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When it comes to skiing, France is one of Europe's top destinations. It is on the French-Italian border that the Alps, Europe's greatest mountain range, reach their peak, in the eternal snows at the summit of Mont Blanc, 4,810 m (15,781 ft) above sea level. The French Alps offer the broadest range of skiing opportunities anywhere in Europe, but they are not the only mountain range in France with skiing facilities, and in some cases it may be interesting to check out the opportunities available in the Vosges, the Jura, the Massif Central and the Pyrenees, all of which have fully equipped downhill and cross-country ski resorts. It is the Alps that offer the broadest range of resorts, and - on account of the altitude - those where the snow conditions are most reliable. Here are the main skiing areas in the French Alps. Les Portes du Soleil, (Avoriaz - Morzine) the northernmost area, takes in a dozen resorts, including Avoriaz - reputedly the capital of snowboarding - and Morzine, a long-established resort, at an altitude of 1000m, with plenty of facilities for beginners. The Morzine ski pass includes the runs at Les Gets, a resort that includes ski-runs for children only. The ski resort at Praz-de-Lys / Sommand is popular for the large number of easy runs. La Chapelle d'Abondance is reputed to be a good family ski resort.
Further south is the Chamonix - Megève sector; Chamonix, in the Savoy Alps, lying at the foot of Mont Blanc, was the original French ski resort, and for many years has been very popular with skiers from all over Europe; it is also very expensive. Today, the area around Chamonix and Megève offers the fifth largest skiing area in France. The resort at Combloux, near Megève, is reputed to have good opportunities for beginners. Les Carroz, near Flaine, is a popular resort for families with children. Les Arcs / La Plagne in the Haute Savoie offer plenty of high mountain skiing, so can usually guarantee good snow. Les Arcs is a resolutely modern ski resort, and is also close to the Bourg Saint Maurice train station, with direct Eurostar services from London, in season. Tignes / Val d'Isère is a high mountain area, with some 300 km of pistes, many of them over 2,500 metres altitude. This area offers a good number of pistes for beginners and relatively inexperienced skiers, as well as pistes for the more intrepid. Val d'Isère is reputedly the most expensive ski resort in Europe. With the highest pistes at over 3000 metres, this is an area where some skiing is possible almost throughout the year. The ski area of Les Trois Vallées (Les 3 Vallées), including the resorts of Courchevel, Val Thorens and Les Menuires, is the world's largest ski area accessible with a single pass. With 183 ski lifts and 335 downhill pistes, the area gives skiers access to over 600 km. of slopes - more than enough for even the most demanding of skiers. With almost 2000 snow cannons, the area is also able to guarantee that a fair number of pistes will be open even if the snow does not come in abundance. Courchevel, with its collection of top hotels and Michelin starred restaurants, is reputed as the most up-market ski resort in the French Alps, on a par with Zermatt and St. Moritz.
L'Alpe d'Huez: one of the largest ski resorts in France , l'Alpe d'Huez offers a wide range of facilities, including plenty of slopes for beginners, and also opportunities for off-piste sking. the resort is the closest major ski area to the city of Grenoble, and therefore attracts plenty of day trippers as well as staying guests. Further west, in the Vercors area, the resort of Villard de Lans, southwest of Grenoble, is reputed as the most environment-friendly ski resort in the French Alps, and also a good family resort. With 120 km of pistes, the southern Alpine resort of Isola 2000 is reputation of being both one of the sunniest ski resorts in France, one of the coldest, and also one of those that gets most snow. Damp winter winds off the Mediterranean can dump large quantities of snow on the high peaks of the southern Alps, while the northern Alps get little or nothing. The resort is a classic 1970s development, lying at an average altitude of 2000 metres - rising to 2,600 metres. This resort is just an hour and a half by car from the Riviera, and is therefore popular with people living in Nice and the surrounding area. There are plenty of other ski areas in the French Alps, but mostly smaller and for this reason often calmer, sometimes cheaper, and more family-oriented. Resorts that are based on long-existing small towns, such as La Clusaz, Aussois or Serre-Chevalier, near Briançon, offer an authentic Alpine experience.
