Traveller's Guide: Portes du Soleil

This huge Alpine area opens the door to skiers of all abilities, says Matt Barr

For skiers and snowboarders, the Franco-Swiss area known as the Portes du Soleil, or Gateway to the Sun, has a few tricks up its sleeve. First, there’s its size. The area jostles with the Trois Vallées and Paradiski areas in France, and the Franco-Italian Milky Way, for the title of “world’s biggest ski area”. That is, of course, a tricky one to decide: is it number of ski lifts?The total length of the pistes? The sheer hectarage of the slopes? Whatever the measure, Portes du Soleil’s 650km of pistes and 197 lifts make a convincing case when it comes to scale.

The fact that Portes du Soleil is the closest major ski area to Geneva airport gives it a definite edge: the transfer time to the village of Les Gets (00 334 5075 8080; lesgets.com) is under an hour. For Brits driving there, the Portes du Soleil’s glistening mountain tops are the first snow visible after the 10-hour drive south from Calais.

Then there’s the fact the area is home to a series of distinctly different villages. Les Gets and Morzine (00 334 5074 7272; morzine-avoriaz. com) on the French side of the area are picturesque valley towns with wooden chalets and fairy lights hanging from ornate lamp posts.

Morzine is the largest town in area, with a thriving seasonairecommunity and bars and nightclubs to match. Many of its chalets are practically second homes for British skiers, with Chalet Ferme de Mandon (01886 812862; jcjourneys.com) featuring in Channel 4’s Grand Designs programme. As you might expect, the chalet has stunning architecture as well as a chef, chauffeur, sauna, outside hot tub and massage rooms, all from £1,871 per person per week – based on 10 people sharing.

Morzine is home to plenty of low-rise apartment blocks, filled by the big operators, such as Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski co.uk), which has a seven-day stay just four minutes from the lifts and centre of Morzine starting at £440 per person, including return flights from Gatwick to Geneva, bed and breakfast, and use of a small kitchen.

High above Morzine and perched on the edge of a 500ft cliff sits the futuristic village of Avoriaz (00 334 5074 0211; avoriaz com). Conceived in the 1960s by the Olympic-winning skier and sunglasses mogul Jean Vuarnet, his team of cutting-edge architects delivered the most far out of all purpose-built resorts, with angular buildings, chairlifts and pistes instead of streets, and – rather bizarrely – horse-drawn sleighs for getting around. Visitors either love or loathe its Blade Runner-meets-Ski Sunday vibe. Either way, there is no denying that if you want ski-in, ski-out, Avoriaz is hard to beat.

Over the border, in rather more conservative Switzerland, the market-town buildings of Morgins (00 412 4477 2361; morgins ch) and cowsheds of Les Crosets (00 412 4477 2077; valdilliez.ch) have been lovingly turned into ski resorts after lifts were constructed to link into the Portes du Soleil in the 1970s, with family hotels, traditional chalets and quiet cafés and restaurants. Meanwhile, Champery (00 412 4479 2020;champery.ch) is an old town with a long tourist history going back to the days when visitors came for little more than fresh air and a bracing walk. It’s virtually impossible to ski back to the town, as the low altitude means the snow is normally long gone by February, but a new high-speed six-person lift links it to the ski area in minutes.

Best for gnarliness

For those looking for freestyle kicks, the Portes du Soleil boasts seven parks, four free-to-use airbags (kickers that give way to inflatable landing areas, so you can practice your backflips) and a huge superpipe in Avoriaz (the same dimensions as the halfpipe used at the Olympics). And then there's "The Stash" ( thestash.com/resort/ avoriaz): a freestyle ski and snowboarding run carved among the trees of the Lindarets area, on the French side. Here the jumps and rails are made from tree stumps and rough-cut timber.

Given its size, it's no surprise that the Portes du Soleil has extensive backcountry to be explored by expert riders. Daniel Janes (020 3286 4469; hofnar.com) runs "backcountry introduction weeks" starting at £439 per person, including transfers from Geneva airport, most food (breakfast, packed lunches and after-mountain cakes) and four-star accommodation. Guiding is extra, costing £30 for the week, based on a six-person group.

"The real beauty is that for some really quite incredible backcountry skiing and snowboarding you don't have to go all that 'backcountry'. Sometimes just a 10-minute hike from the top of a lift will take you to an empty wilderness," says Daniel. And then there's the Wall (or Swiss Wall as it's sometimes known) in Chavanettes, perhaps the most notorious run within the Portes du Soleil borders.

Some say it's no more difficult than the average black run, but given that it's the link to the Swiss village of Les Crosets, there will always be people sitting going down the main chairlift above, eager to spot a great bump skier tearing down the mountain at the same speed as they're descending. For good mogul skiers there's simply no better place to show off in the Alps.

For skiers and snowboarders, the Franco-Swiss area known as the Portes du Soleil, or Gateway to the Sun, has a few tricks up its sleeve. First, there's its size. The area jostles with the Trois Vallées and Paradiski areas in France, and the Franco-Italian Milky Way, for the title of "world's biggest ski area". That is, of course, a tricky one to decide: is it number of ski lifts? The total length of the pistes? The sheer hectarage of the slopes? Whatever the measure, Portes du Soleil's 650km of pistes and 197 lifts make a convincing case when it comes to scale.

The fact that Portes du Soleil is the closest major ski area to Geneva airport gives it a definite edge: the transfer time to the village of Les Gets (00 334 5075 8080; lesgets.com) is under an hour. For Brits driving there, the Portes du Soleil's glistening mountain tops are the first snow visible after the 10-hour drive south from Calais.

