Skiing & Snowboarding

The 200-plus resorts in the French Alps have earned a reputation for offering some of the best – perhaps the best – downhill skiing and snowboarding in Europe. In larger resorts, there are snow parks kitted out with halfpipes, kickers and ramps.

At most stations, the ski season begins in mid-December, with snow conditions at their height between January and March, and ending in mid-April (sometimes later). The highest-altitude stations, such as Val Thorens (in Les Trois Vallées) and Val d'Isère (Espace Killy), open in mid- or late November and don't close until early May. Lots of people line up a chalet and go skiing for a week, staying from Saturday to Saturday.

Summer skiing on glaciers is possible at two French ski stations: Val d'Isère/Tignes (Espace Killy) between early June and mid-July and Les Deux Alpes from late June to early September.

The Jura is renowned for its ski de fond (cross-country) trails; Les Rousses and the Métabief-Mont d'Or area each have more than 200km of trails.

European downhill runs are colour-coded to indicate how kid-easy or killer-hard they are:

Green Beginner

Blue Moderate

Red Intermediate (experienced skiers and above)

Black Difficult (advanced skiers only)

Ski Rental & Lessons

Skis (alpine, cross-country, telemark), snowboards, snowshoes, boots, poles and helmets can be hired at sport shops in every resort. All-inclusive rental costs around €35 per day for good-quality alpine equipment or snowboarding gear (about two-thirds of that for kids) and €18 for cross-country. Reserving ahead online can get you around 15% discount.

Every resort has a variety of ski schools with certified instructors; tourist offices have details. France’s leading ski school, the École du Ski Français (www.esf.net) – its instructors distinctive in red jumpsuits – has a branch in every resort. Group lessons typically cost around €45/200 for one/six half-days. Private downhill instruction (€200 per half-day) and off-piste guides (upward of €350 per day) are also available. Kids can start learning from the age of four or six (depending on the resort and whether it's skiing or boarding). From as young as 2½ they can play in the jardin de neige (snow garden) and some resort crèches will accept even younger tots.

Lift Passes

You will need a forfait (lift pass) to ride the various remontées mécaniques (lifts): téléskis (tow lines), télésièges (chairlifts), télécabines (gondolas), téléphériques (cable cars) and funiculaires (funicular railways). At the big resorts, passes cost €45 to €55 per day or €250 to €300 per six days, about 40% less than at major US resorts. At most Alpine resorts, lift tickets can be bought and recharged online.

At most stations, children aged three or four and under ski for free but still need a pass; bring along a passport as proof of age. Some places also offer free lift passes to skiers aged over 75. A few resorts (eg Val d’Isère and Les Deux Alpes) have several free lifts for beginners. Weeklong passes often include limited access to leisure facilities like a swimming pool, ice-skating rink or gym.

You have to pay a forfait or redevance (fee), usually around €9 a day, to use ski de fond (cross-country) trails.

Insurance

Before you launch yourself like a rocket down that near-vertical black piste, make sure you have the proper assurance (insurance). Accidents happen, and expensive mountain-rescue costs (we’re talking five figures for a helicopter), medical treatment and repatriation add insult to injury.

Check, then double-check, that your travel insurance policy covers winter sports. Insurance packages differ greatly: make sure evacuation and emergency first aid are included, and ensure that it covers the length of time you intend to spend on the mountains (some have limits). Note that some providers exclude off-piste. Insurance providers that specialise in winter sports may be a better option if you plan to spend a significant amount of time riding off-piste.

The Fédération Française de Ski offers members of its local clubs, holders of the Licence Carte Neige (www.ffs.fr/federation/licence-carte-neige), an optional annual insurance policy (€37 to €56 per year for downhill, including membership) that covers emergency evacuation whether you're on- or off-piste. It's instantly recognised by French rescue services so you won't have to pay out-of-pocket and then file for reimbursement. At ski stations, it is available from the local École du Ski Français (ESF) branch.

A simpler option is to include Carré Neige insurance, the benefits of which are similar, when you buy your lift pass (it's usually offered, both in person and when purchasing online).

Rental shops offer equipment insurance for a small extra charge (often €2 a day).

Avalanches

Avalanches are a serious danger wherever deep snow meets steep slopes. You know the golden rule: never hike, climb or ride off-piste alone. Off-piste skiers should never head out without an avalanche probe, transceiver (signal transmitter), shovel – and, most importantly, a professional guide.

Ski resorts announce the daily risk level using signs and coloured flags: yellow (low risk), black and yellow (heightened risk) and black (severe risk). When we last skied through, there was talk of phasing out flags in favour of pictograms that rank the risk from green (mild) to red (dangerous).

Henry’s Avalanche Talk (www.henrysavalanchetalk.com) summarises off-piste conditions in English every week, and provides links to Météo France's avalanche bulletins across the Alps and beyond. Run by an off-piste guide, the website is a good source of information about avalanche preparedness and all things off-piste.

