Ski special: Welcome to le Canadian Club

The resort Arc 1950 looks French yet it's a fantasy constructed by North Americans. And it looks like they're planning to build more, says Minty Clinch
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The Independent Travel

Arc 1950 is the ultimate winter sports resort, a state-of-the-art centre built from scratch to feel like a traditional Savoyard village. Of course, it doesn't look like one. The buildings may be clad in local stone and wood, but they're altogether too magnificent to suggest any kind of link with peasant farmers, past or present. There is no hint of agricultural machinery among the cranes and JCBs brought in to build it or the snowcats required to groom it.

So it's all an illusion, yet in a strange way it works. Braving a January blizzard to buy baguettes in the village is a quintessentially French experience - a plump woman, medium grumpy, serving a queue of fretful customers stamping their feet in the cold. Naturally, most of them are British: they were the first to embrace the motorway pistes and rabbit-hutch developments in the Tarentaise when the French developed them in the 20th century, so it was logical they'd buy into easy ski 21st-century style.

In Arc 1950 buying an investment apartment, which can then go into the rental pool, is a popular choice. The basic deal is seven weeks' annual occupancy, two in winter and five in summer. If this sounds familiar, you've probably taken winter sports holidays in North America where sleeping in someone else's condo is the norm. No surprises there because the Arc 1950 project is the European flagship for Intrawest, the Canadian developers who own Whistler, Tremblant and a host of other North American resorts.

Founded in 1976 by Joe Houssian, Intrawest's brief was to apply Alpine-village basics in North America. The blueprint featured pedestrian precincts with quality accommodation and convenient lift connections. In 1998, Intrawest bought five hectares of open mountainside from the Compagnie des Alpes, the owners of assorted white-elephant developments in the Tarentaise, and set to work.

The inspiration for Arc 1950 may be French, but any other links are coincidental. No matter: this Savoyard theme park is 100 per cent convenient, not least because it's tiny. A central piazza, overlooked by a clock tower, provides a focus for three streets that curve off in different directions. In line with Intrawest policy, there is one of everything you need - pharmacy, ski rental shop, pizzeria, crêperie. The parking is underground - and expensive - leaving the surface area free for snow blasters, pedestrians and husky dogs.

Moments after you emerge from your lodging and clip into your skis, you're gone. A few turns and you're at the chairlift that locks you into Paradiski, the giant Les Arcs-La Plagne combo created by the opening of the Vanoise Express in December 2003. Its 250 miles of groomed pistes can't match the 360 miles in the neighbouring Trois Vallées but 12 miles, end-to-end as the crow flies, gives it a justifiable claim to the length record.

Evenings at Arc 1950 are theme-park jolly: Irish pub, Savoyard specialities, fusion cooking, DIY supplies from the convenience store.

Before 1950 was fully up and running, Robert Jerome, vice president of Intrawest Europe, was quick to tell anyone who'd listen that this was the last available site in the Alps for such a development. Did anyone believe him? Probably not, for there are already two further clones on the books.

The first is Flaine Montsoleil, arguably an even better commercial bet than Arc 1950 because it's only an hour's drive from Geneva airport. It has been branded as a family resort, which tends to obscure the fact that it has 160 miles of excellent pistes for skiers and boarders of all levels.

The cranes and the sales sites for the first 70 apartments are already in place. Flaine Montsoleil is described as a hamlet but a hamlet with attitude when it comes to Jacuzzis, outdoor pools and an aqua leisure centre.

Fired up by so much success in France, Intrawest is preparing to move in on Switzerland. The proposed development at Bruson on the other side of the valley from Verbier will feature 2,000 beds in four-star hotels and condos, in 21st-century ski-in, ski-out cuckoo-clock style. What next? Surely more of the same. With Intrawest poised to take over the ski world, we ain't seen nothing yet.

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