Travel: French pistes rule again

Despite the competition from cheaper Italian skiing resorts and fashionable North American ones, France is as popular as ever among British skiers.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a marketing man from one of the "big six" ski operators about his early-season sales figures. Why, I asked, did he think France was proving so popular? His answer was that, in recent years, the market has been distorted, mainly by exchange rates and fashion: it was the cheap lira that attracted skiers to Italian resorts, and the stylish image of North America that seduced both tour operators and their customers. Now, he said, things were merely returning to normal. In other words, France is the country to which British skiers will naturally gravitate.

He should know, I figured; and anyway, the notion struck a chord. The more areas of the world in which I ski, the more I love the Alps. Anyone who believes that Colorado, for example, has more to offer, because of its service, organisation, and (usually) plentiful powder, should go to the top of the Vallee Blanche and look at the view, from below Mont Blanc, before setting out on the descent of 20-odd kilometres to Chamonix. It is an astonishing sight: wave after wave of real mountain peaks, stretching as far as the eye can see - and beyond.

True, the mountains on the Italian side of the border contribute to that panorama; but for Alpine skiing, nowhere can match the French resorts. Take Val d'Isere, for example. It is so popular with British skiers (more go there than to any other resort) that, in the early evenings, it can be like Oxford Circus on late-shopping Thursdays - except that you hear more English spoken. But the huge ski area, with 300km of pistes served by 98 lifts, offers a challenge to those with a taste for off-piste adventure, great skiing for serious intermediates, and at least a few areas suitable for beginners. Even for connoisseurs of ski lifts, Val d'Isere has a special treat, on the switchback ride across the Leissieres. And its height (3656m at the top of the resort), plus its armoury of snow-cannons (240 of them, in all), give it a reliably long skiing season.

The Trois Vallees is an even bigger area, with 600km of pistes, 200 lifts and four main resorts; and although it lacks the tough stuff of Val d'Isere, it is heaven for intermediate skiers and ambitious beginners (it is where I, along with many other Britons, learned to ski). The extensive, high-capacity lift system also means that those who like to use skis for their original purpose, as a means of transportation, are spared the routine of going up and down the same slopes and can journey from valley to valley with ease.

While those two huge areas offer the benefits of size and variety, French skiing also goes to other extremes. Down in the Pyrenees, you can still find small-scale village skiing, far removed from the hectic atmosphere of the big, purpose-built resorts. And up in Chamonix, you are at the height of Alpine skiing, in a heroic landscape of icy gullies and ledges, all of them overlooked by the sharpest peaks.

So what is the downside? A common complaint - and a fair one - is that the resorts in the French Alps lack the atmosphere of many in Austria, where you still pass ancient farm buildings from which emanate the sound and smell of cattle down from the pastures for the winter. Another concern is the quality of service, and the cost of food and drink: this season's Good Skiing Guide admonishes the big-name French resorts for prices which "are spiralling out of control", naming the Trois Vallees as an area where the costs are "unacceptably inflated by greedy locals harvesting the tourist crop without thought for next year's seed".

The recent increase in value of the franc against sterling threatens to exacerbate this problem. A pound will now only buy nine francs, while the exchange rate was close to 10 when the Good Skiing Guide was published, so those "unacceptable" prices will already have increased steeply, at least for British skiers. Paradoxically, the strength of the franc effectively makes this season's packages to French resorts better value, because brochure prices were set when sterling was stronger (First Choice's, for example, are based on a rate of 10.05 francs to the pound). A skier who normally travels independently should consider buying a package instead this season, especially if the pound continues to lose value against the franc, as is expected. As for next year's seed, it may be spread a little more thinly among French resorts.

For one growing group of British skiers, however, the French Alps still offer a particularly good deal. This season has seen a higher proportion of bookings made by families; and for them, the "Kids Ski for Free" promotion will be available (for the third year running) in 25 resorts of the Rhone- Alpes, including the Trois Vallees and Les Arcs. A child under the age of 10, accompanying a British adult spending a week in those resorts (and paying full-price), benefits from free accommodation, lift-pass and equipment hire. For families, the ski-out-and-ski-in accommodation of the many purpose-built French resorts is a great boon, too: children do not welcome a long hike to and from the pistes.

Although it has suffered in recent years from the competition offered by cheap Italian and fashionable North American resorts, France has remained the most popular destination for British skiers. And that is as it should be. Currencies may fluctuate and fashions change, but France is always going to be nearby, and it is always going to have the best ski slopes in Europe.

Rhone-Alpes Tourisme is holding a `Ski Month' until 30 October at the French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1 (0891 244123, calls 50p per minute); attractions include a free ski check and service (26-30 Oct)