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

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.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there

Crystal Ski (0871 231 5659; crystalski.co.uk).

Thomson Ski (0871 231 5612; thomsonski.co.uk).



Staying there

Les Suites du Nevada, Tignes (00 33 4 50 33 10 96; cgh-residences.com).

More information

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor