Value for Money 70%
There’s far more on offer here than anyone has the right to expect from a budget-skiing destination – especially if you include the day-trips up the valley to Bonneval-sur-Arc 30 minutes away and other neighbouring resorts in the Maurienne Valley.
Xavier Schouller, MD of Portsmouth-based ski-drive specialist Peak Retreats, knows a thing or two about skiing in France.
“I first stayed in Val Cenis in 1975, with my parents,” he says. “They had picked the resort as it was great value and had an excellent snow record. As I had such fond memories of the resort I decided to take my own family on holiday there.
The children still talk about their trip by snowcat to the Le Relais du Col mountain restaurant for lunch. My then eight-year-old loved our off-piste outing above the frozen lake of Mont Cenis, whilst my then four-year-old daughter remembers racing all the way down the 10km Escargot green slope, allegedly the longest green slope in Europe… and incidentally a road into Italy in summer. We stayed at Les Chalets de Flambeau for no other reason than it was the best accommodation in the resort.
Here’s my advice on making the most of a holiday to Val Cenis.
Table of Contents
- 1 Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
- 2 There’s much more than just skiing here
- 3 Guide to the Mountain
- 4 Where to Learn
- 5 Where to Stay
- 6 Where to Eat
- 7 Where to Party
Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
The resort of Val Cenis is the hub of the Maurienne Valley and if you’re looking for a picture postcard holiday, you’ve found it. The view from the area’s second-highest peak, which overlooks Lac Du Mont Cenis and onwards into Italy, is extraordinary.
As ski areas go, the Haute Maurienne valley, in the Parc National de la Vanoise, has a more historic setting than most, and is anything but purpose-built. Imagine a scaled-down Serre Chevalier – without the through-traffic in winter – and you’ll get some idea of the multiple-village feel of Val Cenis. Until recently Termignon, the first and lowest of them, was largely bypassed by skiers heading for Lanslebourg and Lanslevillard, but now the terrain is linked by a high-speed chair things are more evenly-shared.
There’s much more than just skiing here
It all fits together remarkably well, with a regular shuttle bus service between villages and lifts. But what Val Cenis does best, in stark contrast to the idyllic but small mountain village resorts nearby, is variety. This is a place that offers much more than just skiing, and quite rightly the resort is proud of the range of activities that I think makes it the number one family destination in the area.
For Val Cenis also offers the chance to try a wide range of mountain activities in small groups, via half-day taster sessions. Possibilities include freeride and off-piste skiing, snowshoeing, ice-climbing on frozen waterfalls, parapente descents and heli-skiing, with custom special-interest options available on request.
In winter there’s a definite total-immersion feel, as the road at the upper end of the valley over the 2670m Col de l’Iseran to Val d’Isere becomes impassable beyond Bonneval-sur-Arc – and the ancient route into Italy via the Col du Mont Cenis takes its place among the groomed pistes.
For an added bonus, come when the valley hosts international dog-sledding teams for a leg of the annual Grande Odyssee. With its high plateau, the area is ideal for having a go at dog-sledding yourself.
Small (but not that small), friendly and a fun place to be a part of
Despite offering a quality skiing experience in an unspoilt setting, Val Cenis has long been something of an alternative choice, and limited in its appeal by a lack of luxury accommodation.
But things have changed in recent years with the arrival of chalet-style apartment developments offering the range and standard of premium services more frequently associated with major-league alpine ski villages. The result is an appealing package of tradition-meets-sophistication, which might finally see Val Cenis getting the attention it deserves.
Guide to the Mountain
There’s a modern left system here and much of the 125km of ski area is shielded from adverse weather conditions by thick forest of the kind normally seen in North American resorts. This is a great place in which to find your feet, take in the sights and enjoy a friendly, low-pressure ski experience. Even during peak hours there is never a queue.
Just beyond the head of the valley is Val d’Isere, so you’d expect snowfalls here to be similarly dependable. Mostly they are, although occasional overnight gusts followed by morning sun can leave higher rocky outcrops exposed. The pistes, though, tend to hold up well and are sheltered lower down by tall pine and larch forests. Above them, big views along the valley provide a dramatic backdrop to skiing here, but are eclipsed as soon as you peer over the ridge of l’Oullon de la Tomba (2800m) to find the vast bowl of the Lac du Mont Cenis suddenly spread at your feet.
In December 2016 when most French resorts were suffering from a draught of natural cover, Val Cenis was half-buried and offering superb skiing along with Val d’Isere and it’s near neighbours of Bardonecchia and Sestriere across the Italian frontier. All these resorts benefit when precipitation moves northwards from the Mediterranean and first strikes the peaks in the region. “
The steeper terrain up here is mostly red and blue-graded, but well within the capabilities of most intermediates. Although advanced skiing is limited, there’s some good north-facing off-piste terrain and two freeride circuits. From the top of the ungroomed Michèle Jacot or the Moraine slopes, you can try the powder and bumps.
