Francophile Jane Bolton is MD at Erna Low Ski Holidays. She’s been selling holidays in Europe and Canada for the past 17 years – and has an extraordinary knowledge of the French Alps. So even without her bicycle and beret she knows her oignons.
Would you consider holidaying in a lesser-known French resort, rather than one of its famous, A-list ski areas? There are all sorts of reasons to give it a go: lower prices, uncrowded slopes, and a more laid-back atmosphere, to name a few. The experience feels more French too. Of course, you’ll never find “La France Profonde” in a ski resort, however small. But settle into its welcoming embrace, and you’ll discover a very different style of mountain life. One that’s far removed from the frenetic pace and cosmopolitan sheen of the big name resorts.
I should know. I’ve just come back from a wonderful week in Vallorcine (“Where?” I hear you ask!). We arrived just as heavy snow started to fall and loved both the charming village and the skiing above it – which forms part of the big, but scattered, Chamonix valley lift system. Memorable moments included driving through the train tunnel under the Col des Montets, because snow had closed the road above – not something I had ever tried before. Thankfully the trains weren’t running!
There are plenty more places like this. Hands up who knows where Valmeinier, Chamrousse, and Les Orres are, for example? Each one will make a refreshing change for a holiday, whether you’ve got small children, or simply want to take your foot off the gas now and then, and relax over a good lunch in a mountain restaurant.
Here are ten of my favourites.
1700–2255m, 90km of piste
Chamrousse is a ski-convenient collection of buildings on the mountainside 30km from Grenoble. The first cable-car opened here in 1952 but the area won international appeal during the 1968 Winter Olympics when French hero Jean-Claude Killy won the clean sweep of three gold medals here in the alpine skiing events. Today the resort attracts a mainly French clientele and is popular at weekends. There are three bases: at 1650m, 1700m and 1750m.
Ski: Good for beginners and intermediates, but more limited for better skiers. The Chamrousse 1700 and 1750 area is where you’ll find most of the green and blue slopes.
Stay: L’Ecrin des Neiges is close to the ski lifts at Roche Beranger and approximately 350m from the shops.
What Else? Ice-skating, dog-sledding, ice-driving, snowshoeing, snake gliss (10-12 person toboggan ‘trains’) parapente, snow mountain-biking.
2. La Joue du Loup/Superdevoluy
1500-2500m, 100km of piste
Set between Gap and Grenoble in the southern French Alps, La Joue du Loup/Superdevoluy is made up of two ski resorts, four villages and 30 hamlets, and is a big hit with families on a budget. Admittedly, the architecture is not to everyone’s liking: the focal point of Superdevoluy is a big, curved apartment block at the base of the lift system, which some see as a magnificent modernist statement and others as an irresponsible eyesore. However, there are newer chalets and apartments nearby; and La Joue du Loup nearby offers a refuge of wooden chalets for those with less hard-edged tastes.
Ski: Between them, the ski resorts of La Joue du Loup and Superdevoluy share mainly intermediate runs and are equipped with modern, efficient ski lifts.
Stay: Les Chalets Superd is made up of eight large chalets, each with around 30 apartments. It has an outdoor covered heated swimming-pool and fitness area.
What Else? Snake gliss, ski-joring (skiing whilst being pulled along by a horse), pony luge (pony-drawn toboggan for children), dog-sledding, parapente, snow-kiting, snowshoeing.
3. La Norma
1350–2750m, 65km of piste
Set in the long and winding Maurienne Valley, La Norma’s low prices, both on and off the mountain, make it a great place for beginners who don’t want to break the bank while they settle into their new sport. The small pedestrian village is car-free, with plenty of timber-clad buildings and a central shopping area.
Ski: There are dozens of great descents here – far more than you’d expect for a resort of this size. The excellent tree-skiing makes it a fabulous place to be when the clouds come in and the wind is blowing up a storm. The village shares its Eski-Mo joint lift-pass with nearby Aussois, Valfrejus, Val Cenis and Bonneval (inter-resort shuttle available).
Stay: Les Chalets et Balcons de la Vanoise is built in typical local style and is at the foot of the slopes.
What Else? Dog-sledding, ice-skating, snake gliss, parapente, snowshoeing, x-bike, big air bag.
4. Les Saisies
1650–1941m, 77km of piste (185km in l’Espace Diamant area)
Known locally for having its own snowy micro-climate, Les Saisies is best for intermediate skiers. The short transfer from Geneva airport to the village makes it a great place for families with kids wanting to get some confidence on pistes that aren’t too steep and scary. Les Saisies sits in the Beaufortain Valley in a beautiful area of woodland and Alpine pastures, 30km from Albertville.
Ski: The small resort is primarily a cross-country destination with 120km of some of the highest loipe in Europe. It is also part of the Espace Diamant area, and connects with the neighbouring resorts of Crest-Voland, Notre-Dame de Bellecombe, and Flumet. The Beaufortain Valley is a wonderful place for ski-touring, freeriding and an introduction to ski mountaineering.
Stay: Le Hameau du Beaufortain is ski-in ski-out with an indoor heated swimming-pool, gym and spa.
What Else? Dog-sledding, snowshoeing, tree-top adventure park, ice-climbing, ski-joring.
880–3240m, 150km of its own piste, 600km in the Trois Vallees
The mighty Three Valleys is home to several A-list resorts, including Courchevel, Meribel, and Val Thorens, and is one of the most famous ski areas in the world. But what a lot of people don’t know is that there is a fourth valley, off the back of the Col de Rosael above Val Thorens, which is home to some great skiing, too. Little Orelle, in the Maurienne Valley, is the gateway to it.
