Uplifting experiences

France has the best skiing terrain in the world - no argument. Stephen Wood states his case

Bless the Syndicat National des Télépheriques de France. Every summer this association of French ski-lift operators (SNTF for short) produces a mass of statistical data, enough facts, figures and pie-charts to get the die-hard skier through a mid-August bout of seasonal affective disorder. Laudably, the SNTF makes its data easily digestible by employing the sort of imagery that has made the football pitch a standard measure for area, the Empire State Building for height and NASA's space programme for computing power.

Bless the Syndicat National des Télépheriques de France. Every summer this association of French ski-lift operators (SNTF for short) produces a mass of statistical data, enough facts, figures and pie-charts to get the die-hard skier through a mid-August bout of seasonal affective disorder. Laudably, the SNTF makes its data easily digestible by employing the sort of imagery that has made the football pitch a standard measure for area, the Empire State Building for height and NASA's space programme for computing power.

I'm not sure that using the price of a brand-new Airbus A319 aircraft for cost-comparison purposes (as the SNTF's report on the 2003/4 season does) is particularly helpful. But it's more manageable than the traditional cup of coffee, at least when reckoning France's ski-lift investment for last season. It amounted to 21.6 Airbuses, or €324m (£224m).

In 2002 the SNTF used a more dramatic image to convey the scale of the ski-lift system: joined together the lifts would stretch from London to Barcelona and back, it said. Memorable though that is, try to forget it. Because it's no longer true. Nowadays the lifts would only reach to somewhere around Tossa de Mar. The lift system has shrunk.

To those British skiers who regard the lifts as one of the principal attractions of skiing in France, this might seem alarming. But rather than a sign of deterioration in the service, it's a consequence of improvements: in several resorts short, surface lifts are being replaced by a lesser number of long, fast and more comfortable aerial devices. At the Trois Vallées resort of Les Menuires, for example, four new chair-lifts and a gondola have taken over the work of a dozen drag-lifts since the millennium. Although it reports a 2.9 per cent increase in the number of lift journeys to 750 million in 2003/4, the SNTF admits that lift improvements make this a decreasingly pertinent index.

This season sees no innovations on the scale of the Vanoise Express, the cable car which linked Les Arcs and La Plagne in December 2003 (at a cost of about one Airbus). Nevertheless, visitors to Alpe d'Huez, Avoriaz, Chamonix, Chatel, Courchevel, Morzine, La Plagne and Tignes can expect to see improvements this season. In scale and efficiency, the French lift system continues to outperform that of any other ski destination.

Of course excellent lifts have little value unless they serve excellent terrain. And the French Alps have the best skiing terrain in the world. (For years I have written "arguably the best", but since no one has ever come up with a persuasive counter-argument the qualification now seems unnecessary.) We have long been enamoured of Chamonix, Val d'Isère/Tignes and the Trois Vallées; and the linking of Les Arcs and La Plagne into what is the world's largest ski area (in terms of skiable acres) has created another stellar attraction to high-mileage British skiers. Research by the company that built the Vanoise Express showed that one in five of those travelling on the link last season were British.

This year's SNTF report states that ski areas occupy only 1.4 per cent of the surface of France's mountain ranges; but one would never guess that from the sheer quantity of the skiing available. Add in the reliable snow cover on the many high-altitude slopes and the argument for skiing in French resorts is strengthened. Finally, there is the aesthetic factor: France has far more than its fair share of great Alpine panoramas. Among the best are the view off Flaine's Les Grandes Platières towards Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi and the sweep of the Isère valley seen from the top of the Grand Motte cable car at Tignes. Why should we ski anywhere else?

Last season, according to the Ski and Snowboarding Industry Report produced annually by Crystal, the biggest UK ski-holiday company, 36.5 per cent of Britons chose to do their skiing in France. This is no surprise, since the previous year's figure was identical. What now seems remarkable is that a dozen years ago it was Austria that attracted the largest proportion of British skiers. Overall, its skiing cannot compete with that of France; yet in terms of accommodation Austria still has the advantage.

The slew of purpose-built resorts erected in the French Alps between the late 1960s and the early 1980s do have one great asset. Most of their accommodation - largely apartments in concrete tower-blocks -is set right on the slopes, enabling guests to ski in and out. This is a boon particularly for skiers with small children, currently a growing sector of the market.

But in the era when the buildings were designed, France was just beginning to transform itself from an apartment-dwelling to a home-owning nation. Expectations were low then as far as habitable space was concerned - all the more so for holiday accommodation. Now those original apartments seem incredibly mean. I once spent a week alone in one in Avoriaz, and it felt too small for comfort, partly because there were six beds in it.