Less-confident skiers can board the Vieux Moulin gondola from just below Lanslevillard and enjoy the green-graded Familial piste before feeding onto the aptly-named l’Escargot – Europe’s longest green run.
From here on down it doesn’t get any easier (or slower), but if you should hit this by mistake and want to push on you can make a speedy red-run exit back down to Lanslebourg. Here the six-person Turra chair-lift (followed by an onward four-seater) heads over to Termignon’s terrain, which tops off at 2465m.
The Grand Coin sector rewards you with a wild, away-from-it-all setting for its red- and blue-graded pistes. One of the blues – Forestière – offers a memorable hairpin descent through the tree-line to pick up the Roches Blanches chair-lift for Flambeau and Traverse – the long blue return cruisers to Lanslebourg.
Or you, could, of course, take the Turra lift back and enjoy the scenery. If you do this at the end of the day be sure to wrap up warmly, as the valley loses the sun and things cool off considerably. Snow quality-wise, this can work to your advantage if you start off high and sunlit, before working your way lower and/or wider to where lower temperatures maintain firmness.
If you are enthusiastic about discovering as many resorts as possible, consider the Ski Maurienne Sans Frontières a la Carte pass. For more information and current tariffs visit Maurienne Tourism.
Aim high – or drop down through the trees
While there’s plenty of groomed terrain to explore, more experienced riders will probably find themselves heading high and staying there. This rewards you not only with the best snow quality and access to the steeper terrain, but more importantly avoids slower-than-slow progress lower down on green-graded runs like l’Escargot (and the majority of return runs back to the villages).
The good news is that getting there is a quick and painless affair, thanks to a healthy selection of gondolas and chair-lifts above Lanslevillard, where the layout makes drag-lifts avoidable with a bit of advance thinking. It’s less so, though, the further you move along the valley, but they’re not too long until you reach the Grand Coin sector above Termignon.
Here and there you’ll find some great red runs which drop down through the tree-line from the top of the Solert six-seater, or you can add a black first section by heading over to the nearby Plan Cardinal chair-lift – or in the opposite direction, from the top of the Vieux Moulin gondola. Freestylers will find two snowparks, with a natural half-pipe, jumps, rails and two boardercross courses.
You’d be mad not to visit Bessans or Bonneval-sur-Arc, or both
To anyone used to the rattle and hum of modern ski resorts, Bessans and Bonneval-sur-Arc are a revelation. Set at the far end of the Maurienne Valley, these two under-visited and under-developed villages can be reached in summer from Val d’Isere, via the Col de l’Iseran.
But in winter, the pass is closed and the only way up to them is via Val Cenis. Crouched beneath muscular peaks, and a good two-hour drive from Chambéry airport, they have a delicious, end-of-the-line atmosphere. Catch them on a sunny day, after a big dump, and you’ll think you’ve stumbled across a secret kingdom of snow.
One of the top Nordic skiing centres in France
Bessans is the place to try your hand at cross-country skiing. The rough-hewn, higgedly-piggeldy village is equipped with 80km of trails, and a ski school which specialises in the sport. Private lessons, one-day lift passes, and equipment hire from the likes of Tracq Sports are a fraction of what they would cost in a better-known resort.
Even better is to try your hand at biathlon – which involves pinging away at targets with a glorified air-rifle, as you make your way around a cross-country course. It’s a radically different experience from bombing down a piste on downhill skis, and is all the more refreshing for it.
Snowshoeing is also popular here – one of the best ways to enjoy it is at night, on a tour ending with dinner in a remote restaurant.
The resort at the end of the universe
Once upon a time, lots of Alpine ski resorts must have been like Bonneval-sur-Arc. These days, it’s almost unique, and a day-trip to sample its low-key, unhurried atmosphere is a must. (If it’s been snowing, and the weather has come up from Italy, powder hounds should make a bee-line straight for it, too, as storms from the south tend to focus a lot of their snow on its slopes: you may find twice as much powder here as in Val Cenis.)
Non-skiers will like it too – both for its cute village centre, and the chance to go snow-shoeing up to the hamlet of Ecot, perched at 2300m above Bonneval.
It’s also possible to make day trips to other nearby resorts such as Aussois, La Norma and Valfrejus.
Where to Learn
By the end of their first week beginners should be able to manage the 11km Escargots green run (the longest beginner slope in the country), whilst the wide open motorways above the tree-line are typical of a behemoth like Courchevel (minus the on-slope traffic).
