More of us will be hitting the slopes there than in any other country. But even in the most popular resorts, you can avoid crowds, says Hamish McRae

France, for British skiers, is the big one. More Britons will ski in France this winter than any other country, for it has something like 36 per cent of our market. That compares with Austria's 20 per cent and Italy's 15 per cent. It is easy to see why France does so well. It is as convenient as anywhere in the Alps. It is very well organised, with most places having a good bed-to-lift ratio. It has a huge range of different locations, from the hard core to the soft-centre. It is adequately priced: cheaper than Switzerland, though I have always found it more expensive than Italy. And it is not too difficult to eat well. Having done some of the most wonderful runs there - as well in the past as some cheerful holidays with the children - I am always thrilled to go back.

But the very success of the French skiing industry has brought two problems. One is that there are a lot of fellow Britons on the slopes. For some people that is grand, a bit of a comfort in fact. For others, well, it would be nice to feel you are really in a foreign country. The other problem is that because the opportunities are so diverse it is hard to make choices. Even if you are booking a package, as more than half British skiers do, it is tricky to negotiate through the trade-offs between convenience and cost, chalet, flat or hotel and so on. If you are putting together your own deal, which is becoming increasingly popular, you really do need to know what you are doing.

My instinct is to start with the big decision, which is whether you want to go to one of the huge ski-circus areas or whether you want a single, less extensive resort. If you want to ski all day and hardly ever do the same run, France is your heaven. It is better than any other place on the planet. The three "biggies" I know best are the Portes du Soleil region, with Avoriaz as the best-known resort; the Trois Vallées, with Courchevel and Méribel; and the Val d'Isère/Tignes complex. I would add in Chamonix, partly because there is a lot of good stuff in the pisted zones but more because of the Vallée Blanche, that extraordinary 22km run down the glacier beside Mont Blanc.

Any of those complexes will give the good intermediate enough thrills to make the dinner conversation lively. For people who haven't been there, Portes du Soleil gives you the opportunity of skiing in a huge circuit into Switzerland, then back round an enormous loop into France, with only a bit of trudging in between. Take your passport.

If you want to stay in a real town, as opposed to purpose-built blocks of flats, base yourself in a proper town such as Morzine, Les Gets or Chatel. Though it is more of a trek to get into the big system, there is plenty of local skiing there. Avoriaz itself is not particularly brutal by the standards of purpose-built resorts and some people swear by it. My instinct, though, is to go for a real town whenever possible. Alpine charm is not to be underrated.

Almost all British skiers will know the Trois Vallées. Some 45 per cent of the visitors to Méribel, in the centre of the three valleys and the prettiest town, are British. There is nothing wrong with Méribel's location or its charm. Since it is in the middle of the system there is less danger of ending up in the wrong valley, missing the last lift and having a £60 taxi ride to get home.

You can avoid the Brits to some extent by going up to Val Thorens, at the very top of the right-hand valley, where the proportion is only 10 per cent. But maybe not for long. At present it is a great favourite of the Dutch, and I was told by the town authorities that they wanted more Brits, to improve the balance. If, on the other hand, you want to be diluted by well-heeled (and well-furred) French, then Courchevel should suit you fine.

Val d'Isère, made famous by the French champion Jean-Claude Killy, is one of the great iconic Alpine centres, which anyone really interested in the sport should have skied at least once. You head across valley after valley, going up to nearly 3,500m above Tignes and dropping to little more than 1,000m at Brévières. I think the only downsides are that it is a longish drive from Geneva airport and that the straightforward way back to Val d'Isère is down the legendary Le Face, which is long, steep, surprising and black. When I was last there 18 months ago we scrambled down all right but this is not much pleasure late in the day.

As for Chamonix, the thing to be clear about is that, as the oldest ski centre of the lot, it is not particularly conveniently laid out - though it is only an hour from Geneva airport. There are several centres and you really need a car to ferry yourself between them. But if you do have a car in the party, as we did when we were last there, you have not only the celebrated Vallée Blanche but the option of skiing into it from the Italian side.

You drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel, drop off the skiers who then make their way back to the top of the valley from Italy. This is perhaps the most thrilling long off-piste ride available to intermediates. But you do need a guide, particularly if you are approaching from the French side, where there is a hair-raising climb down from the cable car before you start the run.

Suppose you are not heading for one of these big ski areas, what then? We have had several happy holidays in Flaine, one of the least fashionable resorts built of brutalist concrete. But it makes up for this by being very child-friendly, and since all the runs end up in the village there is the added advantage that if you lose one, he or she will end up in much the same place at the bottom.

We also, years back, had a rather miserable time in Les Deux Alpes, which is high and fine as far as the skiing goes, but where we made a bad choice of ski company. For some reason we were in a large British-run chalet and the cook was not only British but a vegetarian. So he never tasted the rubbish he cooked and did not even understand how bad it was. After that, we have almost always stayed (or at least eaten) in French places.

There are lots of other large-ish resorts. I very much want to ski in Megève, which is posh, having been there a few weeks ago for a meeting and eaten about as well as I ever have in my life. There is the Serre Chevalier string of resorts, apparently the fourth-largest region in France, which you get to from Briançon. Far to the south there is Isola 2000, an hour and a half from Nice. And there are many smaller places. It is all a bit bewildering.

There are two solutions to this. One is to use a tour operator, of which the two largest are Crystal and Inghams. The big companies continue to do well but the market is becoming more specialised: there are lots of smaller niche companies springing up. The other is to put things together yourself, which has become vastly easier thanks to the internet and cheap flights - the biggest airline at Geneva airport is easyJet. And you can of course do what we did for several years and drive.

As for choosing places, the best easy guide I have found for pros and cons for different places, as well as which piste is what, is a new little booklet called Snowfinder Guide to France by Hugh Hutchinson and Adam Coxon. Also helpful is the Ski Club of Great Britain, with snow reports and advice.

I suspect this will be a year for being flexible. We may get the ultra-cold winter we have been promised, but if you plan to ski early in the season there might be a good case for waiting to see which resorts get a decent base early on and which are struggling. If you can avoid the French and British school holidays, there will be plenty of accommodation. If you have a car it is never hard to find somewhere you can get in, even in high season.



Crystal Ski (0870 405 5047;
Inghams Ski (020-8780 4433;
easyJet (


The Ski Club of Great Britain (020-8410 2000;
Snowfinder Guide to France, by Hugh Hutchinson and Adam Coxen (£9.95 on Amazon).


Ski France (00 33 1 47 42 2332;
French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123; calls charged at 60p/min;