One of Isère‘s best skiers, photographer and journalist Boris Dufour, has always been a snowsports enthusiast. He says: ‘I love carving wide sweeping turns on the piste, I like speed, but what I prefer is skiing off-piste and powder. Skiing fresh snow gives you a feeling that you don’t get in any other sport.’
‘Isère?’ I hear you say. ‘Isn’t it the smart resort that shares a ski area with Tignes?’ No. It’s an area of the French Alps made up of 23 resorts that are spread across the Vercors, the Oisans, Belledonne and Chartreuse mountain ranges. These vary from small, charming villages to bigger ski stations with extensive terrain. The main resorts are Alpe d’Huez, Les 2 Alpes, Vaujany, Chamrousse, Villard de Lans/Corrençon and Les 7 Laux. The whole region is accessible from Grenoble Alpes Isère airport, which means you can be on the slopes in less than two hours.
One advantage of Isère for skiing is the variety of terrain, atmosphere and altitude. What interests me is skiing, mountains and snow, of course, and there’s plenty of that. In Les 2 Alpes and Alpe d’Huez, you can spend days skiing at over 3000m, you can find routes so long that you won’t see any lift pylons. In Vaujany there’s more of a family atmosphere, but the resort is linked into a big ski area. And if bad weather is on the cards, you can head to the well-spaced pine trees in Chamrousse or Villard de Lans/Corrençon to take advantage of the fresh snow, whilst at the same time remaining sheltered from the blizzard.
Finally, Les 7 Laux offers something really original, and it’s my favourite resort. The terrain here is quite steep with lots of rocks and different gradients. The lifts are placed in such a way that you can access the terrain from all sides, you can even follow the sun over the course of the day. There are dozens of steep couloirs and jumps of all sizes. You can learn freeriding here, and on fresh snow days this really is the place where you take your widest skis to find the best terrain.
Aside from alpine skiing and snowboarding – both on and off-piste, the resorts of the Isère offer a good range of activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dog-sledding – along with the more unusual sports of biathlon and ice-diving. Here is more about each destination:
Les 2 Alpes
With skiing from 1650m up to a heady 3568m, Les 2 Alpes rivals Alpe d’Huez for its vertical drop. The resort is also known for having one of the largest skiable glaciers in Europe, with some easy runs located up on high so even complete beginners can experience snow-sure glacier skiing. There are several ski-touring routes here, one of them tailor-made for tourers: the Parcours des Vallons is well marked and features a 800m vertical drop. Two other routes are located in the Vallée Blanche area.
Another popular activity is to walk along the seven-metre platform that overhangs the Selle Valley (with a gaping 1500m void below you) at the 3400m Ecrins Belvedère to enjoy a 360° panorama of the surrounding mountains. The walkway is accessible to both skiers and pedestrians. There’s also the option of descending from the top of Les 2 Alpes ski area at 3600m to the village of Mont de Lans at 1300m without having to take a single lift – that’s an amazing 2300m vertical drop and 16km of slopes. It’s worth noting that Les 2 Alpes is equipped with 100% electric resort buses.
Where to stay: in the brand-new four-star Les Clarines residence, close to the slopes and lifts, in the heart of the Clarines district. Facilities include an indoor/outdoor pool with a wellness area including a hot tub, sauna and steam room.
Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine ski area
Alpe d’Huez sits at 1860m, with the area’s highest point the Pic Blanc at 3330m. It is part of the Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine ski area with 250km of slopes, and five of the runs have a vertical drop of 2000m or more. The easiest pistes are close to the resort, so beginners can make the most of their learning time. Experienced skiers can take the last lift of the day up to the Pic Blanc at 3300m, then ski down what is one of the longest black runs in Europe – the legendary 16km Sarenne – as the sun sets.
To get people around the resort, Alpe d’Huez has launched the first hybrid bus in the French Alps – the Resalp shuttle bus reduces fuel consumption and therefore helps to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Where to stay: luxury 4-star apartments, Le Cristal de l’Alpe is at the heart of the resort, 200m from the slopes and 50m from the nearest ski-lifts and shops.
Alpe d’Huez has several small satellite villages, for people who prefer a smaller, quieter resort from which to access the Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine ski area and its 250km of slopes. These include Oz en Oisans where you can stay in Le Chalet des Neiges apartments in the centre of the village. These apartments are ski-in ski-out and 100m from the nearest lift.
Another satellite is Auris en Oisans where you can stay in Les Ecrins d’Auris residence, which opened for the 21/22 ski season and is at the foot of the slopes. Facilities include an indoor heated pool, and a wellness area with sauna and steam room.
Vaujany is the best known small and quiet base in the Alpe d’Huez ski area. The farming village has a vast cable-car that whisks you up to 2800m and the heart of the ski area in only 15 minutes. Down in the village, facilities include an impressive sports centre with a swimming-pool complex and an indoor ice-skating rink. Eisstock is a bit like curling; it’s also known as pétanque on ice and is a traditional Alpine sport that has developed in the USA, Canada and South America. Anyone from 10 years old can try one of the free hour-long sessions on offer here. The well-being area in the leisure centre houses Spa de la Fare, featuring hydro-massage, balneotherapy, beauty treatments and massages, a sauna, steam room and hot tub.