True, the problem of cramped accommodation has eased recently with the advent of more generous apartments in the MGM developments - at Les Arcs, Chamonix, Tignes and many other resorts - and in the new village at Arc 1950 in Les Arcs, built by Canada's giant Intrawest corporation. They have proved very popular, so much so that MGM was bought by Paris-based Pierre et Vacances, a property company that controls much of the tower-block accommodation in the purpose-built resorts.

It was Maurice Giraud (whose initials provided the first two letters of the name MGM) who pioneered the "lodge" look - low-rise buildings with stone-and-timber exteriors - which is becoming the norm for new ski developments in France (and elsewhere). It is alleviating some of the gloom cast on French resorts by the less-than-pristine surfaces of concrete towers left out in the mountains for three or four decades.

A lot of dynamite would be required to give France resorts that are worthy of its skiing, and are comparable by any criterion other than convenience with the charming mountain villages of Austria. But if the French mountains could attract more summer guests the resorts would be better able to invest in their facilities - as Austrian hoteliers can do, with their year-round business.

Back on the bright side, ski tuition in France has recently undergone something of a revolution, to the great benefit of British skiers. Since the turn of the millennium, when French ski schools were finally forced to accept that EU law gave British-trained instructors the right to teach in France, the existing British schools have expanded and new ones have been launched. I am an irredeemably sub-expert skier who has given up trying to impress anyone on the slopes; but even I can see the advantage in being taught in one's native language. As for the other virtues of the British-owned ski schools in France, I can only say that The Development Centre in Val d'Isère, New Generation in Courchevel, Méribel, Val d'Isère and Les Arcs, and the British Alpine Ski School (BASS) in Les Gets, Morzine, Chamonix, Courchevel and Val d'Isère have all received good reports.

Travel to France could hardly be easier in winter, thanks to the steady demand from skiers. There are planes, snow trains - and automobiles, for independent travellers who want to go on a ski safari and try two or three resorts (or clients of Crystal, who offer packages to meet that same demand). The no-frills carriers, and the advent of cheaper tickets on full-service airlines, continue to bend ski holidays out of their conventional shape, creating all manner of short- or midweek-break possibilities, French hoteliers permitting. And for the old-fashioned weekend rotations charter operators have spread their regional departures to Norwich, and their destinations to small French airports, Chambéry in particular.

There is little to report on "new" resorts, however. Crystal has introduced to its programme Isola 2000, just north of Nice; and Le Grand Bornand now features among the resorts in its self-drive packages. It would be good to be able to predict improvements in an area which now compromises the holiday experience in French resorts. But there seems little hope of the long decline of resort restaurants being arrested. It is not obvious why they should be so bad: the produce in the resorts' small supermarkets is often good, and restaurateurs can obviously source their raw materials from further afield. But the predominance of apartment accommodation in France is a blessed relief: it means you can cook your own meals - which is now my choice. With the exception of a remarkable dinner at Les Dromonts in Avoriaz in 2003, no evening meal I have had recently in a French resort has persuaded me that there is much point in eating out.

British ski schools in France: The Development Centre (00 33 6 15 55 31 56; www.tdcski.com); New Generation (00 33 4 79 01 03 18; www.skinewgen.com); British Alpine Ski School (01485 572 596; www.britishskischool.com)

THE FIRST RESORT?

What is the world's best ski resort from the tour operator's point of view? We asked Pete Tyler, managing director of Neilson

"Obviously it depends what you're looking for as a client. But from a tour operator's point of view, you're looking for a resort with reliable snow, a whole range of activities and a social life that can suit families, couples, groups.

"The problem with some of the traditional European ski resorts is that they're obviously quite small and quite congested now. Sometimes they're lacking in altitude so the snow's a little bit iffy, but maybe they have a great social life, a great range of activities. Conversely, if you go to America you've got purpose-built resorts, you've got fantastic snow - but that's it; some bars and restaurants, but no active social life.

"The ideal would be to take somewhere like Kitzbühel in Austria - picture-postcard chalets, nice bars, little squares, fantastic architecture - and move it up 4,000ft. I'm sure the Americans are trying to replicate it in the Rockies.

"As a good middle-ground option, I recommend Banff. You reach it via Calgary, a 10-hour direct flight. You've got four fantastic ski resorts. You have to drive, but the facilities are fantastic - no queues, wide pistes, guaranteed snow. So overall, North American skiing is perfect but you can't beat the social life of France and Austria."

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