-altitude, rural Les Gets and Chatel are close by too); below Alpe d'Huez are Villard Reculas and Vaujany; below Arc 2000 is Villaroger (all part of les Arcs); below Val Thorens and Les Menuires is St Martin de Belleville; below La Plagne are Montchavin, Les Coches, Montalbert and Champagny en Vanoise; below Les Deux Alpes is Venosc; below Courchevel are Courchevel Le Praz and La Tania; and below Tignes is Tignes les Brevieres. Unless indicated otherwise, we cover these less well known satellite villages in the main resort pages.
In the early 2000s the arrival of Canadian resort developers Intrawest has shaken up the French ski market and re-defined the standards of high-altitude 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 now being overhauled, either by removing eyesores and building new chalet-friendly suburbs, as in the case of Les Menuires, or, like in Alpe d'Huez, disguising the concrete with sympathetic wood cladding. And some high-altitude purpose-built resorts, like La Rosiere, were well-planned right from the start and have always been attractive places in which to stay.
Resort facilities, ski lessons and ski hire
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.
Ski instructors, mountain guides and ski schools have also been modernied with the old monoplistic ESF facing new challengers. A good way to compare prices, see lesson times, check availability and find the one that suits you best is through Check Yeti.
Ski equipment is easy to rent inside or on the way to any French Ski resort. SKISET and ALPINRESORTS.com both give substantial discounts if you book online in advance.
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.