Vaujany is one of the Isère resorts to have been awarded the French Station Verte label – meaning that it is committed to sustainable tourism. The label helps promote historical heritage and local traditions, with pedestrianised village centres and free museums. As well as this, the mayors of nine ski resorts in Isère – including Vaujany – have signed a French national charter for sustainable development to preserve biodiversity and natural resources.
Where to stay: in the brand new Residence Le Saphir in the heart of the resort 70m from the cable-car.
Chamrousse, in the Belledonne range, has access to 90km of slopes and an altitude difference of 1200m. State-of-the-art lifts take you up to panoramic views over the Alpes. The famous Casserousse piste is where French sporting legend, Jean-Claude Killy, won Olympic Gold in 1968.
The slopes of Chamrousse overlook Grenoble, and you can ski under the stars while taking in the lights of the city. La Croix cable-car and the Crêtes slope are lit up for the experience. You can also enjoy a drink, a meal, or even a night in an igloo village, and Chamrousse is also the only place in the area where you can try ice-diving. Here you can explore an underwater world beneath layers of ice ranging from 50cm to two metres thick, discovering bubbles, lights, reflections, and amazing colours – in safety with qualified instructors. You can also go night ski-touring from Chamrousse 1650, with a hiking itinerary open from 6pm to 10pm. The trail begins at the foot of the slopes at Recoin.
Chamrousse is the only resort in Isère to have been awarded the Flocon Vert label by Mountain Riders, a non-profit organisation aiming to improve sustainability in the mountains.
Where to stay: the three-star L’Ecrin des Neiges apartments in Chamrousse 1750 are south-facing and have doorstep skiing.
The resorts of Villard-de-Lans/Corrençon have 125km of piste, including some wooded trails through the forest. The Carole Montillet slope in Villard-de-Lans/Corrençon is a challenging black run named after the former ski champion.
Away from Alpine skiing, Villard-de-Lans/Corrençon is also known for its Nordic skiing. It hosts regional and national competitions, and the French Nordic Skiing School of Villard de Lans/Corrençon allows holidaymakers to experience Biathlon – an Olympic winter sport combining cross-country skiing with shooting.
Don’t miss the unusual sight of the Scallop (Coquille St Jacques) Festival in Villard de Lans. Some 35 tonnes of scallops are transported from St Brieuc in Brittany for a festival which includes workshops, tastings and live music. The next festival takes place in March 2022.
Where to stay: Le Splendid is a historic Grand Siècle hotel converted in 2019 into bright, comfortable apartments with a touch of Art Deco style.
Les 7 Laux
Les 7 Laux has striking mountain scenery and is a convenient 35-minute transfer from Grenoble airport. It is made up of three lift-linked villages and 120km of slopes in the Belledonne mountain range. The pistes are highly rated locally and the ski area is home to one of the best snow parks in France, with a BigAirBag and a dedicated lift.
While you are here you can book a session of Cardiac Coherence – it’s a breathing method that regulates the heartbeat in times of stress. It is best practised outdoors, with rhythm variations, energising, relaxing, balancing and breathing associated with movement to harmonise your body and mind with the outdoors environment. And to experience a true feeling of escapism, you can spend a night in the traditional Habert d’Aiguebelle mountain refuge. It’s reached on snowshoes and on arrival you share a meal with your fellow adventurers and then bed down for the night.
Where to stay: Les Granges des 7 Laux in Prapoutel is ski-in ski-out. The building is 200m from the local shops, bars, restaurants and ski school meeting point.
In the winter of 2020/21, when skiers had to discover the mountains in a different way, the region saw an influx of skiers and snowboarders heading off the beaten track. This led the region, in conjunction with the Isère Attractiveness Agency, to initiate a ski-touring restructure policy taking place over the next two years. The project launched in June 2021 and involves setting up ‘counting units’ at the start of marked routes in order to monitor the number of skiers and snowboarders using them. They have also created official departure spots for routes that are compatible with piste skiing. The Isère subsidises the cost of facilities linked to ski-touring such as equipment testing in partnership with Ortovox and Dynafit, avalanche rescue prevention workshops, and encouraging awareness about wildlife in winter. Some 12 pilot ski areas – including Alpe d’Huez, Oz en Oisans, Vaujany, Les 2 Alpes, Chamrousse, Villards des Lans and Les Sept Laux – have set up 33 signposted ski-touring routes for winter 2021/22, and have secured trails suitable for all levels.
The small airport of Grenoble Alpes Isère is the best way to access the region; flights are with BA, easyJet, Ryanair and Jet2, and direct shuttle services from the terminal take you to and from all the main ski resorts.