It is a problem for most mixed family groups: how do you find a ski resort that has not just something for everyone, but something really great for everyone? It is easy to find resorts that are perfect for particular tastes – Val d'Isère for the experienced, Flaine for small children, St Moritz for the posh, just about anywhere in the Rockies for powder, and so on. But, inevitably, someone ends up being disappointed. Finding something for those groups that want a great all-rounder is more tricky, but my candidate would be Alpe d'Huez, just up from Grenoble.
The main town is built on a high plateau at the top of the Oisans valley, with the terrifying climb up made famous by the Tour de France. The Tour visits every second year; having driven gingerly around the endless hairpins, my admiration for the riders went up several clicks. That is to the main centre at 1,860 metres. There are five linked resorts in total, the others being quieter and lower – perhaps better if you prefer the quiet life, as Alpe d'Huez is sprawling and busy – but all giving access to the massif. And a massive massif it is.
So, what makes it the great all-rounder? Well, for a start it is huge, the fifth-largest ski complex in France, which makes it one of the top 10 in the world. It has 86 lifts, 248km of pistes and a vertical drop of 2,205m. The resort itself is high, with the top lift to the Pic Blanc at 3,330m. Thanks to its height, it has a very good snow record, important these days. It has also the longest single pisted run in the Alps, the wonderful 16km of the Sarenne, of which more in a moment. But it also has specialised areas for snowboarders, so if you are of that persuasion, you have a lot to go for.
The main slopes are made up of a mixture of long reds and shorter blacks. However, for the fit-but-less-competent, there are lots of lovely long blues through the trees – with somewhere to eat at the end of them. For beginners, there are sunny south-facing slopes and plenty of width to tumble around on.
And for non-skiers there is a fine pool, an ice rink, concerts in the church (which looks like a subbed-down version of Liverpool's Catholic cathedral), and a network of mountain paths. The club scene is good too, according to the clubbing element of our party, and we all ate very well – not something that always happens in France these days.
The high point of Alpe d'Huez, literally and figuratively, is the Pic Blanc, which gives access to the Sarenne glacier and a clutch of black runs down. It is the highest point of the Grandes Rousses Massif, with views right across to Mont Blanc itself – worth going up even if you don't fancy skiing down. If you do, there are basically two options. You ski down the glacier, which was a bit tricky to get on to, but once on was just a lot of deep powder. The top lift was shut most of the week we were there because there had been so much snow, so it was pretty much knee-deep stuff. Then you have two options: go through an old mining tunnel on to the front face of the Pic Blanc and come down steep mogul fields to the main station; or go round the back on the Sarenne.
The Sarenne is one of the great runs of the Alps. It is marked black, and you need to be reasonably fit because of the combination of the length and the altitude, but the actual skiing is more like an extremely long red. Once you are on it, there is only one way out, though there is an intriguing option at the top called the Château Noir that loops round to the left then rejoins the Sarenne further down – less crowded on a busy day. A lot of puffing went on, with my companion (one of my daughters) sensitively suggesting from time to time that we stop to look at the view. Any excuse will do. Then there is a long ski-out at the valley bottom, a bit of a relief to glide along through the trees towards lunch.
With a guide, there are lots of further off-piste options starting from the top, and my other daughter said she found the off-piste stuff fantastic, and completely empty despite it being Easter.
But if you want to stay on pistes and cover a lot of ground, the resort has a natty scheme whereby you go from the 3,330m top to various bottom stations by four routes, the Sarenne being one. All four involve a drop of around 2,000m, hence its name, the "Premier 8000". The total length you ski if you do all of them is 65km. You get a little stamp on your ski-map at the top and bottom of each route, and thereby qualify for a certificate marking your enthusiasm, or at least energy. One of the four gives you the biggest drop in the resort, down to a place called l'Enversin d'Oz, at 1,125m.
There are two other main ski areas. One is on the opposite side of the village from the Pic Blanc, to the top of Signal at 2,115m, where the first lifts were installed in the 1930s. That gives you a mixture of reds and blues – worth an afternoon but I found it a little unsatisfying. The other is right over on the other side of the valley, where you ski in and out of Auris-en-Oisans, lower than Alpe d'Huez and easier to drive to from Grenoble. Lots of good reds make it well worth going over.
If you find that the 250-odd kilometres of trails aren't enough, there is a further option. The six-day lift passes are valid for two days at the nearby resort of Les Deux Alpes, to which there is a shuttle bus. I have a bit of a thing against Les Deux Alpes as I have found it bleak, with too many coach parties and aggressive snowboarders. But if you are not staying there, in the horrid 1960s blocks, or are a snowboarder, then it's worth test-driving it too.
Downsides? Really not a lot. Alpe d'Huez is not beautiful, but it is not in-your-face ugly like some French purpose-built resorts. It can get busy and noisy. We had to go at Easter last year, so it was full, but we could still get into restaurants for dinner if we booked at teatime. (There is a good supermarket beside the ice rink if you want to cut costs by eating in.)
I liked the fact that Alpe d'Huez felt like a real town, with a sense of civic pride and people who were really rather gracious given that it was towards the end of a long season. We all agreed that we would happily go back, which is about the best recommendation I can give.
Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) goes from London St Pancras to Paris, where you can get the TGV to Grenoble, around 60km from Alpe d'Huez.
By air, Grenoble is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. Lyon is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet. com) from Gatwick and Stansted; BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) from Manchester; and Brit Air for Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk) from Birmingham. Buses connect Grenoble with the resort.
Packages to Alpe d'Huez are offered by Crystal Ski (0871 231 5659; www.crystalski.co.uk); Club Med (0871 424 4044; www.clubmed.co.uk); and Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk).
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