Going freestyle in the French Alps

Les Arcs is a true ski-in, ski-out resort – and its hidden, pristine slopes are a boon for the adventurous boarder, says Matt Carroll
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The Independent Travel

My contention is this: that a trip to Les Arcs is the most stress-free ski holiday you can go on. Of course, ski breaks aren't supposed to raise your blood pressure, but let's face it: they often do. Before you even get near the slopes, there's the schlep to the airport, the endless queues, ambiguous luggage rules and consequent excess baggage fees. Then there's the painfully long transfer to the resort (which I often spend trying to fend off travel sickness as the coach winds its way up mountain roads with the heating on full-blast). But a trip to Les Arcs is different, because you get there by train.

I decided on the rail option not because I was trying to cut down the size of my carbon footprint – though that's obviously a helpful side-effect – but because I want to simplify things, to cut back on all that airport-oriented travel tension. So, after a leisurely breakfast, I rolled into St Pancras with an hour to spare before my train left. Had I been at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted, I'd have been on my third queue by this point; as it was, I headed straight to the champagne bar upstairs for a quick glass of Buck's Fizz, accompanied by a soundtrack of popping corks, clinking glasses and the whirr of tiny wheels on suitcases.

This is how travelling is supposed to feel: like you're on the threshold of something new, unknown and exciting. I strolled on to carriage seven of the 10am service from St Pancras, sat back and waited for the scenery to roll by. England turned to France, small undulations became Alpine foothills and eight hours after leaving London, we rocked up to Bourg-Saint-Maurice. I strolled down the platform to be met by a driver; all that remained was a half-hour cruise up the mountain, to my apartment in the village of Arc 1950.

This is the newest of the Les Arcs resorts, completed last December. The brainchild of North American company Intrawest, the people behind Whistler in Canada, it's now a ski-in, ski-out self-catering idyll. The last time I'd come here – shortly after the first accommodation opened in 2003 – I'd found it characterless. Things have moved on in Arc 1950, however. There's now a boucherie, a supermarché and several swanky bars and restaurants to choose from. What's more, there's a real atmosphere. Strolling the car-free streets, with the smell of wood smoke and roasting marshmallows wafting across the frozen air, it suddenly felt like the Alpine village it was purporting to be.

Arc 1950 may be the most upmarket resort of the Les Arcs bunch, but once you're here you can live surprisingly modestly. A humble lasagna costs about €14 (£10.75) in the Il Valentino restaurant, but I discovered that you could feed yourself for a week for €70 (£54) if you shopped in the Spar across the square. There was something very satisfying about spending all day out in the fresh air, then coming home in the evening, rosy-cheeked, to prepare a feast with my own hands.

More important than any of this, though, was the fact that there was snow. Lots of it. While the 2006-07 season was generally disappointing in the Alps, this winter brought wave after wave of the fluffy white stuff. The flakes started falling the moment we arrived and didn't stop for the next two days. Having woken up at 6am and peered out of the window like an over-excited kid on Christmas morning, I wolfed down breakfast, grabbed my board and headed straight for the nearest ski lift.

Which turned out to be 150m from my door. In Arc 1950, "ski-in, ski-out" means exactly that. Even if you're on a snowboard. Getting going required no embarrassing penguin-like flapping of my arms; I simply strapped in and set off on my merry way. With this being my first run of the season, I made it a nice easy one. Just a short slide from the village are two lifts providing access to a number of gentle blue runs that wind their way down the mountain in no particular hurry.

While a large proportion of people obsess about "doing" black runs and sniffing out powder, sometimes there's nothing wrong with simply cruising. Especially when the pistes were as quiet as they were in January. Having strapped in, slid my goggles into place and assumed the position, I proceeded to lay out some huge, satisfying turns that took up the whole width of the slope.

With the snow continuing to come down, even after the piste basher had smoothed everything, there was a lovely layer of fresh fluff sitting on top of the corduroy. Perfect for kicking up a shower of champagne behind me as I sped back down towards the lifts.

Les Arcs may have plenty of runs to choose from – 200 kilometres of skiable terrain in total, not including the neighbouring ski area La Plagne, which makes just under one half of the enormous Paradiski area – but it's refreshingly easy to find your way round. Even for someone as inept at reading a piste map as myself.

Having taken the Les Marmottes lift up to the halfway point for my warm-up run, I arrived back at the bottom just in time for the opening of Bois de l'Ours, which had an unblemished stretch of powder lying directly underneath running the entire length of one face.

One of the most frustrating things about European resorts is the fact that any piece of virgin snow is normally defiled in less than an hour. Yet at 11am, I was facing the prospect of an untarnished powder run just five minutes away from the village. I had to get involved.

While everyone else seemed to be sticking to the groomers that led down to the nearby village of Arc 1800, I double-backed and dropped in to knee-deep powder. With the snow still bucketing down, visibility was reduced to just a few metres; I was forced to feel the steep sections and flat spots using my feet alone.

I wasn't about to complain. Having made it through the first section with only one "face-plant", right under the lift), I found myself entering a gully that led into trees. These acted as markers back down to the bottom of the lift. Mission completed.

After turning round to admire my freshly made tracks, I couldn't resist lining up for another go. By now, however, every other boarder for miles had cottoned on. So after a few more runs, I decided to carry on over towards Arc 1800, where the hills are streaked with long, languishing reds and blues. And that is how it continued for the rest of the week: my days were spent sniffing out new runs and exploring short cuts between the trees.

No matter how far I roamed, I was always able to nip back to the apartment for a quick snack, and on a couple of evenings I even dined out. My favourite eatery was La Table de Lys, a swanky place with chocolate-brown walls and black-shirted waiters. It wasn't cheap, but the food was delicious, especially the lamb chops with a jus of Moroccan spice. So what if the service was a bit below-par? Given my low, low stress levels, I wasn't about to complain.

Traveller's Guide:

GETTING THERE
Eurostar's Ski Train (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) operates from London St Pancras and Ashford to three destinations in the French Alps, terminating at Bourg St-Maurice. Daytime and overnight journeys are available between December and April. The writer travelled in Leisure Select, for which the lowest return fare is £269; in standard class, the cheapest ticket is £179.
One week packages to Arc 1950 are available with Erna Low (0845 863 0525; www.ernalow.co.uk) from £344 per person, based on six people sharing a two-bedroom self-catering apartment and including a return journey on the Eurostar ski train. A six-day Les Arcs ski pass costs £150 through Erna Low.

STAYING THERE
Résidence le Prince de Cimes, Arc 1950 (00 33 4 79 04 19 50; www.hmc-hotels.com).

EATING & DRINKING THERE
Restaurant Il Valentino, Refuge du Montagnard, Arc 1950 (00 33 4 79 07 5648).

MORE INFORMATION
Village Arc 1950: www.arc1950.com
Les Arcs Tourism: 00 33 4 79 07 68 00; www.lesarcs.com

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