The Skiing 85%
Value for Money 63%
It may be another of those fractured, purpose-built French resorts, but the high-quality terrain around it means Les Arcs is a lot better than you’d expect. Intermediates, experts and freestylers will all like it – and all the “villages” are improving, too.
Table of Contents
- 1 Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
- 2 Guide to the Mountain
- 3 Where to Learn
- 4 Where to Stay
- 5 Where to Eat
- 6 Where to Party
Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
If you’re looking for a big French ski area, but you don’t want to pay a fortune to stay there – then put Les Arcs near the top of your hit-list. Set high above the town of Bourg St Maurice, the resort consists of seven mostly purpose-built villages scattered across the massif of the 3226m Aiguille Rouge.
Many of the villages themselves are pretty short on charm (Arc 1950 is an exception): but they are stuffed with cheap(ish) self-catering apartments. And with 200km of high-quality pistes on the doorstep, and another 225km in neighbouring La Plagne – Paradiski is the super-resort linked by the Vanoise Express double-decker cable-car to La Plagne – it’s a compelling package for anyone who wants to ski hard without paying Courchevel or Val d’Isere prices.
The ski area best suits intermediates and experts
Les Arcs’ ski area isn’t as schizophrenic as La Plagne’s next door. But it does favour two types of skier over everyone else: intermediates and balls-to-the-wall experts. The intermediates will have a high old time skiing the long, smooth pistes down to the villages of Arc 1600, Arc 1800 and Vallandry. Meanwhile, the do-or-die brigade will relish the chance to tackle bowls and couloirs on the Aiguille Rouge.
Guide to the Mountain
Think of Les Arcs ski area as two long ridge lines running parallel to one another. One ridge is significantly higher than the other (topping out at the 3226m Aiguille Rouge), and in the middle, between them, is a high-altitude hanging valley. Most of the best skiing is on the north west-facing slopes of these two ridges.
One other important characteristic of the ski area is that although it tops out at 3226m, most of the best pistes are fairly low – between 2400m and 1600m. As a result it’s best skied in midwinter, from the end of the December until the end of February.
Here’s who will like what Les Arcs has to offer, and who won’t:
Intermediates will love skiing the lower slopes
Many of the best pistes in Les Arcs lie above the villages of Arc 1600, Arc 1800 and Vallandry, and most are tree-lined for at least part of their length. They’re broad, well-groomed and confidence-boosting: and when the clouds come down or a storm blows in the lowlights cast by the trees add definition to the snow. So you can still have a blast here when skiers in Val Thorens or Tignes have retreated indoors.
For more confidents skiers, the Aiguille Rouge piste is a classic
The piste drops from the 3226m peak of the Aiguille Rouge, to the far-flung village of Villaroger, at 1200m – that’s more than 2000 vertical in a single thigh-burning descent. It’s one of the best long pistes in the Alps – especially on its lower sections – and most intermediates will be able to tackle it by the end of a week’s holiday.
However, you need to keep a close eye on snow conditions before you try it. The best time to have a crack at it is first thing in the morning after a blizzard – provided the piste-bashers have had time to groom the fresh snow into the pistes. The worst times are when it’s been dry, windy and cold (scouring the snow from the pistes to leave a layer of ice), or when there’s been a thaw, followed by an overnight frost: in that case on the lower slopes you’ll find the slush has refrozen to form a slick, hard-packed surface, which is guaranteed to pick holes in your technique.
Experts will be amazed by the big-mountain descents
The routes off the summits of the Aiguille Rouge, the Aiguille Grive and Mont Pourri (the last of which is not lift-accessed) are the big draw. Most famous among these is the descent off the east face of the Grand Col (a 20-minute hike from the top of the Grand Col chair-lift), into a wide, wild and dangerous snowfield which has claimed the lives of many incautious off-pisters. You’d be absolutely crazy to go there without a guide.
