Serious skiers head for our closest continental neighbour. And although the ambience doesn't always match other countries, there is still a huge variety on offer. By Tania Alexander
The French forte is large, linked ski areas which open up endless possibilities for intermediates and experts who want to clock up as much mileage as possible on holiday. French skiing is mainly based in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Most of the skiing is in the old duchy of Savoy in the Alps which has been split into Haute-Savoie (north) and Savoie (south).

France is an ideal choice for all standards of skiers. Most resorts offer a good mix of very gentle beginner's slopes, lots of intermediate wide piste "autoroute" cruising, as well as truly challenging steep slopes and off-piste on the craggy mountainsides for the experts.

France is also a lazy skiers' paradise. The French are famous for their purpose-built resorts where you can literally step out of the door of your hotel/apartment on to the pistes. These resorts are also ideal for families as you don't have to lug little Johnny's skis far and it's easy to take them back indoors for a rest.

Value for money

Thanks to the strong pound, France is once again good value for the British skier. Prices in resorts are considerably more affordable than they were a couple of seasons ago.

Getting There

Self-drive is a popular option for the British skier. Expect to take about nine hours from Calais to reach main resorts such as La Plagne and Chamonix. To make driving economical, there will need to be at least four of you in the car.

There are two options by rail - the Eurostar Ski Train and the Snow Train operated by Rail Europe. The new daytime eight-hour Eurostar service from London Waterloo or Ashford in Kent (starts on 13 December ) takes you to Moutiers for Val Thorens, Meribel, Courchevel and La Plagne, or on to Bourg St Maurice from where there is easy access to Tignes, Val d'Isere and Les Arcs.

The Snow Train runs a daytime and overnight service from Calais, as well having a Motorail facility and is offered as an alternative by various ski companies.

French ski resorts tend to be quite a trek from the airports. The main airports to serve French resorts are Geneva and Lyon.

t Motorail, Rail Europe Ltd (0171 203 7000); Eurostar (0990 300 003); Air France (0181 750 4318); British Airways (0345 222 111).

Style

In general, France scores much higher for the skiing than for ambience. Many of the older purpose-built resorts, built in the Sixties and Seventies, have all the panache of a shopping mall in the snow, with little to offer apart from doorstep skiing. Some of the more recent resorts are built in a more attractive, rustic style. And not all French resorts are purpose- built. There are plenty of traditional villages with their own slopes, or that are linked into big ski areas. These vary in atmosphere from simple farming communities to more jet-setty environments.

Accommodation

The French are very keen on self-catering. This enables families and groups to spend a budget week in an otherwise expensive area. But if you've never stayed in a French rented apartment, be warned - they are usually very cramped. For example, a studio for two, by Austrian standards, will sleep at least six in France, with beds concealed in all sorts of strange places, such as under tables or inside cupboards!

Hotel accommodation in French resorts tends to be modern and functional rather than full of character - unless you are prepared to pay through the nose. In general French hotels are not as good value for money as Swiss or Austrian, and the people who run them are often not as friendly. There are, of course, several exceptions to the rule, and although you'll never find the cheesy American smiles of welcome when you arrive in a French ski resort, the French are certainly becoming more service-orientated.

Catered chalets are a good option in France. Many of the British tour operators offer a good range of chalet accommodation from budget to truly luxurious.

t Hotel Albert Premier (00 33 450 05 09) in Chamonix. A luxurious old- fashioned chalet with individually decorated bedrooms. The main restaurant has international recognition and a Michelin star and turns local specialities into gastronomic treats. More luxurious bedrooms, with fireplaces and spa baths, available in adjacent rustic farmhouses as well as a second Savoyard restaurant, sauna, mini-gym and massage.

t Hotel Kandahar (00 33 4 79 02 39) in Val d'Isere. Refurbished a few years ago, this three star hotel is quite good value and has nicely decorated bedrooms in a modern Savoyard style.

t Hotel L'Melezin (00 33 4 79 08 01 33) in Courchevel. Chic, stylish and sophisticated three star hotels with gigantic bedrooms and huge bathrooms. Discreet but luxurious.

Eating

The food in French ski resorts is usually excellent, albeit expensive. You may pay more for a meal in a French ski resort than you would in one of the glamorous Cote d' Azur towns such as Cannes. The strong pound, however, means that eating in France, is once again much more affordable. The alpine restaurants on the pistes are often self-service but usually serve good, full-course meals, or filling country dishes such as jambon cru (mountain ham), charcuterie (coarse salamis and hams), thick soups with French bread, or rich herb omelettes with a fresh green salad. The village restaurants offer more haute cuisine, such as escargots (snails in garlic butter) and flambe steak. There are also local French Alpine specialities such as fondue savoyarde (a rich cheese fondue) and gratin dauphinois (slices of potato baked in cream, cheese and nutmeg).

If you're self-catering, it's worth stocking up with local wines from the supermarket as these are usually excellent value. Beer in France is more expensive than wine.

t Le Radz in Megeve. On the slopes on the Cote 2000 side, this a very friendly and characterful restaurant that's popular with the local ski instructors.

t Le Cremaillere in the rustic hamlet of Les Lindarets, near Avoriaz, is a wonderful place to stop for lunch. Their mushroom fondue is out of this world and they also do a delicious wild myrtilles tart.

t Chalet du Cret in Val d'Isere. This beautifully renovated 300 year- old stone farm house with wooden beams has been turned into an excellent restaurant. The superb five-course fixed menu is good value. Go for drinks first in the bar upstairs which has an open fire and lots of antiques, old books and personal effects.