Ticket to Glide

Chamonix

Elevation (m)

1035-3330

Best For…

intermediate, advanced, off-piste

Runs (km)

182

1-day lift passes (€)

51.50

6-day lift passes (€)

258.50

Megève/St-Gervais

Elevation (m)

850-2353

Best For…

beginner, intermediate

Runs (km)

445

1-day lift passes (€)

46.50

6-day lift passes (€)

234.50

Les Portes du Soleil

Elevation (m)

1000-2466

Best For…

all levels, especially intermediate

Runs (km)

650

1-day lift passes (€)

52

6-day lift passes (€)

260

Les Trois Vallées

Elevation (m)

1450-3230

Best For…

all levels, especially advanced

Runs (km)

600

1-day lift passes (€)

61 (all resorts)

6-day lift passes (€)

300 (all resorts)

Val d’Isère/Espace Killy

Elevation (m)

1550-3456

Best For…

intermediate, advanced, off-piste

Runs (km)

300

1-day lift passes (€)

57

6-day lift passes (€)

285

Les Deux Alpes

Elevation (m)

1650-3600

Best For…

intermediate, advanced, snowboarding

Runs (km)

225

1-day lift passes (€)

50

6-day lift passes (€)

250

Alpe d’Huez

Elevation (m)

1250-3330

Best For…

all abilities, snowboarding, Europe’s longest black run

Runs (km)

245

1-day lift passes (€)

52.50

6-day lift passes (€)

267

La Clusaz

Elevation (m)

1100-2600

Best For…

beginner, intermediate, families

Runs (km)

125

1-day lift passes (€)

37.50

6-day lift passes (€)

201

Serre Chevalier

Elevation (m)

1200-2830

Best For…

intermediate, off-piste

Runs (km)

250

1-day lift passes (€)

49.90

6-day lift passes (€)

254.80

Le Grand Bornand

Elevation (m)

1000-2100

Best For…

beginner, intermediate, cross-country

Runs (km)

90

1-day lift passes (€)

36.50

6-day lift passes (€)

183

Chamrousse

Elevation (m)

1400-2250

Best For…

beginner, intermediate

Runs (km)

90

1-day lift passes (€)

34.50

6-day lift passes (€)

173

Métabief Mont d’Or

Elevation (m)

950-1430

Best For…

cross-country, families

Runs (km)

214 cross-country, 34km downhill

1-day lift passes (€)

28

6-day lift passes (€)

138.50

Epic Skiing

Lift-pass expense and airport distance be damned, the French Alps is a land of infinite world-class pistes, of top-of-Europe elation. Ski touring in the shadow of Mont Blanc; Val d’Isère’s roller coaster Olympic runs; big air in Les Deux Alpes; the catwalk slopes of Courchevel, where you’ll need to pout as well as you plough – regardless of which you choose, this is one downhill ride you will never forget.

Preplanning pays off: sidestep school holidays to stretch your euro further, and book lift passes online to skip past the queues. And with the crème de la crème of instructors at the ubiquitous École du Ski Français, you’ll zip smoothly from bending zee knees to freestyle dancing on skis.

Top 5 High-Altitude Thrills

  • Off-piste skiing in La Vallée Blanche, 20 mind-blowing kilometres from the spike of the Aiguille du Midi to Chamonix.
  • Making a knuckle-whitening 3.2km mountain-bike descent in Morzine, where the scenery becomes a blur of greenery.
  • High-fiving your mountain guide as you reach the 4810m summit of Mont Blanc, the rooftop of Europe.
  • Soaring along the world's highest zip line at speeds of up to 100km/h in Val Thorens.
  • Doing a Tour de France in reverse, hurtling around 21 hairpin bends from Alpe d’Huez to Bourg d’Oisans.

Tour de France

No event gets the wheels of the cycle-racing world spinning quite as fast as the Tour de France, or ‘Le Tour’ as it is popularly known. This is the big one: one prologue, 21 stages, almost 3500km clocked in three weeks by about 180 riders, an entire country – and, often, bits of its neighbours – criss-crossed by bicycle. Broadcast around the world every July, it is a spectacle of epic determination and endurance, of mountain passes steep enough to turn thighs to rubber, of hell-for-leather sprints, of tears and triumph.

The brainchild of journalist Géo Lefèvre, the race was first held in 1903 to boost sales of L’Auto newspaper, with upward of 60 trailblazers pedalling through the night to complete the 2500km route in 19 days (fewer than half reached the finish line). Since then, the Tour has become the cycling event. And despite headlines about skulduggery, doping and scandal, the riders' sheer guts and hard-won triumphs never fail to inspire.

The Route

Though the exact route changes every year, the Tour essentially does some sort of a loop around France, taking in a variety of terrains (coast, countryside, mountains) and occasionally dipping into other countries (for example, Germany and Belgium in 2017). Times are totted up from the day-long stages to get the lowest aggregate time and determine the overall leader, who gets to wear the coveted maillot jaune (yellow jersey). The race always finishes, with much fanfare, in Paris on the Champs-Élysées. See www.letour.com for a stage-by-stage breakdown.

Spectator Tips

You can watch Le Tour on TV, but nothing beats experiencing the race first-hand. Host towns treat it as a big party, with families turning out for roadside picnics and the publicity caravan of goodie-throwing floats psyching everyone into carnival mode before the riders whoosh by in a blur.

Want to see the race for yourself? You’ll need to make travel plans well ahead. The Alpine and Pyrenean stages are terrific, giving you plenty of opportunity to observe riders as they slow down (relatively speaking) to tackle the gruelling inclines. Get there early to snag a front-row spot.