There’s more on the other side of the Vanoise Express cable-car in the neighbouring resort of La Plagne. For more on the area’s outstanding off-piste, get a hold of a copy of Didier Givois’ “Les Cles de Paradiski” written in both English and French.
Apocalypse terrain park, located between Arcs 1600 and 1800, has a snowboarder-friendly J-bar lift. It is reputedly one of the most challenging parks in the Alps. There are ski/boardercross courses above Plan-Peisey and below Col de la Chal.
Beginners and advanced skiers will be less impressed
The best beginner’s area is at Arc 2000, at the top of the ski area – where there are also several long and easy pistes to progress to. However, these pistes do get busy with all kinds of skiers and boarders zooming between the different sectors of the resort, and can be intimidating in busy weeks. For this reason we’d advise heading somewhere like Alpe d’Huez, Mayrhofen, or Courchevel 1650 instead. However, the Mille8 giant funpack is a welcome addition for families. It’s a peaceful area close to Arc 1800 which is dedicated to beginners.
Advanced, but not expert, skiers will find the range of terrain a bit limited too. Yes, the long Aiguille Rouge piste is a blast, but the cable-car to reach it is often closed by high winds. If that happens advanced skiers may find themselves skiing repeated laps of just a handful of runs, off the top of the Arpette lift station, under the Colomborciere chair and immediately above Arc 1600. Whenever there’s fresh snow, however, the options do increase – thanks to the easily-accessed freeride terrain above Arc 1600, Arc 1800 and Peisey-Vallandry.
Beware of the Paradiski hype
But this isn’t a properly interconnected area like the 3 Valleys. The Vanoise Express links two of the most far-flung corners of both ski areas, and getting to the cable-car station from many of Les Arcs’ villages is a schlep. Once you reach the other side, it’s a long commute to the best of La Plagne’s skiing too.
Everyone should try it – especially experts who will want a crack at the off-piste routes on the Bellecote, above La Plagne. But most will visit La Plagne only once. On a normal Saturday-Saturday holiday, we’d recommend going on a Sunday, Thursday or Friday.
Where to Learn
In most of the villages of Les Arcs there is now a choice of at least two ski schools – and the competition between them is raising the standards.
Which ski school you choose obviously depends on which village you’re staying in: but if you’re not a beginner and determined to boost your technique then we’d recommend booking New Generation, the British Ski School, in Vallandry or Arc 2000. It’s more expensive than its French counterparts, but for most people there’s nothing quite like being taught by someone with the same mother tongue and cultural background.
Learn by looking rather than listening?
It’s worth remembering, however, that not everyone learns how to ski in the same way. Some of us learn best by looking rather than listening – and in Welove2ski’s experience, that suits the way the French ski schools like to teach. They’ll do less explaining, and more demonstrating – which gives rise to all those long snakes of skiers you see, following their instructors down the mountain, copying their technique.
Many Brits hate this approach – but not all: and if you know you don’t like being talked at all the time then you might prefer this approach. Bear in mind of course that when a French instructor does talk to you, they’ll talk in English. As a rule of thumb, the smaller, independent French ski schools are more dynamic than the establishment ESF.
Esprit is the best bet for children
For family skiing, the best service comes courtesy of British tour operator Esprit the family-ski specialist which runs chalets in Plan-Peisey and at Arc 2000. Why? Because it offers exclusive ski school classes for the children of its guests, and a maximum class size of eight, even in peak weeks (the norm is 12). The instructors come from the local French schools, but are chosen for their child-friendliness, and if parents aren’t happy, there is usually a good response. Bear in mind though that you have to book your whole holiday with Esprit to get access to the ski school service.
By the way, of Esprit’s two centres of operation in the resort, Arc 2000 is the better bet for beginners.
Families will love Mille8, the giant funpack containing a beginners’ ski area, a junior freestyle course, restaurant, a toboggan run, a waterpark, and much more. Access to many of the activities is included in your lift pass, and everything is open until at least 7.30pm – and until 8.30pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Where to Stay
There are six ‘villages’ in Les Arcs: Arc 2000, Arc 1950, Arc 1800, Arc 1600, Peisey-Vallandry and Villaroger. Arc 1600 and 1800 are in the treelike and overlook the town of Bourg-St-Maurice. Arc 1600 was the first village to be built, located at the top of a funicular up from Bourg. Arc 1800 is the biggest and is still expanding. Arc 2000 and 1950 are close to each other and set in a high bowl above the treeline. All the satellites suit different kinds of skiers and snowboarders.
Arc 1950 is the best all-round village
The first ski apartments in Arc 1950 opened in 2003. It’s the only complete village to have been built from scratch in the French Alps in the last 20 years, and it’s been a great success. The architecture is humbler than normal – and the clever layout means you can ski from virtually every doorway, and walk to every shop, ski hire outlet or restaurant in a couple of minutes. We can’t think of another Alpine village that can match it for convenience.
Almost all the accommodation is in self-catering apartments – courtesy of P&V Arc 1950 Le Village and Radisson Blu. They’re not what we’d call properly luxurious – but they are up-to-date, comfortable and well-equipped, and by French standards quite roomy.
Most skiers will be happy in Arc 1950, with the notable exception of complete beginners – although there is a free lift between Arc 1950 and Arc 2000 which offers better ski runs for novices. The pistes immediately around the village are not quite gentle enough for them. There’s one other group which shouldn’t stay here: skiers who plan to visit La Plagne more than once, on the other side of the Paradiski area. The journey over to the Vanoise Express (the lift that connects the two resorts) is a schlep.
Arc 2000 is the best bet for beginners…and now has a luxury hotel
Architecturally, Arc 2000 is least attractive of the villages. But it is the best spot for beginners, thanks to the flat terrain around it. What’s more, family-ski specialist Esprit runs several apartments as catered chalets in the resort, alongside one of its well-organised nursery and kids’ club programmes. There’s also a swimming pool on the ground floor of the block where it has its chalet-style apartments.
L’Aiguille Rouge is now a Belambra Club, so it’s very French. It offers an extensive range of children, a terrace restaurant and themed buffet, and organised apres-ski activities. There’s a Club Med village up here, too.
New for the 2015-16 season was La Sources des Arcs at the top of the Cabriolet gondola in Arc 2000. It has a wellbeing centre, complete with swimming-pool, sauna and steam room.
And for 2016-17 season the resort’s very first five-star hotel is opening. The Taj I Mah, named after a 115 carat diamond, stars Le Diamant Noir restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Eric Samson. Try his Perigord black truffels served with some excellent wines and grands crus classés.
Intermediates will like Peisey-Vallandry
Peisey-Vallandry villages are close to the link with La Plagne – and home of British ski school New Generation. All in all, it’s a good spot for groups of grown-up, intermediate-level skiers – provided they don’t mind the slightly scrappy, ad-hoc nature of the place. However, we wouldn’t recommend it for beginners or families because the runs into the resort aren’t gentle enough.
The pick of the accommodation comes courtesy of the lovely CGH property, Residence l’Orée des Cimes and Club Med. There are also several mid-range catered chalets here too, courtesy of Ski Beat and Skiworld. Get one as close to the lifts as possible. For example, Chalet Sermoz – run by tour operator Ski Amis – is right next to the Vanoise Express lift.
Arc 1800 has the best nightlife
Arc 1800 is divided into three sectors: Le Charvet, Les Villards and Charmettoger – mostly consisting of apartment blocks and each with a small shopping centre. Le Charvet has spread uphill to the smarter quarter of Le Chantel.
If it’s a hotel you’re after then you could consider the quirky Hotel Le Golf in Arc 1800 – although it is expensive for a three-star. Contemporary style Aiguille Grive Chalets Hotel is a four-star that’s set further uphill, constructed from wood-and-glass with rooms in the main building and half a dozen separate chalets.
