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Winter Sun & Snow - skiing the southern French Alps

Winter Sun & Snow - skiing the southern French Alps

Being based in SW France has its advantages, not least the chance to visit sensational mountain areas which can seem too distant for most UK based skiers. Roger Moss explores the southern French Alps...

We previously looked at some of the best places to enjoy quality skiing and a whole lot more in the winter playground of the French Pyrénées. If we inspired you to head down there then you’ll now know all about the appeal of this attractive and highly accessible corner of France. This time around we have another surprise for you: you can enjoy much the same solid value and friendly vibe you found in the Pyrénées, but in the incomparable setting of the Alps, simply by keeping your sights further south than most skiers driving from the UK would consider.

Skiing-La-Jou-du-Loup-Superdévoluy

It’s easy to assume that the best skiing that France has to offer is located in the big name resorts of Savoie and Haute-Savoie, but if you cast your eye a little further down the map you’ll see that both the Hautes-Alpes and Alpes de Haute-Provence are home to vast, protected mountain areas like Le Vercors, Les Écrins, Le Queyras and Le Mercantour. What the map can’t show, however, is the fact that the mountains of the southern Alps offer some truly wonderful skiing, thanks to substantial snowfalls, plus the seductive combination of frequent clear blue skies and more than a hint of the heady spirit of Provence.

Orcieres-alps-skiingIf you’re driving from western France then an attractive gateway to many ski areas is the town of Gap, which lies on the historic Route Napoléon. Around 25km NW of the town you’ll find the linked ski domain of Le Dévoluy, which brings together the pistes of the traditional chalet-style village of La Joue du Loup and the more assertive apartment developments of SuperDévoluy.

The result of this interesting and versatile combination is 100km of downhill ski terrain set among refreshingly broad, open valleys. Level wise, the emphasis is on safe, relaxed family cruising, but there are also some exhilarating steeps, an entertaining ski-cross-style run (Les Meules) tucked away just above SuperDévoluy, plus worthwhile off-piste routes. Other activities include ski-joëring (fancy skiing behind a pony), dog-sledding, snowmobiling and paragliding – and as you’ll soon discover, evenings here tend to be more relaxed than further north, thanks to a more favourable climate.

Another short drive, this time NE of Gap, will bring you to the ski village of Orcières 1850, where you’ll find 100km of high altitude (up to 2725m) inter-mediate cruising terrain, with long runs, a capable modern lift system plus some of the best children’s learning facilities we’ve seen anywhere, making it particularly suitable for young families. There’s also a snowpark, an igloo village, dog-sledding, snowshoeing, paragliding, cross-country skiing,
plus a Tyrolean zip-wire. Oh, and ice-diving, should you feel so inclined. We’ll never forget one magical morning’s skiing here under a steelyblue sky, while dense white clouds hung in the valleys far below.

Les-Orres-Alps-skiingA little further south (almost due east of Gap, in fact), is the huge Lac de Serre-Ponçon, and beyond it the atmospheric town of Embrun. Its nearby companion, the ski village of Les Orres, is barely visible from the lakeside, but as you drive up the mountain the location reveals itself to be a surprisingly dramatic setting for three centres sited between 1550-1800m, the highest being the newest and most attractive (while the others entice visitors by offering free WiFi coverage).

Some 88km of downhill ski terrain are spread in and around larch and pine forest, presided over by a 2720m ridge offering vast panoramic views of the lake plus the wild and rugged Massif du Parpaillon. Once again, it’s a family-focused resort, although Les Orres’ slopes are noticeably steeper, inviting you to raise your game and your fitness level in preparation for the long, red-graded perimeter run known as Grand’Cabane. The liberating, away-from-it-all sensation of skiing in places like this is just one of the many rewards for discovering less well known (and therefore less crowded) ski areas. Another is the knowledge that there’s sure to be something unexpected tucked away in the next valley. In the case of Les Orres it’s the tiny ski village of Crévoux, a real charmer which sits at 1700m and possesses 22km of downhill terrain plus 45km of groomed cross-country pistes.

