Skiing: French without tears

In response to competition from the US, French ski resorts are concentrating on flexibility and child-friendliness. Cathy Packe checks out the new developments.
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The Independent Online
Whereas the British head in their millions to France for summer holidays, there has been far less enthusiasm in recent years for skiers to choose the resorts of the French Alps. Odd, this, when you consider that France offers arguably the best skiing in Europe.

Most complaints about France seem to revolve around the lack of charm in many of the resorts. Many offer rooms which the modern tourist regards as too small; most hotels and apartment buildings were purpose-built, with often ghastly architecture out of keeping with the mountain terrain; and there is a lack of ambience in comparison with resorts in Switzerland and Austria. The apres-ski has also been seen as poor, and often overpriced.

However, the weekly Eurostar train from Waterloo straight into the resorts (see opposite), the fact that the pound is still worth close to 10 francs, and upgraded accommodation, have made this the year to think about returning to France - particularly since skiing appears to be less popular among the French themselves. The great variety of terrain means a choice of resorts at all prices, and many UK tour operators are starting to offer trips to the smaller resorts as well as to the larger, better-known ones.

Each ski area in France covers a different mountain range: the Alps, which divide into the Rhone Alps and the southern Alps; the Pyrenees; the Massif Central; the Jura; and the Vosges. There are claimed to be 400 resorts grouped together in 25 interlinked ski areas, which have 4,000 lifts serving 6,000 pistes.

It is now easy to put together an independent skiing trip, but a browse through the brochures gives an idea of market trends. The emphasis is on flexibility, better accommodation and new resorts, with increased attention to the needs of children.

While most operators continue to use weekend charter flights, Powder Byrne's clients can use scheduled flights on any day of the week to the airports of Lyon and Geneva. Alternatively, the company will supply ferry tickets for those wanting to drive to the mountains, and book chateau hotels for overnight stops along the way.

The theme of flexibility is taken up by White Roc, which uses the link between Swissair and the Belgian airline Sabena to route regional flights from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle via Brussels into Geneva.

One of the best offers for families with small children comes through Rhone-Alpes Tourism and the Maison de la France. Twenty-seven French resorts are offering free accommodation for a week to children under 10 accompanied by two paying adults, for the week over Christmas and for three weeks immediately after New Year. Destinations include chic Megeve, and the modern resort of Les Arcs.

Most operators have special programmes for children. Mark Warner is continuing the children's ski school established in La Plagne last year, and is extending it next season to Val d'Isere. Children aged three to 12 can have full- or half-day instruction from English-speaking instructors. Ski Esprit, which operates in some of the bigger resorts, is this year introducing snow rangers - qualified childminders who pick children up from ski school and supervise their lunch and afternoon activities, until parents collect them at 5pm. Eight-to-13-year-olds can go to the Cocoa Club, giving adults a chance to have dinner on their own. But none of these facilities is free; a cheaper option might be to leave the children at home.

But should you choose to leave the nanny at home, you can hire one through Powder Byrne, to meet you in the UK before departure and be available throughout your trip.

Foreign competition is intense, so resorts cannot afford to stand still. Many French resorts have upgraded their lifts to reduce queues. Courchevel, though, is concentrating on promoting its overnight piste-grooming and giving skiers better daily information about weather conditions and the state of the pistes; this service has been on offer for some time in American ski areas, and reflects concern among French resorts about the number of skiers who are finding the Rockies as accessible and affordable as the Alps.

Accommodation in France has also been found wanting by skiers who have been to the US. This year Mark Warner is putting an emphasis on "Chalethotels", with a chalet atmosphere, the extra sophistication of an a la carte restaurant, and a bar - so holiday-makers can escape standard fare from chalet girls who turn out not to be cordon bleu cooks. And Erna Low has taken over the apartment agency Pierre & Vacances, which means a chance to take advantage of local produce, or to try out resort restaurants.

The variety of resorts in France is one of the main selling-points for skiers, and this is particularly relevant for people skiing in groups of mixed ability. Most big resorts have so many different slopes that beginners will find something they can cope with, and those looking for advanced mogul fields will never get bored.

The Trois Vallees - which in fact consists of four valleys - is the most popular area in France, and takes in the resorts of Meribel, Courchevel, Val Thorens and Les Menuires. Courchevel itself is really four resorts, ranging between the chic and expensive Courchevel 1850 to the downmarket Le Praz. The whole thing is linked by a system of 200 lifts, which spill out skiers on to 600km of slopes.

Most of the big operators offer holidays in the Trois Vallees, and Meriski is one of the specialists. Its newest acquisition, the Lodge at Burgin, is advertised as a combination of small hotel and chalet. This year, for the first time, Meriski is venturing away from Meribel. The company has expanded into Courchevel and Val d'Isere, offering a collection of alpine hotels. The emphasis here is on charm and authenticity.

Portes du Soleil is a conglomeration of 13 resorts, of which the best known and most popular is Avoriaz. The drawback to this whole area is that it is not as high as many others, so the snow conditions are less reliable. Morzine, which is part of the complex, is offering floodlit night-skiing next season, which, if weather conditions permit, is a good way of prolonging the amount of skiing time in a short holiday, assuming you have the stamina.

The biggest trend of the winter, though, abetted by Eurostar, is an expansion of the repertoire of resorts. Thomson, for example, is going to Pra Loup for the first time, while specialist operators are focusing on the smaller resorts. La Rosiere, with its gentle slopes, most of which are above the tree line, is served by Erna Low, and this year for the first time by Ski Esprit. As Stephen Wood suggests opposite, the new Eurostar service could change the focus of skiing away from the larger resorts and towards the villagey France that most of us want to visit.

Snowfile

Erna Low: 0171-584 2841

Maison de la France/Rhone Alpes Tourisme: 0891 244123

Mark Warner: 0171-393 3168

Powder Byrne: 0181-871 3300

Ski Esprit: 01252 616789

Thomson: 0990 329 329

White Roc: 0171-792 1188

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