There are good self-catering apartments nearby at the P&V Les Alpages de Chantel and at Apart’hotel Eden. Arc 1800 is the old hub of Les Arcs, and has the best nightlife (though that’s not saying much): but it’s a rather linear strung-out spot, and doesn’t hang together nearly as well as Arc 1950.
For low-budget digs Arc 1600 is the place
Arc 1600 is the original village, set in the trees and linked by funicular from Bourg St Maurice. Anyone aged 18-40 on a tight budget should check out the UCPA in Arc 1600. The UCPA is a French “sport for all” organisation, and runs its own all-inclusive, hostel-style centres in several top resorts. Accommodation is in four-bunk bedrooms, and included in the price is your ski hire, lift pass, tuition and full-board accommodation. Don’t consider it if you’ve got your own gear and don’t want any lessons, but for anyone looking for the full package it’s a steal.
Where to Eat
Anyone for tartiflette? Les Arcs is home to several good restaurants – but we do wish there was a bit more variety in their menus. Savoyard specialities are an, er, speciality of the resort, and after a week of eating out here you may turn into cow.
On the mountain, Belliou La Fumee is our favourite
Belliou La Fumee (+33 479 07 29 13), sits at the bottom of the Cascades blue and the Combociere black beneath Arc 1950, in a corner of the resort most people never get to. Built as a bear-hunting lodge by King Victor Emmanuel of Italy in the 15th Century, it’s a little cramped and wonky, but has an open fire, delicious food, has lots of atmosphere and is perfect for the kind of lunch that winds up just before the lifts close.
A couple of other spots which have impressed us are the Chalet de l’Arcelle, just above Arc 1600 and Les Chalets de l’Arc above Arc 2000. Expect plenty of meat and Beaufort cheese. Both are over-priced compared with Austrian restaurants of a similar standard – but have roaring fires and bags of atmosphere. Le Cairn (+33 479 07 79 85) is another good eatery here, serving Italian and Savoyard specialities.
Meanwhile, within Arc 2000 itself Le Savoy gets rave reviews for both food and decor. Like many restaurants in the villages it’s open for lunch as well as dinner, and slightly cheaper than its competitors “on the mountain” – although in a place like Arc 2000 the distinction between resort and mountain restaurants is very blurred.
In Arc 1800, Chez Clarisse is the hot spot
Again the menu is mostly Savoyard: but what singles out Chez Clarisse (+33 479 06 48 34) is the quality of the food and the value for money. It’s open for both lunch and dinner – as is Le Chalet de Candice, which also does good pizza.
Meanwhile, in Arc 1950, La Brasserie de 1950 in the Radisson Blu Resort, is popular with families and La Table des Lys (+33 479 41 64 53) is recommended for its original dishes. Le Vache Rouge (+33 479 00 31 74) is for seafood and meat specialities, and Chalet de Luigi (+33 479 00 15 36) is also recommended.
Where to Party
Les Arcs isn’t one of the nightlife capitals of the wintersports world, like Meribel, Val d’Isere, Verbier or St Anton. The reason why is simple: when the accommodation is split into six separate villages it’s hard to get enough like-minded people into the same place to generate a proper buzz.
Here are the best bars in each village:
In Arc 1600 there’s the bar of the UCPA, Cafe Sol and L’Abreuvoir. In Arc 1800 The Ambiente Cafe (+33 479 07 49 51), and Le J.O. Arc 1950 has Chalet de Luigi (+33 479 00 15 36) – better than Les Belles Pintes.
In Arc 2000 try El Latino Loco, which is located next to the ice rink and features a resident DJ and live music. In Peisey-Vallandry there’s Jimmy’s with a daily happy hour. By the way, both Arc 1800 and Arc 2000 are home to bowling alleys.
Families will love going to Mille8 after skiing. It’s on the slopes at Arc 1800, is open in the early evening, and contains an aqua centre, a lodge with restaurant, a luge course, and snow yoga among many other facilities. It’s open until 7.30pm most days and 8.30pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.