A new ski village in Les Arcs 1950 offers larger, more luxurious and more expensive accommodation than any other resort in France. Stephen Wood wonders whether it adds up to a sound investment

Length isn't everything; it's size that really matters. Why is the Trois Vallées ski area in France generally regarded as the world's biggest? Because if you laid its pistes end-to-end, they would stretch further than any other resort's. But that's like saying a country is big just because it has a lot of roads. If you are anything other than a fairly timid skier, you don't just follow signposts but explore a ski area, looking for the snowbowls, wooded pitches, proper off-piste terrain or just the less-tracked snow between the pistes. So how is the true size of a ski area to be measured? As logic demands, in acres or hectares rather than miles or kilometres.

Hence one reason why the union between the ski areas of Les Arcs and La Plagne, set to take place on 20 December, is so important. British skiers love a big ski area; this one - to be called Paradiski - will be the biggest of the lot. It may have fewer pisted kilometres, but its skiable area of 13,600 hectares easily exceeds the 11,800 of the Trois Vallées. With all that skiing available, enough interest has been generated almost to sell out Total Ski's chalets near the Les Arcs end of the link, even though they were not finished in time to be photographed for its brochure.

But aside from the excitement caused by the double-decker Vanoise Express cable-car, which will swing skiers 400m above the Ponturin valley on the four-minute journey between the two parts of Paradiski, there is a second explanation for the limelight shining this season on the new area. And there are some who think that the winter debut of the Arc 1950 village is just as significant as the new lift. (They are generally the same people who figure that most skiers will not be desperate to make the 20km trip from one extreme of Paradiski to the other, nor shell out too frequently the extra €30/£22 that the Vanoise Express connection will cost on a weekday.)

When the Canadian resort-developer Intrawest announced in November 2001 that it was to develop a new village at Les Arcs, the news was greeted with some enthusiasm, and some scorn. Its partnership with the Compagnie des Alpes - which operates the ski-lifts at Les Arcs, La Plagne and many other resorts - did give the plan credibility; but coming from a developer known for somewhat Disney-esque creations in North America, the claim (in one executive's words) that Arc 1950 would have "the charm of an authentic Alpine village" was a little too bold. On the other hand the idea that North American standards of service might be imported to the French Alps was generally applauded.

Arc 1950 is already a success in one respect: the 322 apartments in its first three phases have already been sold - mainly to UK buyers, at prices ranging from about £100,000 to £600,000 - in the expectation that they will prove a profitable long-term investment. Now, with the apartments available for rent (as required by the terms on which the majority were sold), this winter provides the real test of the village's viability.

Visiting it at the beginning of September proved a curious experience. Although technically open for the summer, the village - with just one phase completed - had all the charm of a building site. Towering cranes promised swift progress on the project; and indeed a second building will be completed for the 6 December opening. But it seems doubtful that Arc 1950 le Village (to give it its full name) will ever be authentically Alpine.

It looks like an Intrawest development, inside and out. It is a while since I visited Tremblant, the ski-village the company created outside Montreal; but at Arc 1950 memories of it came flooding back. I checked with one of the Les Arcs staff, who had been to Tremblant more recently: weren't the apartment interiors at Arc 1950 remarkably similar? He smiled, and nodded. This is not likely to be a great disadvantage, since Intrawest residences have proved popular. And although no triumph of interior design, the apartments at Arc 1950 are very comfortable and very useable, they are well fitted (in some cases with open log fires) and well serviced, all of them with balconies.

Nevertheless, the rental prices - which start at £536 per week for a three-room, six-person apartment - make them something of a hard sell, according to one UK tour operator. Just as MGM apartments such as those at Arc 1800's Alpages du Chantel were a giant step up - in size, quality and price - from the norm in purpose-built French resorts, so Arc 1950 continues the trend. Time will tell to what extent UK skiers are prepared to trade up; but the MGM apartments, which are slightly more expensive than those at Arc 1950, sell very well.

If Intrawest seems to have brought much of its design philosophy across the Atlantic, Arc 1950 differs in one important respect from the North American model. The company has frequently been criticised as merely a developer, and therefore likely to abandon its mature resorts - such as Whistler Blackcomb - when they no longer have development potential. There is, however, no sign of that happening; and the fact that Intrawest usually heavily invests in its ski areas does suggest that it takes a long-term view.

But with the completion of Arc 1950 - just part of a resort in which the company is something of an interloper - Intrawest will walk away. A bad thing? That depends whom you ask, but the strategy certainly side-steps some of the criticisms in Hal Clifford's recent US book, Downhill Slide (Sierra Club Books, $15.95).

Clifford objects to the way Intrawest manipulates the "retail experience" of its resorts. Taking the example of a chocolate shop at its Copper Mountain resort in Colorado, he says that Intrawest will select the site, hold auditions for a tenant, vet the decor, opening hours, menu and prices - and require that the chocolate-making is a performance visible to passers-by. In Clifford's judgement, shop tenants "serve as human window dressing that disguises a corporate strategy... harvesting visitor dollars for shareholders". But at Arc 1950 Intrawest will ultimately cede its management to the Resort Club Arc 1950, made up of the property owners and directed by Jean-Marc Silva, previously the head of the Les Arcs/Bourg St Maurice tourist office. Silva says of Arc 1950 that "this is not a Canadian village but a French village built by Canadians. When all the apartments and shops are built and sold, Intrawest will go and build elsewhere. Then the Resort Club will manage this village".

Intrawest will have representatives on an advisory board; but if Silva has his way it is the apartment owners, shopkeepers and restaurateurs of Arc 1950 who will decide whether the local chocolatier is up to scratch.

For enquiries about bookings or property sales at Arc 1950, contact its UK representative, Erna Low (020-7584 2841; www.ernalow.co.uk)

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