James Hardiman founded Alpine Elements over 18 years ago. Today it is one of the largest independent ski operators in the UK, taking skiers to destinations in France and Austria.
“I learnt to ski at the age of eight on a school trip,” he remembers. “But within a week I was ripping around with very little instruction – and I was on my way. These days I enjoy skiing with my four children as much as a powder day. They’re aged two, four, 10 and 11, and my four year old is already carving…thanks to lessons with the British ski school New Generation.”
France is a fantastic place to learn to ski or snowboard. The standard of instruction is amongst the best in the world, and many of the big-name resorts are peppered with small, dynamic ski schools – such as New Gen, Magic in Motion, Evo 2 and BASS – who’ll bust a gut to make their clients happy. You’ll pay a premium for their services, but almost everyone who learns with these independent outfits thinks it’s worth it. You often get thoughtful extras too – such as the helpers who accompany the kids groups run by New Generation.
There are other benefits. Book into one of the high, purpose-built French resorts, and you’ll often find the accommodation is ski-in, ski-out: and for families especially that’s a considerable luxury. Increasingly, you’ll find plenty of non-skiing activities to try too. Swimming, tobogganing, dog-sledding, snowmobiling, ice-skating: they’re all great ways to blow off steam at the end of the skiing day. And they’re a useful way to get a beginner – young or old – to relax and start to enjoy themselves again if they’re struggling at ski school.
Below are five resorts that I consider to be great places to learn.
Why? Avoriaz is car-free, all the accommodation is ski-in, ski-out, and it’s home to a good choice of ski schools. They include Evolution 2, Avoriaz Alpine Ski & Snowboarding School, and there’s even Ecole des Parents which offers lessons for six parents at a time to fit in with the childcare hours and meeting places – perfect for families where both parents and children are learning to ski.
What else? A skating rink at the heart of the pedestrianised resort is floodlit until 8pm each day. There’s also night-tobogganing, Segway (a type of scooter with fat wheels), and skydiving if you’re brave.
Aquariaz, the resort’s indoor water park, is the after-skiing highlight. It features lush vegetation and rocks: a river with a variable gentle current, a slidewinder (a sort of aquatic half-pipe), a water playhouse, a large pool with climbing walls, massage benches and an open-air spa heated to 34 degrees. Various fitness classes are held here, including aqua zumba, aqua punching and aqua step.
Stay: The spacious and modern l’Amara apartments are ski-in ski-out with an indoor swimming-pool. From here it is five minute’s walk to the nearest lift and the ski school meeting point.
Why? The primary reason for beginners to come to Les Arcs is for the ski-in ski-out convenience and reliable snow. In most of the villages that make up the resort there is now a choice of at least two ski schools – including Evolution 2. One of the best beginner areas is at Arc 2000, at the top of the ski area – where there are also several long and easy pistes to progress to.
What else? Mille8 is a snow-based multi-activity centre reached in less than three minutes from the centre of Arc 1800 via the new Villards gondola. Access to many of the activities is included on your lift pass and everything is open until 7.30pm, 8.30pm on Thursdays, and 9.30pm from mid-February. It is especially designed to appeal to beginners as it allows them to enjoy the slopes and improve their skiing away from the main pistes.
Stay: Chalet Haute Neiges in Arc 2000 sleeps 12. It is a part of a complex of chalets within a residence and shares a health club that has a swimming-pool, steam room and sauna. It is located close to the shops and bars. Arc 1950 is reached via a short lift, 150m from the chalet, that runs until midnight.
Why? The attractive chalet-style village of Les Gets is an excellent choice for learning to ski – for a start it’s a convenient one hour’s drive from Geneva Airport. The local ski area is perfect for beginners, with lots of gentle rolling pastures. There’s an unusually large choice of around a dozen ski schools for such a small resort as this, including BASS.
What else? A bowling alley, an ice-skating rink, dog-sledding, a cinema and a pottery cafe. Geocaching, which is a bit like a GPS-assisted treasure hunt for adults, has caught on in Les Gets.
Stay: Chalet Seigneurie is half board and sleeps 12. It has a hot tub and is 100m from the ski school, shops and restaurants.
Why? Several of La Plagne’s villages are great for beginners or near-beginners. Partly that’s because of the flattish terrain – good for newbies to the sport. This is also a recommended destination for second- and third-week skiers, who need lots of wide and gentle pistes on which to build their confidence.
A lot of the purpose-built accommodation is ski-in, ski-out, so there’s the added convenience for those who’ve had a few days’ skiing or snowboarding under their belt.
What else? Ice-climbing, airboard, fat-bike, zip-wiring. For a different kind of buzz try Bob Experience set between the villages of Plagne 1800 and La Roche. La Plagne hosted the bobsleigh here during the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics and anyone can take a ride down the 1.5km track and its 19 bends.
Stay: Chalet Michelle in Plagne 1800 is half board, sleeps 12 and is located 150m from the slopes. The bars, shops and restaurants are all close by.
Why? The small, car-free resort of La Tania is set in the woods near the bottom of Courchevel’s lift system. Prices here are some of the lowest in the otherwise pricey 3 Valleys ski area. Nearly all of the slopes are north-facing, so they hold their snow particularly well.
What else? The new Aquamotion water park in Courchevel Moriond (there’s a free ski bus there from La Tania) contains a spa and offers myriad watersports including aqua biking, surfing, indoor and outdoor swimming-pools, a climbing wall and gym. You can try Geocaching here, too.
Stay: Hotel Montana is ski-in ski-out and 20m from the shops and bars. It offers half board accommodation and has a health club with hot tub, pool, sauna, steam-room, gym, as well as a games room and an in-house ski hire shop.