A cheaper franc, well-run resorts and some fantastic family offers are luring skiers back to the French Alps, writes Richard Holledge
Here's a confession. I like Les Menuires; that monstrosity of a ski resort - all concrete and car parks - which straddles the busy road from Les Moutiers in the Val-d'Isere to the less abrasive charms of Val Thorens.

The resort sums up so much of the good, bad and ugly of French skiing. Its runs are among the most interesting and the most difficult in the Trois Vallees - the vast ski region that has 200 lifts and 600 kilometres of prepared pistes. Surprisingly it also has the jolliest and most picturesque of the area's mountain cafes.

Les Menuires also has some of the worst architecture ever to be perpetrated on a public whose vision of a ski resort usually owes so much to the chintz and chic of Switzerland; this resort is matched in starkness only by the vast tenement block of La Plagne's Aime 2000 and, of course, the hectic high-rise blocks of Tignes.

But, then, the French decided years ago that mountains were there to be walked on, climbed on, and skied on and that they would open up the maximum amount of mountain for as many people as possible to use with the minimum of effort. Hence apartment blocks with rooms so small that they would make a battery hen feel stressed, and great swathes of motorway skiing that make even the most ungainly feel as if they are a second Jean- Claude Killy - even if they don't actually ski like one.

There's no doubt that France is the best country for skiing novices and for children. Many of the resorts are built directly on the slopes so that you do not have that wearying tramp to the lifts, slip-sliding under the awkward weight of skis. They also have runs and lifts that neatly interlink. What's more, I've always found that the French resorts cater extremely well for families. Every resort has a kindergarten, often offering ski-instruction that is specially geared to the future champions in their charge. Mum and dad can ski all day without being held back, and return from the pistes glowing with health and vin chaud ready to be loving and attentive parents.

If you book a package holiday with an apartment included in the price, it is one way of economising on extras - although most holiday-makers now spend a fortune in the burger joints so loved by the French skier of the Nineties, or in the resort supermarkets where the prices are astronomical.

Many of the larger French resorts are located at such high altitudes, it is rare that they suffer from the snowlessness of Austria.

This year, the French - no doubt challenged by the fact the British like to seal themselves hermetically in their chalets away from all the foreigners - have launched a determined billboard campaign. Posters boast proudly: "Shock new findings suggest French are wonderful people."

But more important to the French ski industry than a desire to be loved is its need to compete with Italy, which has had two seasons blessed with marvellous snow and a generous exchange rate, and with North America. Both the US and Canada invariably have good snow not to mention the fabled powder. They also combine their "have-a-nice-day" philosophy with efficient lifts, few queues, imaginative lessons and unfailing charm.

The French ski industry's latest advertising may not be enough to overcome any latent Francophobia, so it has incorporated in its campaign a terrific offer for families skiing in France in January. The Rhone-Alpes area, which includes resorts such as Alpe-d'Huez, Chamonix, Courchevel, La Plagne and Val-d'Isere, is giving away free accommodation, ski-pass, ski-school and gear for seven days. Many British operators have come in on the scheme, although not all the brochures were printed in time to publicise the fact.

Add to this offer an improvement in the exchange rate - some observers think the franc might even hit the dizzy heights of 10 to the pound - and it seems hard to imagine why anyone would ski anywhere else in the New Year.

But, there's a but. It seems that France's very efficiency at running its ski resorts somehow counts against it. You sometimes crave the idiosyncrasies of Badgastein in Austria with its thermal baths or even Kitzbuhel with its antiquated lift system. You long for the inconvenient charm of Murren or the erratic snow levels of Champery in Switzerland or anywhere in the Dolomites.

But France has its quirky quiet corners, too. As you head towards Val- d'Isere, look across the valley to your right and you will see the little huddle of houses and the spire that belongs to Villaroger. Two bars, two cafes and a couple of chalets, and that's your lot. The joy of the place is that you can take a 10-minute chair-lift ride and ski directly into mighty Les Arcs .

And since I am so perversely fond of Les Menuires, one can make the most of its skiing and indeed the whole of the Trois Vallees by staying further down the valley at St Martin de Belleville. The locals make their own cheese there: it feels like a proper village with some pleasant hotels and a decent restaurant or two.

In fact, in the pursuit of quiet corners, it's not a bad idea to buy a decent map or even study the piste maps carefully. That way you might decide to opt for the one-time farming community of Montchavin instead of one of La Plagne's main resorts. Or you could try La Chapelle d'Abondance down the road from Chatel. It boasts the delights of Les Cornettes, one of the finest restaurants in the French Alps. Or while we're on the subject of food, why not stay at Courchevel 1300 instead of the crazily expensive 1850. The lower resort is far prettier and is the home of another excellent Alpine restaurant - Le Bistrot du Praz.

It's possible really to tuck yourself away on the fringes of the Portes du Soleil at the Hotel Les Sapins. It is a small, family-run classic French village hotel, on the edge of Lac Montriond with first-class food and prices ranging for pounds 12 to pounds 25. A navette takes the skier to the foot of the slope which connects to the 630-kilometre high mass of slopes. Why stay in flashy rackety Avoriaz when you can get a taste of the real thing?

For a complete list of travel companies taking part in the Kids for Free offer contact the French Tourist Office ,178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0171-491 7442).

Comments