Alpine Bliss: Small French Ski Resorts
It’s hard to resist the lure of the French Alps – the clear, crisp air; a creamy hot chocolate on a mountain restaurant terrace; a gooey cheese fondue by an open fire; fluffy blankets of snow against a vivid blue sky. But you don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to get the most out of a snow holiday and enjoy the pleasure of being in the mountains.
France’s smaller resorts in particular have been coming up with more and more imaginative ways of making use of all that white stuff. If they can’t compete with the big boys in size, they certainly hold their weight with the sheer variety of fun activities that will please skiers and non-skiers alike.
All will have ski lifts for pedestrians that take you up to mountain restaurants so you too can enjoy the views over lunch. And all the resorts will have a weekly food market, which is always a colourful spectacle – and a mouthwatering showcase of local produce. Just think of all that cheese and saucisson.
Mary Novakovich is an award-winning travel writer who specialises in Eastern Europe, France and Italy. Her latest guidebook, Explore Dubrovnik, was published by Insight Guides in Summer 2015.
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You don’t really realise you’re in Provence until you hear the Provençal twang coming from the friendly residents of this intimate resort in the Hautes Alpes. If you’re not there to ski its 100km of pistes, then you’ve got to have a go on the Orrian Express.
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This monorail luge ride chugs slowly up 710m before letting passengers swoop and twist along the rail at dizzying speeds for 1.5km. It’s definitely not just for the kids. If you fancy a go on skis but don’t want to do all the work yourself, then try ski-jöring. Strapped into skis, you’re pulled along by horses through wooded trails. Just try not to let go of the reins.
Unless you’re a Tour de France fan, you might not be familiar with this small resort on the edge of the Tarentaise Valley, where the Col de la Madeleine is one of the cycling race’s most formidable climbs. You can get a bird’s-eye view of the pretty car-free village and the valley on a tandem paraglide flight – one of the most exhilarating things you’re ever likely to do.
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If you want to keep your feet on the ground, take a guided snowshoe trek through the forest near l’Aigle Blanc. You can even do an evening version and end up in an igloo for an aperitif and a welcome plate of charcuterie.
Another popular stage on the Tour de France (at the Col du Galibier), Valloire in the Maurienne Valley has a loftier claim to fame: it’s home to France’s highest microbrewery. Take a tour of Brasserie Galibier to see how the sparkling clean, fresh water of the Alps is turned into liquid gold.
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For something a little less intoxicating, take a walk through the forests with a group of llamas – the only ski resort in France where you can stroll in the snow with these adorable creatures. And every January, Valloire puts on a dazzling display of snow and ice sculptures.
It’s connected to the giant Portes du Soleil ski domain, but Châtel is still a small village with a pleasingly French atmosphere. They’ve also come up with various ways to hurl people down the mountain without the use of skis. Try airboarding, which involves going downhill head first on a short fat lilo; snake glisse, which is a serpentine chain of small linked toboggans – the one at the end of the “tail” will be flung the furthest; and the single-runner yooner harks back to the old days of wooden sledges.
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If you’re really after a thrill, try the new Fantasticable zip wire that whizzes you along at speeds of up to 100km/h. And as you’re in the Abondance Valley, it would be a shame not to visit one of the farms making delicious Abondance cheese.
It’s the only French ski resort in the otherwise Italian Milky Way ski domain, so it’s not surprising there’s a strong Italian flavour in this Provençal resort. Like Les Orres, it has a monorail toboggan – the Monty Express – which whizzes you 1400m downhill from the top of the Chalvet cable car.
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For life at a slower pace, wallow in the warm bubbling waters of the new Durancia spa centre (top tip for the chaps: don’t forget to bring your Speedos, as baggy shorts aren’t allowed in French public pools). You can walk 15 minutes across the border to have lunch in Italian Claviere, or take a short bus ride to Unesco-listed Briançon, one of France’s highest towns.
Le Grand Bornand/La Clusaz
These attractive neighbours form the bulk of the Lake Annecy Ski Resorts ski domain, and both villages exude a rustic French charm. They’re also only 30 minutes from Annecy, one of the most delightful cities in France and well worth a day trip.
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There’s plenty to keep you occupied in the snow: try the véloski ski-bike, which allows people of all ages to glide down the mountain without any ski skills – although it helps if you can ride a bike. And keen cyclists can have a go on a fatbike, a specially adapted mountain bike, along one of the riverside paths. Both villages have ice rinks if you want to get your skates on.
Built for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, La Tania offers a back door to the biggest ski domain in the world, the Trois Vallées. But the family-friendly ambience in this cute little toy town surrounded by woods is a world away from the Michelin-starred glitz of Courchevel – although La Tania does manage to squeeze in a Michelin-starred restaurant of its own.
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There’s a cable car that takes non-skiers up the mountain so they can join skiing friends for lunch. And for fun in the snow, go for a ride on a snowmobile or let a pack of excitable huskies lead you along wooded trails. Scooter boys and girls can spend the evening riding a snow scooter before arriving in a yurt for a gourmet aperitif.