It would be better known and better equipped (it’s currently draglifts only) had strict environmental controls not prevented it being linked by chair-lift from its nearest neighbour Vars.

La-Foret-Blanche-Risoul-Alps-Skiing

From the latter’s point of view, though, that would merely be the cherry on top of an already big cake, namely the Forêt-Blanche ski area which it shares with Risoul 1850. Accessed from the N94 route between Briançon and Embrun, Risoul’s upbeat architectural style is fairly typical of high altitude purpose-built ski villages, but happily this one managed to avoid the hard edged concrete look of earlier developments, so it’s not unattractive.

Budget conscious younger skiers in particular seem to love it. If, however, you prefer a rather lower rise skyline, simply keep driving and you’ll find what you’re looking for at Vars, which opted for a more traditional approach, with most of the apartments being developed in chalet style. The resulting group of four hamlets is both friendly and welcoming, despite their high altitude settings, between 1500-1950m.

As for the skiing, the Forêt-Blanche (much of whose forests actually lie on the slopes above Risoul) boasts an impressive 185km of groomed downhill terrain, most of it designed for everyday leisure skiers, despite Vars having acquired a global reputation among serious free-riders and speed-skiers. True, there’s a steep speed-skiing piste, a huge snow-park and a whole lot of off-piste potential, but if like most people you’re looking for something less challenging, then you can simply enjoy the luxury of covering some real distance without ever leaving the groomed pistes. In fact, we’d nominate the Forêt-Blanche for the title of France’s Best Little Known Ski Area – and we’ll certainly be returning at every opportunity.

Alps-skiing-france-holidays

The name derives from the Latin ‘Varcium’, meaning high pass. Sure enough, a few km beyond the village the road crests the 2108m Col de Vars, which is kept open all year to provide access to the Vallée de l’Ubaye and to nearby Italy via the Col de Larche. L’Ubaye itself is home to several ski areas, the largest of which is easily accessible from the charming old market town of Barcelonnette. The Espace Lumière offers 180km of groomed runs between 1500-2600m, with the opportunity to ski from the resort of Pra Loup over to the beautiful and remote feeling Val d’Allos. Village-wise, Pra Loup might not be a beacon of a sensitive development, but it’s a fun place for families, with lots of facilities and an informal atmosphere, while its counterparts in the next valley have a more traditional feel, making them suitable to those who value a more purist experience. Either way, with good snow cover there’s some excellent skiing here, particularly the long route from Pra Loup over to La Foux d’Allos, which puts you firmly back in touch with nature, with an uplifting taste of high mountain escapism. La Foux’s incredible scenery (not to mention its restaurants) has a habit of making time slip by faster than you realise, but if you need to get back to Pra Loup then you’ll be relieved to find that a well thought out lift system makes doing so an altogether swifter affair.

Les-Orcieres-1850-Alps-France-Skiing

By now you’ll have some idea as to the quality of skiing on offer in the southern French Alps, although there are many more areas we haven’t been able to include in this brief introduction. Further south, for example, you’ll find more resorts long popular with skiers from Marseille and Nice, while to the north lie big name areas around Briançon and the Vallée de la Maurienne. Wherever you choose, you’ll find the same laid-back southern approach to skiing and a host of other mountain activities, surprising value and the kind of spectacular scenery which will draw you back again and again.

Alps-Pra-Loup-France-holidays-skiing

Find Out More...

Vars-France-Alps-skiingYou’ll find detailed independent resort reviews for the areas mentioned (plus many more) at: www.mountainpassions.com 

Official Sites:

www.ledevoluy.com

www.orcieres.com

www.lesorres.com

www.crevoux.fr

www.risoul.com

www.vars.com

www.praloup.com

www.winter.valdallos.com 

 

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in October 2014