This charming little resort, made up of 10 traditional hamlets of stone houses with slate roofs, offers the best-value accommodation in the region. It’s also far easier to access from Geneva and Chambery by autoroute than the larger resorts of the neighbouring Tarentaise. After the chaos caused this winter by heavy snowfalls on changeover day just before New Year this is well worth bearing in mind.
Orelle is about as small as it gets: a mini supermarket, bar/restaurant, pizzeria, and a mountain restaurant along with an excellent ski school – but that’s it.
Ski: The big advantage of staying here is that you can explore the whole of the Trois Vallees at a fraction of the cost of basing yourself in any of the big name resorts. A 15-minute gondola ride takes you up the ski area from where the lift system brings you to the ridge above Val Thorens.
Stay: Residence Le Hameau des Eaux d’Orelles is about five minutes walk from the ski lifts and the centre of Orelle, and there’s a local shuttle bus for easy access.
What Else? Zip-wiring, ice-climbing, snowshoeing.
6. Les Orres
1550m-2720m, 88km of piste
Not the prettiest village but functional and friendly, Les Orres in the Southern Alps is hardcore French: unpretentious and well suited to families. The resort was created in the 1970s and, until recent years, the ski village at 1650m was a mass of high-rise concrete apartment blocks, which happily was hidden by the surrounding mountains.
So well hidden was it that only locals came here, and everyone else had no idea what they were missing. What changed everything was the addition of Bois Méan, a ski-in ski-out village at 1800m, built in traditional chalet style.
Ski: Varied terrain, with forests, some good steep pitches, and modern lifts. Some 50% of the pistes are graded red or black.
Stay: La Foret d’Or is made up of two residences – Les Mélèzes d’Or and Monts du Bois d’Or – with direct access to the slopes.
What Else? Ice-skating, snake gliss, dog-sledding, ski-joring, horse-riding, parapente, luge.
7. Pralognan la Vanoise
1208–3855m, 32km of piste
Squirreled away in a valley round the back of Courchevel, Pralognan la Vanoise is set in the beautiful Vanoise National Park, and is one of the oldest resorts in the region. Picturesque, quiet and very friendly, it’s a great base for families.
Ski: There’s good cross-country skiing and a modest amount of alpine skiing – mainly for beginners and lower intermediates. But you can always day trip to Courchevel or La Plagne to boost your mileage.
Stay: Les Hauts de la Vanoise is a brand new chalet-style complex located at the foot of the slopes.
What Else? Dog-sledding, ice-skating, parapente, aqua centre.
8. St Sorlin d’Arves
1550m-2620m, 120km of piste
St Sorlin d’Arves is a village of carefully-preserved Savoyard farmhouses and long-established shops built around an early 17th-century Baroque church in the Maurienne Valley. There’s much more going on than you might imagine in a sleepy mountain village like this and the resort is renowned for its children’s facilities.
The resort has several claims to fame: firstly Fromagerie des Arves is known for its award-winning Beaufort cheese. Secondly, fashion designer Pierre Balmain was born here in 1914 and went on to design for Katherine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Marlene Dietrich and Sophia Loren.
Ski: The 310km Sybelles ski area is unjustly underrated and St Sorlin is the best of it. It’s linked by piste with St-Jean, Le Corbier, and La Toussuire. It’s best suited to intermediates.
Stay: Les Fermes du St Sorlin is located in the heights of St Sorlin d’Arves, 50m from the slopes, and benefits from a panoramic view of the valley.
What Else? Snowshoeing, snow mountain biking, parapente.
1260-3864m, 29km of piste
Set at the far end of the Chamonix valley, Vallorcine is an unspoilt resort that has retained the charm of a traditional mountain village while catering for the needs of skiers and summer tourists. It is made up of several hamlets tucked away in the foothills of the mountains close to the Swiss border.
Vallorcine is also home to a couple of lovely, atmospheric restaurants – Le Café Comptoir and Les Trois Ours. In the village everyone is really friendly and the local ski area of Le Tour/Balme is usually less busy than Les Grands Montets or Brévent/Flegère so it is almost like having your own private mountain.
Ski: Vallorcine has a modest 29km of its own skiing, but the lift system brings you up to the 2250m of the Tete de Balme from where you can ski down to Le Tour. The view from the top is spectacular with views of the entire Chamonix valley and its surrounding mountains, with pistes ranging from wide gentle descents to steeper more challenging forest runs lots of off-piste possibilities.
From the village you can also easily reach Chamonix, Argentiere and Les Houches by train. Alternatively, you can drive over to Verbier or Courmayeur for the day in only 45 minutes if road conditions are reasonable.
Stay: L’Ours Bleu is in the best location in the village, right in the centre of this peaceful resort.
What Else? Snowshoeing, ice-skating and a groomed tobogganing hill.
1430–2600m, 150km of piste
The resorts of the Maurienne Valley are generally quieter and less expensive than the more famous resorts in the neighbouring Tarentaise and Valmeinier is a great example. Home to lots of slope-side accommodation, it’s ideal for families with little ones who want to ski from the door.
Ski: It is directly linked on piste to better-known Valloire, and the skiing is divided between three areas on adjacent mountains. It’s best suited to intermediates but there is plenty of terrain here to keep experts happy.
Stay: Le Thabor apartments are spread up the hillside above the village, offering unique views of the resort whilst benefiting from a ski-in ski-out location.
What Else? parapente, speed-riding (combination of freestyle skiing and parapente), microlight, dog-sledding, snake gliss, night-skiing.