Apres ski

Despite inventing the phrase, apres-ski in French resorts is often non- existent. The truth is that after all that serious piste bashing most skiers in French resorts just want to crash out after dinner. If you want nightlife, choose one of the more sophisticated resorts or one of the traditional mountaineering towns.

t Chamonix. This mountaineering resort is always buzzing and has a cosmopolitan apres-ski to suit all prices ranges. Hot spots include the Australian bar, Wild Wallabies, and the ultra-cool Mill Street bar.

t Megeve. Sophisticated resort with excellent restaurants, stylish shops, and lots of nightclubs and piano bars. Enfants Terribles beside the Mont Blanc hotel is a popular and atmospheric brassiere. Caleche is a more restrained and sophisticated drinking spot. Harris Bar stays open until dawn.

t Val d'Isere. Famous for attracting skiers who want to ski all day and party all night. Cafe Face is ultra cool. Dick's T-bar is till popular with British Skiers.

Beginners

t Flaine. Not the most attractive of purpose built resorts, this is nevertheless a great place to learn to ski. There are excellent nursery slopes next to the village. The lifts for these are free, so you don't need to buy a lift pass until you are ready to go higher on the mountain to try some of the gentle blue runs.

t Le Grand Bornard. A charming place to learn to ski. Traditional French market town with 65km (40 miles) of pistes and 40 lifts. Under an hour's drive from Geneva, it's also ideal for short breaks. Lots of long wide blue and red runs for practising on.

t Isola 2000. Start your holiday in glamour by flying to Nice and driving up to this high altitude resort. The beginners' slopes are right in the heart of the resort with easy progression to greens and blues. The resort is not glamorous but rather soulless.

Intermediates

t Avoriaz. There's a certain charm about this futuristic looking purpose- built resort in the Portes du Soleil. The skiing possibilities for intermediates are superb with access to 650km (400 miles) of pistes.

t Meribel. This is one of the main resorts in Les Trois Vallees, a vast ski area which is total paradise for intermediates. There are 600km (370 miles) of pistes interlinked with a superb lift system. In a week's holiday you're unlikely to have skied more than a fraction of it.

t Serre Chevalier. An excellent resort for intermediates with some wonderfully pretty pistes through the woods. The runs here are over-graded so that most of the reds are actually very easy and more like blues. There are 250km (155 miles) of pistes in total. A good choice if you want to avoid soulless purpose-built resorts.

Experts

t Argentiere. A few miles down the road from Chamonix, this is a macho resort that attracts the world's best skiers. Les Grand Montets above Argentiere is renowned for its extensive steep terrain, with plenty of off-piste potential. A guide is essential as the area is pitted with crevasses to fall into.

t Val d'Isere. This has some of the most challenging skiing in the world. The main attraction for experts is the off-piste, but don't be misled by the small number of black runs as the colour gradings are less generous than in other resorts so that many of the red runs are more like blacks.

t La Grave. Tiny French mountaineering resort near the Italian border. All the skiing here is unpisted, with high, glaciated, north facing slopes and stunningly beautiful scenery. You'll need a guide.

Snowboarders

France has always been innovative in its approach to winter sports and has welcomed snowboarding, or le surf, as they call it, from the start. Many of the French resorts have their own snowboard schools as well as special snowboard parks.

t Les Arcs. This resort pioneered many of the snow alternatives, such as mono skiing and paragliding, and has also done much to encourage snowboarding. There is great variety of terrain for boarders including smooth runs for beginners, excellent off piste, and a snowboard park and half-pipe.

t Les Deux Alpes. Popular with all standards of boarders. A surf park opened last season with tables and a half-pipe. There's also a half-pipe on the glacier for boarding in the summer. Cheap accommodation and lively apres-surf.

t Avoriaz. Known as the Snowboarding Capital of Europe, this has an excellent fun park, a 100m half-pipe, a specialist snowboard school and a snowboard village for children aged 6-16 years old. They also have a special lift pass for boarders.

Tour Operators

t Crystal Holidays (0181 399 5144). Mainstream operator with hotels, chalets and apartments in Saas Fee, Verbier, Wengen, Zermatt, Leysin and Crans Montana.

t White Roc (0171 792 1188). Weekend breaks and tailor-made holidays in Argentiere, Chamonix, Megeve, Courchevel, Val Thorens, Meribel, Morzine and Val d'Isere. Also snowboard weekends.

t Collineige (01276 24262). Specialists in catered chalet holidays to Chamonix.

t Chalet Snowboard (01235 767575). Specialised snowboarding holidays in Avoriaz and Les Deux Alpes.

t Erna Low (0171 584 2841). Official UK representatives of La Plagne and Les Arcs. They are also ski sales agents for French apartment agency, Pierre & Vacances.

t Finlays (01835 830562). Apartments and catered chalets in Val d'Isere and Courchevel. Travel options include Snow Train and Eurostar Day Train.

t VIP (0181 875 1957). Val d'Isere specialists with a choice of chalets and apartments.

t Inghams (0181 780 4444). Mainstream operator featuring 20 French resorts with a choice of hotels of chalets as well as various travel options.

t Further information from the French Tourist Office (0891 244123 - calls charged at 50p per minute at all times).

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