Don't forget that insurance is vital. Flying to the Alps:
the main airports for the French Alps ski resorts are Lyon, Chambéry Grenoble and Geneva. For airlines serving these destinations, see the About-France.com Fly to France page. Before booking, beware of the possible extra charge levied for skiing gear. One airline that does not charge extra for skiing gear is Swiss International.
Driving to the Alps Road travel: The big problem with Alpine skiing areas is knowing how to avoid the crowds . A great international reputation means that the main Alpine ski resorts attract millions of skiers each winter, from all over France, and all over Europe. Avoiding peak weeks can mean far less time spent waiting in queues on the slopes, or waiting to be served in the restaurant – not to mention better deals. When to ski in France ? Avoiding the crowdsc - For obvious reasons, it is quite impossible to predict the best week in the year for skiing - anywhere in France. On the other hand, it is possible to suggest the times to avoid if you want to enjoy more time on the slopes, and less time standing in queues. The periods to avoid are basically the Christmas and New Year weeks, and February, when millions of people across France and Europe are enjoying half-term breaks. See table below. Consequently, that leaves two periods when conditions are less crowded, and often less expensive: Between about 5th January and early February: this is a relatively calm period on the ski slopes; the disadvantage is that the days are still short, and the weather can be at its coldest. The month of March: usually, this is the least crowded of the skiing months, except when Easter is early, and the Easter holiday period is still a good time for skiing. The disadvantage is that ski resorts at lower altitudes may be losing their snow, at least on the lower slopes. The advantage is that days are longer, and warmer. The Pyrenees; It is the Pyrenees that, after the Alps, undoubtedly offer the widest selection of ski resorts in France. Apart from the distance, and the possibility of a lack of snow in this mountain range straddling the French-Spanish border, the Pyrenees is a ski area with everything in its favour. And as in the other non-Alpine mountain ranges, Pyrenean resorts tend to be less crowded than popular Alpine resorts, except during school holidays.
The biggest ski area in the French Pyrenees is in the Hautes Pyrénées department, midway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Tourmalet (Barèges La Mongie), lies south of Lourdes and Tarbes; it is the second oldest ski resort in France, after Chamonix, and the ski area here has 42 ski lifts, has 69 pistes covering 100 km, and culminates at a height of 2,500 metres. . Not far from Tourmalet is Cauterets, a traditional Pyrenean town that has developed as a ski resort, with 24 pistes. Saint Lary Soulan, almost on the Spanish border, has some of the highest runs in the Pyrenees, up to 2500 metres. The resort at Super-Bagnères (1440 - 2260 metres) is directly accessible by cablecar from the town of Luchon (630m), so normally easily accessible by road under any weather conditions. In the eastern Pyrenees, the largest domain is Font-Romeu / Pyrenees 2000, a large area with 58 km of slopes of all levels for a single ski-pass. There are also over 100 km. of cross-country skiing pistes here. The resort is equipped with 500 snow cannons. Close by is Les Angles, with 26 ski lifts and 32 pistes, plus over 250 snow cannons.. The Vosges.
The Vosges mountains, running north-south between Lorraine and Alsace, in the east of France, have four main ski resorts with over fifteen pistes each. The Vosges benefit from the most continental climate in France, and in cold winters the vosges ski resorts offer very good snow, even though the highest spot on any piste is less than 1400 metres. The biggest Vosges resort is La Bresse, with 30 runs, snow cannons and illuminated pistes for evening skiing. This resort is popular with day-trippers from Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg and Luxembourg.
The Jura. A bit higher than the Vosges, the Jura is a range of mountains running along the northern border of Switzerland. The Jura ski resorts are along the crest of the range, some in France, others in Switzerland. They peak at between 1400m and 1600m. The most popular French Jura ski resorts are Les Rousses, just north of Geneva, and Métabief-Mont-d'Or, with 42 km of pistes, north of Lausanne. The Jura is also particularly appreciated for its nordic / cross-country skiing. The Massif Central; with peaks rising to over 1,800 metres, the Massif Central, in central southern France, has a number of small ski areas, and two big ones, Besse-Sancy (45 km of pistes) and Le Lioran (40 km of pistes). Both these resorts are fully equipped, and have an Alpine feel to them. They have cablecars, and plenty of ski lifts and ski tows. No snow?
