France is famous for its massive ski areas, linking together several high-altitude, modern, purpose-built resorts with miles and miles of snowsure piste, and prioritising convenience over charm. But look carefully at the French Alps and the French Pyrenees and you can find ski resorts that still resemble traditional mountain villages or elegant spa towns, and backcountry where ‘ski sauvage’ still reigns supreme.
While Austrian ski resorts have better nightlife, Switzerland’s more chocolate-box charm and Italy’s more affordable mountain restaurants, nowhere can rival France’s ski resorts when it comes to sheer size of ski area. Les 3 Vallées (which includes the resorts of Courchevel, La Tania, Méribel, Val Thorens, Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville) is the largest lift-linked ski area in the world, and some believe it is bigger than all the ski resorts of Colorado put together. Espace Killy (Val d’Isere and Tignes), Paradiski (Les Arcs and La Plagne), Portes du Soleil (Avoriaz, Morzine, Les Gets, Chatel etc), the Grand Massif (Flaine, Samoens etc), Evasion Mont Blanc (Megeve, Saint Gervais etc), the Grand Domain (Alpe d’Huez, Oz, Vaujany etc), Serre Chevalier, (Le Monetier-les-Bains, Villeneuve, Chantemerle, Briançon) and the Franco-Italian Via Lattea (Montgenevre) are all big.
And French ski areas are not just sizeable in two dimensions. They have huge verticals too. You can ski continuous 2000m (c. 6,600 feet) vertical descents on piste or off-piste in Les Arcs, La Plagne, Les Deux Alpes, Chamonix/Argentiere and Alpe d’Huez. And off-piste meccas like Chamonix and La Grave in the Alps, and Grand Tourmalet/Pic du Midi in the French Pyrenees, have almost limitless backcountry for freeriders and ski tourers to explore, with no restricting gates or boundaries.
But skiing in France is not all about size. There are French ski resorts that predate winter sports such as the venerable spa town of Saint Gervais or the historic centre of Val d’Isere with its ancient church. In the Pyrenees, Cauterets still resembles the spa resort that Victor Hugo praised in the 19th century and Bareges (part of Grand Tourmalet) was first made famous by Louis XIV’s mistress in the 17th century. The small Alpine town of Samoens is even older and is officially listed as a ‘Monument Historique’. And modern French ski resorts can be attractive too: La Rosiere and Arc 1950 were purpose-built at high altitude, but they are still nice places to wander around with breathtaking views. France can also do genuine ‘rustic charm’ like La Clusaz; ‘austere mountain village charm’ like Val Cenis; and ‘luxury charm’ like Megeve. And even within the famous mega ski areas are a few rural outposts, such as Villard Reculas (part of Alpe d’Huez), Champagny en Vanoise (part of La Plagne), Villaroger (part of Les Arcs), and Venosc (part of Les Deux Alpes).