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)

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us