Climate change, global warming, and winter sports:
The climate is getting warmer – there is no longer much doubt about that. When skiing first developed as a mass sport, back in the 1970's, the climate was definitely colder than it is now, and in many places ski facilities were set up below 1000 metres altitude. Today, there are few facilities - except possibly in the Vosges - that can operate at less than 1000 metres. Most French ski resorts are now painfully aware of the consequences of climate change, and many have taken measures to make sure that visitors are not left twiddling their thumbs should there be insufficient (or even too much) snow. All the major resorts, and many of the minor ones, now have snow cannons, that can cover some of their slopes with artificial snow. While artificial snow is not quite the same experience as real snow, it does allow better skiing if there is not enough real snow. The other solution is to provide alternative activities, and most resorts now offer a range of activities and facilities, including skating rinks, tennis courts, cycling pistes, hiking trails, cinemas, and a lot more. It is always advisable to check out a ski resort before making a booking, and see what facilities are available, should there be little or no snow. With its sizeable collection of high-altitude stellar resorts, 8000km of pistes spread over 300 resorts and some of the biggest names in world skiing, France has justifiable claims to be the doyenne of the European ski scene. While Austria has better nightlife, Switzerland more chocolate box charm and Italy the greatest mountain restaurants, none can rival France's ski resorts strength in depth. The majority of today's skiers want well-linked miles of pisted cruising and the ski resorts in France deliver in spades; with the Three Valleys, Espace Killy, Paradiski and the Portes de Soleil chief among them. For those looking for more untracked challenges Chamonix and La Grave can be casually added to the list above. The lift systems of the mega-resorts are the best in the world. Geographically, France can be divided into three main ski resort areas. The Northern Alps, comprising the resorts of Portes de Soleil, the cluster around Chamonix and those humble few straddling the Tarentaise valley - the Three Valleys, Espace Killy and Paradiski among others - are where the best skiing is to be found.Flirting with the southern Alps and sitting just north of the Col de Lautaret, the majestic dividing point between north and south, are the sometimes overlooked gems of Les Deux Alpes, Alpe d'Huez and La Grave. South of here are the characterful Serre Chevalier and Montgenèvre, though you can ski almost down to the coast at Isola 2000. Southwest of the Alpine range lie the different charms of the Pyrenees. Another strong attraction of France is the convenience of most ski resorts to neighbouring airports, the various gateways of Geneva, Lyon, Grenoble and Chambéry into the Northern Alps mean long airport transfers are not an issue. Self-drive holidays are also an easy option and are becoming increasingly popular, particularly with British skiers.Generally, resort charm loses out to purpose-built convenience in France. There are notable exceptions, like the pioneering chalet-style of Méribel (France leads the way in chalet holidays) and the historic town centre of Chamonix, but the advantages of purpose-built resorts are both altitude and plenty of slope-side accommodation. Most of the major ski resorts have small satellite villages which are often far more charming as well as being a less expensive resort base.The recent arrival of Canadian resort developers Intrawest has shaken up the French ski market and re-defined the standards of purpose-built resorts with Arc 1950 (in Les Arcs), bringing a touch of North American flair and hospitality. Many of the ugly ducklings of old are being overhauled, either by removing eyesores from the past, as in the case of Les Menuires, or, like in Alpe d'Huez, disguising the concrete with sympathetic wood cladding. Lunch on the mountain is generally of a high standard in France, particularly if you go for the Plat du Jour, and waiter-served restaurants offer a much better experience. Likewise, most resorts have a good selection of restaurants for evening dining. Leading the way for après-ski are Chamonix, Val d'Isère and Les Deux Alpes. The old bugbear of the French ski school (ESF) is still true in part, though there is now a new generation of forward-thinking multi-lingual instructors and most resorts offer decent alternatives.Above all, in terms of altitude, snow conditions, lift networks and the variety of the mountains, France is unparalleled.