French peaks still the tops

Since the Eighties, France has displaced Austria as our favourite skiing destination, and now, with better facilities, French resorts are making themselves even more attractive, writes Stephen Wood

Last season, more than one in three UK skiers chose to go to France for their holiday; and although its market share did not increase, the country still maintained a gap of 17 percentage points between itself and Austria, which it displaced as the UK's No 1 ski destination some 15 years ago. That's bad news for France's competitors. And it gets worse.

Last season, more than one in three UK skiers chose to go to France for their holiday; and although its market share did not increase, the country still maintained a gap of 17 percentage points between itself and Austria, which it displaced as the UK's No 1 ski destination some 15 years ago. That's bad news for France's competitors. And it gets worse.

For the coming season, French resorts are making themselves even more attractive to skiers. The big news - as noted last week on these pages - is being made in the Tarentaise area, with the winter debut of the Arc 1950 village and the opening of the new link between Les Arcs and La Plagne. But there are also important changes elsewhere, which, in any other season, would have drawn more attention.

For example, the little-known ski area of Les Sybelles, in the Maurienne region between the Trois Vallées and Alpe d'Huez, has spent the last couple of years installing lift links that have now increased the total length of its pistes from 225km to 300km. That may still only be half the skiing available in the Trois Vallées, but it puts Les Sybelles into the big league; and the UK's two major operators, Crystal and Thomson, have responded by adding a couple of the area's villages, St-Sorlin-d'Arves and St-Jean-d'Arves, to their brochures for 2003/4.

Elsewhere, a slew of high-speed chairlifts has been installed, further improving a ski-area infrastructure already unrivalled in Europe. Among the resorts to have new six-seaters this season are Les Arcs, Avoriaz, Les Gets, Les Menuires, Méribel, Serre Chevalier and Val d'Isère - where the "big dipper" Lessières lift (one of my favourite rides, but highly unpopular with those who suffer from vertigo) will now be twice as fast, as well as having three times its current capacity.

At neighbouring Tignes, one of the improvements for 2003/4 is intended to make the Espace Killy area harder work for skiers. That is not as perverse as it might sound: the plan is to cease grooming three of its black runs, including Face de l'Aiguille Percée, so that they provide a greater challenge to expert skiers and snowboarders. Ski-resort directors in nearby countries may well lose sleep over that particular development: it suggests that France is not only investing in its lift-systems but also seeking to improve the already peerless high-altitude skiing, too.

Generally, the reasons why France has become such a firm favourite with UK skiers are clear enough. It manages its ski areas extremely well, and particularly to our tastes. Huge, interlinked ski areas are what we like; and France has the biggest. Since most of us only get to ski one week per year, we want a guarantee of snow; and the high-altitude terrain comes as close as possible to giving that guarantee. The French Alps are also stunningly beautiful. There are some skiers who derive as much pleasure from the mountain environment as they do from actually skiing: I am one of them. And nowhere but France has so great a concentration of sublime mountain views, among them the Alpine panorama (including Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi) visible from Flaine's Les Grandes Platières, and the whole sweep of the Isère valley that appears when you get out of the Grande Motte cable-car at Tignes.

Practicalities are on France's side, too. It is the nearest major ski destination to the UK, well served by trains, planes and autoroutes; this season, there is an additional low-cost flight from Southampton to Chambéry, operated by Flybe. To the great benefit of those with young children, France has plenty of ski-in, ski-out apartments in the purpose-built resorts. Its enduring popularity has had the symbiotic effect of creating a stock of chalets - the preferred form of accommodation for many UK skiers - which other countries cannot begin to match. And, finally, the heat has gone out of two issues that threatened skiing's entente cordiale: UK skiing-instructor qualifications are now effectively recognised in France, and tour-operating staff can continue to be contracted under UK law if they work on premises in France that are not open to the general public.

But, if French skiing is so great, how come two-thirds of UK skiers go elsewhere? One underlying reason was apparent from a couple of visits to the Alps over the last month. In early September, I went to the Tarentaise, primarily to see the village at Arc 1950. This involved staying down in the valley, at Bourg St Maurice, because Les Arcs was totally closed - including the funicular to Arc 1600. But last weekend I was in Zermatt, and the place was completely packed, with visitors from as far away as south-east Asia.

No one expects to make much of an income from ski-lifts in summer; but the efficient French ski areas at least maximise lift revenue in winter. Hoteliers, however, can make money all the year round - provided guests come to their locality in summer. Unfortunately, French purpose-built resorts have so little appeal in autumn that for some of them, it isn't worth staying open. Imagine how difficult, then, it is for local hoteliers and apartment owners to invest in improving their properties. It is no wonder that it is hotels in the characterful villages and small towns of the Austrian and Swiss Alps that have been able to invest and to build a reputation - for keen prices and high-quality accommodation - that those in France cannot match.

My personal, perpetual gripe about French skiing resorts concerns their restaurants. It is impossible to reconcile the good quality of the produce that makes it up the mountains to the mini-markets with the often-mediocre food served when eating out. So, during a week spent at Les Carroz at the end of last season, we (there were four of us) cooked in our apartment on every evening except two. Once, we played safe and had perfectly good pizzas in the village; on the other occasion, we drove up to Avoriaz for a really exceptional dinner at the Les Dromonts hotel. Of course, criticisms of the food and the accommodation have long been levelled at French skiing resorts. How significant are they? Well, despite no discernible improvement in bed or board in those resorts, 36 per cent of UK skiers still go to France every year.

Not very significant, then.

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