Skiing: France

Stephen Roe tackles France's vast Alpine playground, the Trois Vallees, and discovers six very different resorts with something for everyone - even non-skiers
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The Independent Travel

WHY WOULD anyone want to take a skiing holiday in the world's most extensive inter-linked ski area? Can big really be beautiful? In the TroisVallees in the French Alps, the answer is, possibly, yes.

WHY WOULD anyone want to take a skiing holiday in the world's most extensive inter-linked ski area? Can big really be beautiful? In the TroisVallees in the French Alps, the answer is, possibly, yes.

With some 600km of well-groomed pistes and nearly 200 lifts on one ski pass, the huge advantage of skiing here is that you would find it quiteimpossible to ski every run in this area (which spans three big valleys and six resorts) during a week's holiday. From good beginner slopes (andinstruction) to challenging black runs, powder runs through the trees and even glacier skiing, the area has it all. If you want a flavour of the whole worldwithout going anywhere, try this.

What is more, the six resorts of the Trois Vallees vary enormously in terms of ambience and architecture. Some are purpose-built, with ugly displays ofSixties architecture, while others are chic and expensive, young and lively, or blissfully tucked away from the crowds.

What they all share is an ultra-modern, inter-connected lift system which minimises queues and increases the time that dedicated skiers can enjoy onthe mountain. The lift system is so efficient that it is possible for a competent intermediate skier to cross from Courchevel on one side to Val Thorenson the other in around 90 minutes. But don't leave it too late to get back. The local taxis do a highly lucrative business in collecting skiers stranded inthe wrong valley after the lifts have closed for the night.

MERIBEL

Little England Located in the heart of the Three Valleys, Meribel is the best placed resort for skiers wanting to explore a different part of the regioneach day. It has a lively, if rather British atmosphere, plenty of good restaurants, but sometimes rather icy snow conditions. You certainly do not need tospeak French here. Some of the bar staff return year after year and still seem unable to speak a word of French!

Meribel-Mottaret is a bustling crossroads. It is a satellite resort at a higher altitude with better snow conditions and lift connections but very littleatmosphere once the lifts have closed down for the day.

VAL THORENS

Guaranteed snow Europe's highest resort at 2,300 metres, it is the place to head for when snow conditions are getting too thin for comfort in the lowerresorts. As a result, the pistes can become very crowded when skiers from all three valleys converge. When the weather closes in, high winds can forceclosure of the lifts more frequently than elsewhere. From here, skiers can access the little known "Fourth Valley", the Maurienne, which can providesome superb and often deserted powder skiing. Because of its altitude, Val Thorens is a good choice for early and late-season travellers.

LES MENUIRES

Cheap and cheerful The ugliest and the cheapest of the resorts in this area, it does provide close access to the less crowded and quite challenging slopesof La Masse. While its noisy bars and blaring music on the lower slopes obviously hold appeal to some, I have never been tempted to linger here formore than the briefest of transit stops on my travels across the valleys.

COURCHEVEL

Upscale chic There are four separate village areas to this resort, named by their altitudes of 1300, 1550, 1650 and 1850 metres, all linked by shuttle busservices and ski lifts. Staying at 1300 (Le Praz) provides access to some excellent cross-country skiing, some fine restaurants and good cable-car linksto the main ski runs. There is cheap accommodation at 1550 and 1650, some good beginner slopes but little else. 1850 is where it all happens, day andnight, for those prepared to pay the very high prices.

ST MARTIN-DE-BELLEVILLE

Traditional charm The smallest and most traditional village, with some great restaurants for lunch, good-value accommodation and acceptable, if limited,links into the main ski areas. The runs down to St Martin are wide and easy, perfect to get you in the right frame of mind for a relaxed lunch.

LA TANIA

Away from the crowds A tiny modern village built for the 1992 Olympics. After fresh snowfalls there are some beautiful intermediate runs through thetrees down to the village, which is served by a high-speed cabin system and some antiquated drag-lifts. However, its low altitude means conditions areunreliable, and the nightlife is non-existent.

