Ski France

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 (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. 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 linked together all of that state's separate ski resorts into one imaginary mega ski area, it would still be smaller than a real lift-linked ski area in France - the 3 Valleys. Whether this is still true or not, we don't know, but the fact that it's still 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'Huez. 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 regions 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 most famous resorts are found.

The southern Alps start around the Col de Lautaret. Just to the north of this are Les Deux Alpes, Alpe d'Huez and La Grave; and just to the south of here are characterful Serre Chevalier and Montgenèvre (part of the Franco-Italian Via Lattea). The Southern Alps then extend southwards until you are practically within sight of the Mediteranean, but the resorts get smaller and smaller.

Southwest of the Alpine range lie the different charms of the Pyrenees.

France's Ski Resorts

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; 'austere mountain 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 visually appealing 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 shook 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.

Mountain Restaurants and après-ski

Lunch on the mountain in France, is hugely variable in price and quality. The huge resorts tend to have huge self-service cafe's which often resemble motorway service stations but with more alcoholic drink options. The plat du jour can be good value: otherwise stick to basics that can either be cooked quickly (like steak frites) or re-heated.   

Smaller waiter-served restaurants offer a much more enjoyable experience, but prices are noticably higher. Megeve is commonly reckoned to have the best ones in all of France; Courchevel probably has the most expensive.

Apres ski is also variable. The biggest party resorts are probably Chamonix, Val d'Isère and Les Deux Alpes.

Ski Schools, instructors and mountain guides

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 and snowboard hire in France

Ski and snowboarding equipment is easy to rent because there is almost always at least a couple of ski shops in even the small ski resorts, and larger resorts will have dozens to choose from. But you will have to pay a full price if you just walk into the nearest shop. Instead we recommend that you save money by booking online in advance.   SKISET and ALPINRESORTS.com both give substantial discounts to Ultimate-ski readers if you do this.

Getting to Frech ski resorts and resort transfers

Another strong attraction of France is the convenience of most ski resorts to neighbouring airports. The main gateway airports are Geneva, Lyon, Grenoble and Chambéry. 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. 

 

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