ESF Lanslevillard has three offices in the resort. They are reliable and thorough, but may not always have instructors who speak English. Adult group lessons are 2½ hours per session, but shorter in February school holiday periods when they cost slightly less. Book a private lesson over lunchtime outside peak periods and you’ll get a discount.
The International Ski School uses independent instructors and mountain guides and offers a welcoming personalised service, with group ski lessons limited to a maximum of 10 people and private lessons to suit. Classes are taught in French and English. The ski school organises special classes for disabled skiers.
Family skiing in Val Cenis
Val Cenis is a great family resort with skiing to suit all abilities, a snow park and boarder cross area for teenagers and two recreation areas fitted out with snow and games for six to 10 year-olds. There are reductions on ski passes for large families and parents purchasing two six-day passes will get one free six-day pass for a child under 12 (applies outside French school holidays only).
The ESF Piou-Piou Club accepts children from three to five years of age. The children have a protected snow garden with a wooden chalet and magic carpet. Children from five to 11 years advance quickly in the ESF system with the Bear Cub (beginners) or Snowflake (those who’ve skied for one season).
Nurseries in Lanslevillard and Lanslebourg offer activities every afternoon to suit various age groups including outdoor snow-games and walks for three to six year-olds. Les P’tits Loups nursery in Lanslevillard is for six months to six years, and Les P’tits Marrons (33 479 05 80 01) nursery is in Lanslebourg and accepts little ones from three months to six years. It is strongly advised to book in advance at either nursery. Open during French school holidays only, the children’s club Les P’tits Durs (33 479 05 96 72) in Lanslevillard offers an exciting programme of activities including meeting sled dogs, snowshoe walks and ice-skating.
Where to Stay
In 1967 the medieval villages of Lanslebourg and Lanslevillard were linked to create Val Cenis. Both villages are full of history, with Baroque art and architecture and some lovely old chapels. Today the resort has added three more villages: Bramans, Sollières-Sardières, and Termignon (the latter is connected to the ski area by high-speed chair-lift).
Most of the accommodation in the resort is in self-catering apartments, but there are also a few simple family-run hotels and B&Bs.
Places to stay in Lanslebourg
La Vieille Poste is a friendly little hotel on the main street, 100m from the lifts. Its restaurant specialises in local Savoyard cuisine such as fondue and pierrade, with the addition of steaks, frogs legs and snails. Hotel Saint Charles Restaurant & Spa was new in 2016 and has an indoor pool and spa facilities.
Les Alpages de Val Cenis is a ski-in, ski-out residence at the foot of the slopes in Lanslebourg. The many facilities include free access to the outdoor heated swimming-pool and fitness room. There is a bar and lounge with log fire and a restaurant; full and half board packages can be booked.
…and in Lanslevillard
This is the most charming of the villages and there is a good choice of places to stay. Les Balcons de Val Cenis Village is a short walk from the centre of Lanslevillard, the gondola and ski schools, offering comfortable accommodation at the foot of the slopes. The stylish apartments are fitted to a high standard and there is an on-site restaurant.
Les Balcons du Val Cenis le Haut is situated at the end of the village, but still close to the amenities – the Val Cenis en Haut gondola and green-graded piste is just 100m from the door (although uphill when you’re returning at the end of day). The property is decorated in an attractive alpine style with spacious apartments.
Two-star Hotel Etoile des Neiges is a welcoming place in the heart of Lanslevillard with 22 comfortable rooms and three apartments, some of them with a terrace or balcony. The in-house restaurant, Le St Landry, offers a traditional Savoyard menu and good value half-board options. The hotel also houses Le Pub le Soleillour.
Half-way between the two villages is the star property of Val Cenis: Les Chalets de Flambeau. Built five years ago, the four-star residence is located at the foot of the slopes near the Pré Novel chair-lift. It has a lovely indoor swimming-pool, a children’s paddling-pool, and a spa.
Bonneval and Bessans
Auberge d’Oul was built in the mid-17th century in the middle of Bonneval and has a few simple but cosy bedrooms sleeping two to four people, and a dormitory for seven, plus an excellent restaurant. The specials include carré d’agneau au génépy. In Bessans, Chez Mamie Anna has five bedrooms and a sauna.
Where to Eat
There are six on-mountain snack bars and restaurants in Val Cenis, and these tend to be good value. They include Chalet La Ranova in the Arcelle area above Lanslevillard, and Chalet La Fema at the top of the Vieux Moulin gondola and near the red piste of the same name. Le Refuge is at the summit of the Ramasse chair-lift and at the start of the longest green run in Europe – l’Escargot.
