The French Peak Season
Thanks to its high-altitude, purpose-built resorts, France cannot be bettered for serious skiers. Stephen Wood assesses the coming winter
Saturday 11 October 2008
What's new in French skiing this season? Not a lot. True, the ski lift built with the longest unsupported span in the world (almost 2km) will open on 20 December, connecting the ski areas of La Plagne and Les Arcs. But the Vanoise Express has opened before, in 2003. It was closed last season for corroded cables to be replaced and, curiously, when it reopens its span will be only the fourth longest in the world. Already overtaken by a gondola in Kitzbühel and (this week) a cable-car in Zermatt, it will lose another place to Whistler Blackcomb's Peak2Peak gondola, which starts operating across a 3km-wide valley on 12 December.
As in previous ski seasons, a whole tranche of less exotic lifts are opening (for the first time) across France's Alpine slopes for 2008/9: new "chondola" lifts – which carry both gondola cabins and chairs on the same cable – at Chamonix and Montgenèvre, six-seater chairs at Risoul and Espace Killy, and so on. That's good news; but how much difference will this season's 42 new installations make to a country whose ski terrain is already so well-served? The last time the French lift-operators association went on Mapquest, back in 2006, they found that their 3,300 lifts, placed end-to-end, would stretch for 1,800 miles, the distance between Paris and Cairo – a reference that no doubt excites a new French pressure group called The Missing Link, which is campaigning for cable cars in urban areas, to rise above traffic congestion problems.
Any big changes in the accommodation offered in French resorts? Not really. Most of the 1970s slab blocks still look the same, even if many of the units are being doubled in size by the simple expedient of knocking two of the original rabbit hutches into one. There's newly built accommodation, too, but nothing to compare with the modish hotels and apartments in Switzerland. There is a refreshing decadence about the Les Suites du Nevada hotel, in Tignes; but otherwise French developers have stuck to the comfortable, high-spec-chalet style that has proved enduringly popular with British skiers.
As far as our attitude to French skiing is concerned, it's the same old story. Over the last couple of decades, since it overtook Austria as our destination of choice, France has taken an ever-increasing share of the UK market. The growth last season was unusually small: according to the annual Ski Industry Report published by the biggest UK tour operator, Crystal, France's market share increased by only 0.4 per cent. The report probably underestimates the number of "independent" skiers making their own arrangements, travelling predominantly to France. Nevertheless it puts the country's market share at 37.5 per cent.
Such dominance is unsurprising, given that France cannot be bettered as a ski destination. Why should we go further afield, when the closest place for serious skiing is also the best? When people ask me about far-flung ski destinations – New Zealand, say, or Chile – I habitually mention their virtues, and then point out that they can't compare with France.
French skiing doesn't need to change because it is a mature business that serves its clients well. The country enjoys considerable natural advantages. The mountains are exceptional. The Andes may be more dramatic and the Dolomites more intriguing, but the French Alps – seen from, say, Les Grandes Platières at Flaine or the top of the Grande Motte cable-car at Tignes – are classical beauties. They are high, too, so the snow cover is reliably better than in the lower-lying Alpine areas of Austria, for example. Still, the key to France's skiing is the way that the natural advantages have been exploited.
Characteristically, Austrian skiing is based in old mountain villages, from which lifts fan upwards onto high pastureland. But in France, the ski developers of the 1960s and 1970s created purpose-built ski "villages" at higher altitudes, with three-fold benefits. First, on virgin land it was possible to choose ideal sites, in terms of both the ski terrain and the microclimate. Second, the snow was more plentiful. And third, new developments built from scratch could maximise the amount of efficient, ski-out and ski-in accommodation. It is mostly to these purpose-built resorts – notably Les Arcs and La Plagne – that British skiers choose to go, although Val d'Isère, which grew out of a farming village, also has a very large UK constituency.
Equally important to the appeal of the French Alps for the British is the huge ski areas linking one resort with another. We love big ski areas. Because of Scotland's unpredictable snow, skiing almost invariably involves travel abroad; so we make the most of our time on the slopes, earning a reputation in continental Europe as "high-mileage" skiers. The fact that most of us can ski for only seven days per year – leaving the other 51 weeks in which to forget the technique we have learnt – condemns us to be predominantly intermediate skiers.
Experts are happy to repeatedly ski a steep pitch (preferably one with bumps and trees) in pursuit of perfection or to head off-piste and beginners are satisfied with a quiet, smooth nursery slope. But intermediates have an almost insatiable hunger for new pistes to explore. France's joined-up skiing might have been designed for British skiers, so abundant are its wide, groomed slopes.
Practicalities also make France hard to resist. The choice of resorts in the package-holiday brochures might seem wide – market leader Crystal is offering 32 this season – but it does no more than scratch the surface. Earlier this year, SNCF surveyed 288,000 French rail passengers to establish a Top 40 best ski resorts. At the head of the list were the well-known names: Méribel, La Plagne, Val Thorens. But among the Top 40 were seven resorts that were new to me, including Orcières Merlette and Saint-François Longchamp. Interestingly, many of the chosen resorts are in the Pyrenees, an area which – in a significant change during the past decade – is now shunned by the major UK tour operators.
Access to the skiing could hardly be easier. Crystal offers 24 air routes into France, plus another 10 that access French resorts via Geneva. Factor in all the regional airports – Doncaster/Sheffield, Bournemouth, Exeter – and the southern Alps resorts such as Serre Chevalier and Risoul reached via Turin, and the total number of flight options reaches 43. As well as all the weekly charters there are scheduled flights, low-cost and otherwise, plus a variety of trains – and your own car, still the most cost-effective transport option if you are travelling in a group.
What's not to like about skiing in France? Some would say the cost, but they would probably be thinking of Courchevel 1850, where prices have been inflated to bursting point by the influx of free-spending Russians (no longer including Roman Abramovich, apparently, since he now has two houses in the Aspen area). Ski holidays in France can, however, be amazingly cheap. For the week starting 13 December, Thomson is currently offering a self-catering holiday in Tignes priced at £199 per person, if booked online (thomsonski.co.uk). For comparison, the Thomson brochure's cheapest holiday in Bulgaria costs £289.
Other complaints might reasonably concern the crowds and the queues: you need sharp elbows to get back up the slopes after lunch in the Trois Vallées. My own, habitual moan is about food. Now that we have Gore-Tex, Polartec and central heating to keep us warm in the mountains, we don't need to put on another layer of fat. How nice it would be if it were possible, a little more often, to eat as well on holiday in France as we do at home, rather than facing so much rich and fatty food.
Crystal Ski (0871 231 5659; crystalski.co.uk).
Thomson Ski (0871 231 5612; thomsonski.co.uk).
Les Suites du Nevada, Tignes (00 33 4 50 33 10 96; cgh-residences.com).
la-plagne.com; 00 33 4 79 09 79 79.
lesarcs.com; 00 33 4 79 07 12 57.
tignes.net; 00 33 4 79 40 04 40.
valdisere.com; 00 33 4 79 06 06 60.
chamonix.com; 00 33 4 50 53 00 24.
montgenevre.com; 00 33 4 92 21 52 52.
meribel.net; 00 33 4 79 08 60 01.
valthorens.com; 00 33 4 79 00 08 08.
saintfrancoislongchamp.com; 00 33 4 79 59 10 56.
serre-chevalier.com; 00 33 4 92 24 98 98.
courchevel.com; 00 33 4 79 08 00 29.
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