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A family affair - skiing in France

A family affair - skiing in France

Winter months find beaches virtually deserted, but on the snow-capped mountains of France countless families will be outdoors enjoying the kind of fun no-one ever quite outgrows. We show you how and where...

 

France is blessed with a bewildering choice of destinations. In good snow conditions the Alps, the Pyrénées and even the Auvergne all offer great skiing, but each season favours certain areas. Keeping an eye on live webcam images will give you an idea of an area’s snow cover. Take a careful look at the resort website, too – not merely to check out the terrain on the piste map, but also to find accommodation close to ski-school meeting points, crêche facilities, shops and services. Finally, look for the ‘Famille Plus’ label, a French ski industry standard awarded to resorts which offer a special welcome to families, backed-up with a range of facilities and activities. Interestingly, the demanding standards required for this kind of accreditation relate not only to children but also to older family members, i.e. grandparents. In France skiing really is a family affair.

Now for the fun stuff – where to ski. In the Pyrénées we’ve been impressed by Peyragudes, a purpose-built resort above the Vallée du Louron, southeast of Tarbes. The pistes are on opposite sides of the mountain, so you can enjoy good snow conditions throughout the day. Ski-school areas are also ultra accessible, as is the mountain itself. There’s good intermediate cruising, a snowpark, steeper runs for confident skiers and the scenery (the opening sequence of ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ was filmed here) is amazing. Around 8km west of Peyragudes, Saint-Lary Soulan is a traditional year-round resort in an accessible valley with high speed gondola lift access to the skiing. Snow cover down below can be patchy, but on the mountain it’s much more dependable, and the mood is super-friendly. If you really want to play safe, though, just up the valley lies Piau Engaly, which boasts the highest altitude skiing in the French Pyrénées, the longest season and a youthful, fun image. On the other hand, for an enjoyable day’s skiing during a good snow season we’d also recommend Hautacam, just above Argelès-Gazost, south of Lourdes. Tiny but adored by generations of locals (and an historic climb in the Tour de France), its simple drag-lifts minimise visual impact on the hauntingly beautiful scenery, and make skiing here very affordable.

If you don’t live that close to the Pyrénées then driving to the Alps might not take much longer, and will expand your choice of destinations dramatically. To compete with big-name areas, smaller resorts offer real value and the kind of relaxed, welcoming vibe which year-round working communities pride themselves in offering. Starting in the north, below Geneva, is Le Grand Bornand, a traditional Savoyard ski village linked by shuttle buses to neighbouring La Clusaz, creating lots of varied terrain in the beautiful Massif des Aravis. Both villages are unassuming year-round communities, and offer a warm welcome to visitors. Just east of these two, beyond the Col des Aravis, is the Famille Plus resort of Combloux, whose back-to-nature slopes are much quieter than those of nearby Megève. The village itself is charming and although the ski area is further up the mountain, it’s all family-friendly, with free lift passes for under-5s.

A little further down the Val d’Arly you’ll find Crest Voland, a small ski village with a big heart plus easy access to the hugely underrated Espace Diamant ski area. Here you can ski a complete circuit, passing through places like Notre-Dame de Bellecombe and Les Saisies – another very welcoming ski village with lots of facilities and services, plus ski terrain which won’t intimidate beginners and less-confident skiers. It overlooks the Beaufortain valley, which is easily accessible from Albertville and home not only to the world famous AOC Beaufort cheese, but also another ski area. While not huge, Arêches-Beaufort has apartments overlooking a sheltered beginner area plus easy lift access to some quite varied ski terrain, again in beautiful surroundings.

Continuing south and bypassing some pricier, big-name ski areas, we’ll now turn our attention to the Vallée de la Maurienne, starting with Saint-François Longchamp. For young families it’s a solid choice, with a friendly, upbeat village overlooking the pistes, free activities plus reasonable prices for accommodation, services and lift passes. It has a great lift system, and you can easily ski over the famous Col de la Madeleine into Valmorel. A little further along the valley is La Toussuire, another great family destination and perhaps the friendliest ski village we’ve ever visited. It offers superb skiing in the huge Les Sybelles ski area and has restaurants and services for most budgets. Close by but not lift-linked is Albiez-Montrond, a smaller, more traditional village with modern childcare facilities, safe and accessible pistes and sensational views. Another year-round community, it’s perfect for a relaxing, unpressured family ski break - and a 20 min drive will get you to Saint-Sorlin d’Arves to ski Les Sybelles.