Try to visit Le Relais du Col, which welcomes skiers and walkers all year round to its bar/restaurant. It’s situated amid stunning scenery at one of the most impressive natural gateways on the old cross-border route into Italy and can be reached by snowcat. Specialities include Assiette du trappeur (trapper’s plate) and Tarte au Beaufort de Val Cenis (cheese tart). If you want to descend for lunch, head for Lanslebourg, which has some convenient cafes at the foot of the slopes.
Where to go in the resort
Lanslevillard has most of the restaurants. Try Le Terroir Savoyard for typical mountain food (they do takeaways and have an in-house ‘food boutique’) and a delicious lamb tagine. La Bergerie is a rustic restaurant, whilst L’Arcelle serves pizza, raclette and fondues. L’Etoile des Neiges serves traditional Savoyarde dishes and has an open fireplace.
In Lansleboug the choice includes La Tata’Tine (+33 479 56 88 35), which serves Savoyard dishes in a cosy atmosphere: “Super little restaurant with everything home-made,” said a reporter. The ice cream is particularly recommended. Gite d’Etape le Toët has a beautiful terrace facing Mont Cenis lake and provides delicious sandwiches, crepes and mountain specialties. La Chouette (+33 479 05 86 16) is for pizzas. Goûter a la Ferme is where the local farms welcome visitors for a local gouter (tasting) with hot chocolate, tea, and home-made cakes.
Eating out nearby
The popular L’Estanco in Termignon serves local produce such as cheese and charcuterie platters, traditional mountain dishes such as tartiflette, croziflette, diot (sausages from Savoie) and polenta. It has a good atmosphere with live music on some nights and dancing after dinner. Auberge d’Oul, in nearby Bonneval-sur-Arc, has traditional hearty mountain cuisine served in a friendly atmosphere. Le Criou (+33 479 05 97 11), also in Bonneval, is one of the best restaurants in the valley.
Where to Party
The villages have a friendly atmosphere, particularly Lanslevillard, but this is not party central. The nightlife is very low key, but the many restaurants and bars, two cinemas, two ice-rinks and two discos keep its mainly family clientele happy enough. The most popular places include Howard’s Pub (+33 669 39 28 95) which is a late-night bar with tapas and burgers, and Bowling 1480 (+33 479 05 21 87) which attracts a teenage crowd.
Le Petit Chalet (“The food was awesome for such a small place” was just one of the favourable comments on TripAdvisor), l’Alpazur and La Vielle Poste are a bit smarter. There is a nightclub in Lanslevillard called La Cle des Champs. In Termignon, L’Estanco has live music on some nights and dancing after dinner.
But what Val Cenis does best, in stark contrast to the idyllic but small mountain village resorts nearby, is variety. This is a place that offers much more than just skiing, and quite rightly the resort is proud of the range of activities that we think make it the number one family destination in the area.
Lots of activities outside skiing
With its high plateau, the Haute Maurienne Vanoise is ideal for dog-sledding. A 30-minute introduction can be enjoyed by children as young as two years old. Dog-sledding is at the heart of the heritage here, and Val Cenis plays host to La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc, one of the tougher international dog-sled races in the world because of the topography of the mountain it covers.
A 30-minute introduction with Husky Adventure can be enjoyed by everyone, including children as young as two years of age.
Cani-raquette, an activity that combines snowshoeing with dog-sledding to brilliant effect, is also available. Adults and children from 12 years old wear a harness that is linked to the dogs with a reign, allowing you to steer them. Certain to be plenty of fun if the weather on the hill gets nasty, or if you’re just looking for something a bit different.
Lots of non-skiing activities
If you fancy winding down at a spa, there are a few options. The Aqua Spa (+33 479 20 64 44) at Les Alpages de Val Cenis residence in Lanslebourg opens every day except Saturday. Book a massage or one of treatments. Espace Forme Valfontaine is situated between the villages of Lanslevillard and Lanslebourg, opens every day and has a hammam, Jacuzzi, and massage treatments.
For the more energetic, Parc des Glières Leisure Centre (+33 479 05 89 32) has an artificial ice-rink, indoor swimming-pool with whirlpool, an indoor climbing wall and aquaform sessions. The Centre is open every day except Saturday and has disabled access to the pool. Note that swimming caps are compulsory and men must wear swimming trunks, not shorts (a common requirement in France).
There’s also ice-climbing on frozen waterfalls, paragliding, canyoning, a 900-m long toboggan run, and ice-diving under the lake. You can also go tubing, try wing-jumping, airboarding, snakegliss, yooner, snooc, fatbike, snow-kiting, jump onto a big air bag, and snowshoe.