One of Isère‘s best skiers, photographer and journalist Boris Dufour, has always been a skier. 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 that big, fashionable 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, with the main resorts 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 wide skis to find the best terrain.
Aside from alpine skiing and snowboarding – both on and off-piste, the resorts of the Isère offer activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dog-sledding. Here is more about each one:
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.
Each year, ten sculptors create magical ice sculptures inside a unique 120m-long ice gallery dug under the snow at 2700m. They set a different theme each year.
Where to stay: luxury 4-star apartments, Le Cristal de l’Alpe, are 200m from the slopes.
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 some 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 whilst taking in the lights of the city. The La Croix cable-car and Crêtes slope are lit up for the experience.
The resort offers the chance to enjoy a drink, meal, or even a night in an igloo village. It makes a unique place to enjoy an evening out. 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. Discover bubbles, lights, reflections, colours and contrasts in safety with qualified instructors.
Where to stay: the three-star L’Ecrin des Neiges apartments.
The resorts of Villard-de-Lans/Corrençon have 125km of pistes, 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.
Villard-de-Lans/Corrençon is well-known for its Nordic skiing. It hosts regional and national competitions, but they are also used by the French Nordic Skiing School of Villard de Lans/Corrençon to let holidaymakers experience Biathlon – an Olympic winter sport combining cross-country skiing and shooting.
Don’t miss the odd site of the Scallop (Coquille St Jacques) festival in Villard de Lans. They transport some 35 tonnes of scallops from St Brieuc in Brittany for the festival which includes workshops, tastings and live music. It celebrates its 12th edition in March 2020.
Where to stay: Le Splendid is a historic Grand Siècle hotel converted into bright, comfortable apartments.
Les 7 Laux
Les 7 Laux has particularly attractive 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 range. The pistes are rated by locals and the ski area is home to one of the best snow parks in France, with a BigAirBag and a dedicated lift.
If you want to experience a feeling of escapism, spend a night in the traditional Habert d’Aiguebelle mountain refuge. It’s reached on snowshoes and, once you’ve arrived, you’ll share a meal with your fellow adventurers in groups of 10, and then bed down for the night.
Where to stay: Les Granges des 7 Laux in Prapoutel, which is ski-in ski-out.
Les 2 Alpes
With skiing from 1650m up to 3568m, Les 2 Alpes rivals Alpe d’Huez with its altitude difference. The resort is known for having one of the largest skiable glaciers in Europe. Some of the easiest runs are located on the glacier, so even beginners can experience snow-sure glacier skiing.
There are several ski-touring routes, one of them designed and reserved only 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.
Walk along the seven-metre platform that overhangs the Selle Valley (there is a 1500m void below you) at the Ecrins Belvedère (3400m) in Les 2 Alpes and enjoy a 360o panorama of the surrounding mountains. Both skiers and pedestrians can access the walkway.
Ski from the top of the 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 a 2300m altitude drop and 16km of slopes.
Where to stay: the luxury Cortina apartments.
Vaujany offers a small and quiet base from which to access the Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine ski area and its 250km of slopes. The farming village has a vast cable-car that takes you up to 2800m and the heart of the ski area in 15 minutes. Village facilities include a huge sports centre with a swimming-pool complex and an indoor ice-skating rink.
Eisstock is like curling; it’s also called pétanque on ice and is a traditional alpine sport that has developed in the USA, Canada and South America. You can try it with a free hour-long session. Sessions take place weekly for teams of four or eight (aged 10 and up).
The well-being area in the leisure centre houses Spa de la Fare, offering hydro-massage, balneotherapy, beauty treatments and massages, a sauna, steam room and hot tub.
Where to stay: the brand new Residence Le Saphir in the heart of the resort.
The small airport of Grenoble Alpes Isère is the best way to access the resorts. There are direct shuttle services from the terminal that take you to all the main ski resorts. You can fly into Grenoble during the week – or at the weekend – from London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Dublin and Guernsey, with easyJet, Jet2, British Airways, Ryanair, and Wizz Air.