A little further into the Maurienne lies Valloire, perched below the Col du Galibier and another friendly village community. Long popular with French family skiers, it has a modern lift system plus a well-planned piste network linked with that of purpose built Valmeinier. We love the relaxed (but far from comatose) atmosphere and real-world pricing. Beyond the town of Modane you’ll enter the Haute Maurienne, whose nearest resort of La Norma calls itself ‘Le Village Cosy’. It certainly is, having been planned from the outset with families in mind with everything including the ski-school area very accessible. Prices are very reasonable too, and there’s free covered car parking. Nearby are two more family focused areas – Aussois and Termignon, the latter linked by high speed chair-lifts to the pistes of Val Cenis. The ski terrain tops off at a respectable 2696m, and snowfalls here tend to be pretty reliable (up ahead is the 2764m Col de l’Isèran, beyond which lies Val d’Isère).

Further south you’ll enjoy sunnier skies, combined with surprisingly impressive snowfalls. Tucked away just below Serre Chevalier is the ski village of Puy Saint-Vincent, whose accommodation includes conveniently ski-in/ski-out apartments. The lower pistes are nicely sheltered by forests, while the topmost terrain includes off-piste opportunities for different tastes and abilities. A few km away is Briançon, east of which lies Montgenèvre, an all-time favourite of ours, which offers cross-border skiing into Italy (and a huge amount of terrain). The local pistes, though, are varied enough for the whole family to enjoy.

Earlier this year a landslide near La Grave blocked the road from Grenoble, so for the time being access to this area of the southern Alps is via the town of Gap, gateway to several family-focused resorts. Particularly interesting is Orcières 1850, whose 2ha Piou-Piou ski-school area for small children is perhaps the best we’ve seen anywhere in France, while more experienced family skiers enjoy long, high-altitude scenic cruising runs. The village is more down-homey than glamorous, but it’s friendly and affordable. The same can be said for Pra Loup, above Barcelonnette in the Vallée de l’Ubaye, and you also get to ski in the beautiful Val d’Allos. Both resorts get novices off to a safe start – and when your children are ready to ski with a sense of adventure, this is the place in which to do it.

Elsewhere, while lower altitudes mean they’re best enjoyed when low temperatures follow heavy snowfalls, there’s gentle, reassuring skiing on offer in the Jura, the Vosges and closer to home in the Auvergne, where Le Lioran and the linked Famille Plus resorts of Le Mont Dore and SuperBesse have a deservedly loyal following among value conscious family skiers. When the snow is good they’ll surprise you. But wherever you decide to go, we wish you and your family ‘Bon Ski!’.

Tips for Happy Family Skiers

Note down your own priorities

Are any of you ‘first-timers’? Do you prefer your skiing to be relaxing or challenging? Will you be needing ski-school tuition with English-speaking instructors?
Will you need childcare facilities? For how long are you able to get away? Having a clear picture of your needs will make
choosing your ideal resort much easier.

Look for a ‘Famille Plus’ resort

You’ll have special facilities, including great ski schools for kids, dedicated infant care facilities and gentler activities for grandparents.

Select self-catering accommodation

Eat what (and when) you like. However, if your accommodation will be catered, check sample menus to ensure that your kids will be happy to eat what will be served.

Ski gear: buy or hire?

Young children grow fast, so hiring will ensure that they have the correct sizing. Advance online booking brings discounts, and some accommodation offers guests preferential hire prices. For adults, your own gear will be reassuringly familiar, let you get onto the slopes sooner and will quickly repay the investment. Previous seasons’ models are sold off at attractive discounts, but buy from a ski shop offering patient and professional boot-fitting. Your feet and your technique will thank you. As for skis, don’t buy on looks alone; test (or hire) different models suited to your own skiing level - on the right skis you’ll suddenly feel more confident and ski better.

Prepare your vehicle for winter driving

In addition to spare bulbs, fuses and other essential items required by law when driving in France, take a blanket or two, a head-torch, a sturdy ice-scraper and plenty of de-icer. A windscreen cover is invaluable if you’ll be parking outside.
As you’re likely to be driving on snow, carry snow-chains or textile ‘chaussettes neige’ if your vehicle won’t take chains – and practice fitting them to your car well before you leave.

Save money on ski-passes

Resort websites feature advance booking special offers and family deals. Part-day and non-consecutive day lift-passes give you time to relax, enjoy other activities or ski in nearby resorts.

Consider ski-in/ski-out accommodation

You can avoid long and uncomfortable treks in your boots, while carrying both your own and your children’s skis. Check the relevant piste difficulty.

You’ll find detailed independent resort reviews of all the areas mentioned (and many more), plus family activities, etc. at www.mountainpassions.com .

© Living Magazine. Published October 2015.