Then there's the fact the area is home to a series of distinctly different villages. Les Gets and Morzine (00 334 5074 7272; morzine-avoriaz.com) on the French side of the area are picturesque valley towns with wooden chalets and fairy lights hanging from ornate lamp posts. Morzine is the largest town in area, with a thriving seasonaire community and bars and nightclubs to match. Many of its chalets are practically second homes for British skiers, with Chalet Ferme de Mandon (01886 812862; jcjourneys.com) featuring in Channel 4's Grand Designs programme. As you might expect, the chalet has stunning architecture as well as a chef, chauffeur, sauna, outside hot tub and massage rooms, all from £1,871 per person per week – based on 10 people sharing.

Morzine is home to plenty of low-rise apartment blocks, filled by the big operators, such as Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk), which has a seven-day stay just four minutes from the lifts and centre of Morzine starting at £440 per person, including return flights from Gatwick to Geneva, bed and breakfast, and use of a small kitchen.

High above Morzine and perched on the edge of a 500ft cliff sits the futuristic village of Avoriaz (00 334 5074 0211; avoriaz.com). Conceived in the 1960s by the Olympic-winning skier and sunglasses mogul Jean Vuarnet, his team of cutting-edge architects delivered the most far out of all purpose-built resorts, with angular buildings, chairlifts and pistes instead of streets, and – rather bizarrely – horse-drawn sleighs for getting around. Visitors either love or loathe its Blade Runner-meets-Ski Sunday vibe. Either way, there is no denying that if you want ski-in, ski-out, Avoriaz is hard to beat.

Over the border, in rather more conservative Switzerland, the market-town buildings of Morgins (00 412 4477 2361; morgins.ch) and cowsheds of Les Crosets (00 412 4477 2077; valdilliez.ch) have been lovingly turned into ski resorts after lifts were constructed to link into the Portes du Soleil in the 1970s, with family hotels, traditional chalets and quiet cafés and restaurants. Meanwhile, Champery (00 412 4479 2020; champery.ch) is an old town with a long tourist history going back to the days when visitors came for little more than fresh air and a bracing walk. It's virtually impossible to ski back to the town, as the low altitude means the snow is normally long gone by February, but a new high-speed six-person lift links it to the ski area in minutes.

Best for families

Avoriaz is already a family-friendly resort. The addition of L'Aquariaz, an indoor waterpark-oasis complete with two Amazon-themed pools and a water "superpipe" – scheduled to open in early winter – will undoubtedly add to the appeal. The town also boasts a new ice rink and seven new apartment blocks, horse rides to convey luggage to your apartment, and a nursery ski-school in the centre of town that is perfect for keeping an eye on young learners.

To the west of Avoriaz, the small village of Abondance (00 334 5073 0290; abondance.org) has been accessible only by bus in the past, but this winter it will be linked in by a chair lift, while the Swiss resort of Morgins does a fine line in traditional friendly skiing options for those looking for an old-school ski trip.

Super Morzine – the sunny plateau above Morzine town – provides the Portes du Soleil's ski tranquille area, offering a good mix of easy blues and mellow green runs to provide a perfect play area for all the family.

The family-run Mountain Mavericks (08444 843530; mountainmavericks.com) is a British outfit that owns four chalets in Morzine, providing an "affordably posh" (in their words) place to stay with kids from £375 per week including breakfast, four-course dinner, spacious living areas and outdoor hot tubs – all within walking distance of the slopes.

Hidden corners

The Prodains village, set on a plateau above Morzine, is a real hidden gem. The “home run” down from Avoriaz to Prodains is one of the longest pistes in the area, and on flat-light days the trees between the pistes offer some brilliant visibility and hidden stashes of powder.

Many tourists ignore Prodains due to its ancient cable-car, which can see large lift queues during the peak holiday weeks. This summer, construction has been going full steam ahead on a new, high-speed gondola lift.

Rude Chalets (0870 0687030; rudechalets.com) has ensuite rooms available from £329 per person per week including return airport transfers, breakfast, three-course dinner, unlimited wine, outdoor hot tub, and mountain hosting (guides, though not for off-piste), based at the firm’s Chalet Christophe, 500m from the Prodains lift.

On the other side of the hill, the quiet area above Les Gets is great for beginners, though getting used to the many T-bars is a requirement before taking advantage of its gentle pistes. The Linderets area is a perfect spot to head for at lunchtime, with a vast meeting area ringed with cafés and restaurants, and some awesome tree skiing available if the weather closes in.

For those looking to top the tan up, the funparks of Les Crosets are a great sun trap, with cafés and restaurants overlooking the riding and vast terraces of deckchairs it’s the perfect place for a well-earned rest.

Best food stops

Given the diversity of the villages in the Portes du Soleil, the range of foods available is vast. Avoriaz is best-known for its cheap and cheerful burger joints, which are hugely popular in the middle of the day, while Champéry’s restaurants feature the traditional Valais melted cheeses (raclette lamps, fondu bowls and oven-cooked Mont d’Ors) as well as rostis (shredded, fried potatoes) and great Pierre Chauds – hot stones on which you cook strips of meat. Cantine sur Coux (00 412 4479 1044; cantinesurcoux.net) has the lot under one vaulted ceiling.

Hôtel Le Samoyède (00 334 5079 0079; hotel-lesamoyede.com) in Morzine is home to Michelin starred chef Alexandre Baud-Pachon whose twist on the traditional Savoyarde cuisine will add a foody zing to your trip. After an afternoon on the slopes, you can top up the calories with lobster ravioli in shellfish sauce for €21, or a three-course set menu for €35.

For a real rustic experience, head to Abricotines (00 33 450 741 743; refuge-abricotine.com) a mountain refuge above Les Gets serving a traditional Tartiflette dinner. Stay overnight and have breakfast then hit the empty pistes before the lifts open. Prices last year were €44 per person per night.



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