GENERAL INFORMATION

Best for beginners

There are more than 1,000 ski instructors in the area available for private lessons and guiding classes for skiers and snowboarders at every level ofcompetence. Sadly, there are still very few native English-speaking instructors, since the French authorities are adept in the art of defying European lawby denying foreign EC nationals their rights to work in France. Unless you are in Meribel, do check that the instructor has competent English and alsoenquire about the other pupils in your group. My teenage daughter found it quite intimidating to be the only non-French member of a beginners'snowboarding class in Courchevel.

The best nursery slopes in Courchevel are above 1650, and in the Pralong, Bellecote and the Jardin Alpines areas above 1850 where there are severalfree drag-lifts for beginners. In Meribel, most beginners practice around the Altiport area, where the gentle pistes can become quite crowded, sometimescreating long lift queues. In Val Thorens, the gentlest slopes are close to the village centre, and include a free drag-lift.

Best for intermediates

Virtually the whole of this vast skiers playground is suitable for intermediates, from the wide, blue "motorway pistes" above Courchevel 1650, to theego- massaging reds and blues above the tree- line of Val Thorens, where the snow conditions are invariably good and the grooming excellent. Fromthe Plattieres gondola above Meribel-Mottaret there are endless cruising runs to try, and plenty of cosy places to stop for a warming hot chocolate. Thelinks between resorts are now so well planned that competent intermediates can feel comfortable moving from valley to valley without risking gettingout of their depth.

Best for experts

Passengers in Courchevel's giant La Saulire cable-car get a superb bird's- eye view of intrepid skiers as they attempt to negotiate Telepherique, one ofthe steepest black couloirs in the Alps, which drops some 700m from a ridge down to the Verdons cable-car station below. This is a serious challengeand only recommended for the most experienced skiers, not least because if you fall, you are likely to have been watched by at least 60 people riding inthe car above.

There are two other marginally easier couloirs in this section of the mountain, plus a good range of pleasant red runs, usually in good condition,fanning out in all directions from La Saulire, including links to Meribel on the other side of the mountain. One of my favourites is Crux, a fast, bumpyred run behind La Vizelle, which links up to the Col de Chanrossa. From the top of the Mont Vallon cable-car (2,950 metres), between Meribel-Mottaret and Val Thorens, the moguled Combe de Vallon can be one of the toughest red runs you are likely to find, particularly when the wind gets up.

Best for snowboarders

Snowboarders are welcomed throughout the Trois Vallees region, although a few of the connecting trails can be quite hard work where they flatten out.A new area has been set aside exclusively for snowboarders in Meribel- Mottaret, with half-pipes, snow banks, bumps and jumps. Accessed from thesecond stage of the Plattieres gondola, the snowboard park incorporates a new drag-lift in an area reserved for snowboarding beginners. In Courchevelthere is a half-pipe and small snowboard park on the Plantrey piste, and a fun-park of dunes and dips for both skiers and boarders immediately belowthe Verdons cable-car station.

Best for cross-country skiers

There are some 90 kilometres of cross- country trails across Meribel, La Tania and Courchevel, clearly marked green, blue and red for their levels ofdifficulty. Some exceptional trails include those along Tueda Lake, a nature reserve, and in the forest area around Meribel's Altiport. From Courchevel1300 (Le Praz) there are some lovely trails through the woods and, after fresh snowfalls, there are several circuits around the village.

Best for non-skiers

Since the resorts of the Trois Vallees have been mostly purpose-built, the area is not recommended for non-skiers wanting to explore old villages orvisit ancient churches. But there are plenty of other activities, including a 40km network of hiking trails in the Meribel valley with a broad range ofitineraries beginning at shuttle-bus stops, parking lots and lift stations. A reduced rate pedestrian pass is also available for the gondolas and shuttlebuses to enable non-skiers to meet up with friends for lunch on the mountain. Other activities for more adventurous non-skiers include parasailing andhang-gliding, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. You can even take a joy-ride over the mountain tops in a single-engine plane from Meribel's Altiport.Meribel also has a superb indoor sports and fitness centre, complete with swimming pool, gym and ice rink.

Food and drink

Food both on and off the mountain is of a pretty high standard, as you might expect in this part of France. In high season it is advisable to book ahead,even for lunch on the mountain, if you want to be sure of a decent table. In fine weather it is difficult to beat lunch on the terrace at Mont Bel Air at thetop of the Courchevel 1650 cable-car or the terrace at Bouc Blanc above La Tania. Posers parade in their designer ski suits when they stop forafternoon cakes at Chalet de Pierres, opposite the Hotel Mercure on an easy green run just above Couchevel 1850.

The food and wine at the Bistrot du Praz, at Courchevel 1300, is so tempting that it can wipe out the afternoon's skiing. In Val Thorens, the best foodcan be found in the village at Sherpa, Chalet des Glaciers and in the better hotels like the Fitz Roy. Across the three valleys there are some super rusticpit stops, sometimes family-run, and serving tasty lunches and snacks around log fires. In the village of Meribel there are dozens of decent restaurantsand pizza parlours, and fine dining at the top hotels, including the Grand Coeur, Chaudanne, Allodis and Antares.

Where to stay

The majority of the accommodation across the three valleys is in fairly basic and incredibly compact self-catering apartments. A group of four adultswanting to avoid feeling cramped should consider booking a unit advertised with six or eight beds since at least two of these are likely to fold down inthe kitchen! But there are also some luxury chalets, mainly in Courchevel 1850, and a good choice of quality hotels. Even the two and three-star hotelscan be relied upon for excellent food, but in high season most hotels will only accept bookings on a half or full-board basis, and for a minimum of oneweek starting on a Saturday.

Top of the price range in Courchevel are the Bellecote, Melezin, Les Airelles and Byblos de Neige. Good three-star choices in the select Jardin Alpinessector include Ducs de Savoie, Caravelle and Mercure, all of which provide skiing from the door. In Meribel, the Hotel Grand Coeur (Relais Chateaux) is at the top of the range, the Hotel Mont Vallon is the best choice in Mottaret, and the three-star Merilys (no restaurant) is well positionedand good value by local standards. Top hotel in Val Thorens is the Fitz Roy (Relais & Chateaux) which also has an excellent restaurant.

FACT FILE

The Trois Vallees

Getting there

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and Swissair (tel: 0171-434 7300) fly from London or Manchester to Geneva. Transfers from Geneva via Moutiers(135km) by scheduled bus takes three to four hours. Alternatively, BA and Air France (tel: 0181-742 6600) serve Lyon, which has a similar transfertime (185km), and there are some charter flights to the airport at Chambery/Aix- les-Bains (95km).

Beat the weekend traffic jams approaching Moutiers, take the non-stop Eurostar train departing Saturday mornings from London Waterloo to Moutiers(eight hours), transferring by bus or taxi to any of the resorts in about 40 minutes. Savoie Airlines (tel: 00 33 479081444) runs a new, three times dailyair service from Geneva airport to the Altiport at Courchevel. Return fare FF1,200 (£133).

There are some excellent-value packages to the resorts. Prices quoted are per person for one week, based on two sharing, including flights, transfersand taxes.

Crystal Ski (tel: 0181-399 5144) offers half-board at the Hotel Pomme de Pin at Courchevel 1850 from £829 to £1,105; the cateredChalet Abi at Courchevel 1300 Le Praz from £309 to £579; Chalet Leila in Meribel from £289 to £639; and Chalet Julia inLes Menuires from £349 to £569.

First Choice (tel: 0870 754 2754) offers the catered Chalet Drotchu at Courchevel 1550 from £299 to £575; Chalet Sabot de Venus inCourchevel 1650 from £239 to £535; and half-board at the First Choice ClubHotel Piolet in Les Menuires from £299 to pounds509.

Airtours (tel: 08701 577775) offers Chalet Rochelaine in Val Thorens from £249 to £639; and Le Hameau Apartments inMeribel-Mottaret from £199 to £399.

Ski Beat (tel: 01243 780405) offers the luxurious catered Chalet Sapphire in La Tania from £369 to £689.

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