“Where is best and the most enjoyable ski slope in the whole of France?” we asked Chamonix mountain guide Yves Detry. Yves knows a thing or two about skiing the deep and steep – he was the first man to ski the seemingly impossible north face of the Aiguille du Midi. “That’s easy,” he replied, “it’s in the Grand Massif.”
Yet the Grand Massif, one of France’s largest ski areas with 265km of linked piste is relatively unknown to British skiers. Sure, we know about Flaine, but that’s only one of the five very different resorts that provide a huge variety of terrain within little more than an hour’s drive of Geneva. What about Samoens, Morillon, little Sixt Fer a Cheval, and Les Carroz?
All of these resorts make superb bases for exploring the region. First, a local geography and history lesson: Flaine, is the original resort and still the capital of the Grand Massif. It was built in the 1960s in a natural bowl in the mountains here and the ski area was developed with the help of the great former world ski champion Emil Allais, who died aged 100 in 2012.
Its proximity to Mont Blanc means that Flaine and indeed the whole of the Grand Massif benefits from the ‘fridge’ effect surrounding the highest mountain in Western Europe. The skiing only goes up to 2500m but the resort’s snow record – even in the worst years like 2010-11 – has been great.
The skiing here is in a big snowy bowl. It’s great for beginners, families with young children, and intermediates. A new gondola in the Aup de Veran sector gets rid of an old bottleneck and allows a much-improved flow of skiers around the bowl.
But keen skiers will want to venture further afield. The Grands Vans chair takes you out of the bowl and into the rest of the Grand Massif.
Les Carroz, at 1200m in the neighbouring valley, is 400m lower than Flaine. But the wooded slopes above the village and the open bowl above usually hold the snow well and offer some superb skiing, both on and off-piste. Next along is Morillon, which is in two parts: Morillon village in the valley is the original farming community and the place to stay, while Morillon 1100m (Les Esserts), reached by gondola provides swift access to the main skiing of the Grand Massif.
Further along lies Samoens. The charming old town on the valley floor has a high standard of accommodation and is a good place in which to base yourself, but it isn’t a ski-in, ski-out resort. You have to catch a cable-car from the outskirts of town up to the ski base at 1600m the beginning of the day, and back down again at the end of it.
Finally there’s Sixt, an ancient village tucked away in quite extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful surroundings. If you are an expert skier looking to maximize daily mileage, this is not the place to stay – but no ski trip to the Grand Massif is complete without a visit. This is best achieved by one of our favourites blue runs in the Alps. You start from the top of the Flaine gondola and follow the long Les Cascades piste for a full 14km all the way down to Sixt for a long lunch. Later, you can explore Sixt’s own little six-lift ski area before taking a bus ride back to Samoens or Morillon for re-entry into the main Grand Massif system.
So where exactly do you find the best slope in the Grand Massif, and indeed in the whole of France? “I’m not going to tell you, that’s my secret,” says Yves Detry. “But I’ll give you a clue – my wife comes from Les Carroz.”