They say skiing is a lot like parenting (you’re always skating that thin line between control and chaos) so when you combine the two in one holiday, it can be a tricky balancing act! Opting for more of a budget choice with runs suitable for the whole family is the first step; skiing in France doesn’t need to break the bank, and beyond the big names there are plenty of lesser-known resorts that are frequented more often by locals than the skiing jet set. Here are two great options where the skiing is both beginner-friendly, with challenges close by, and the setting is as authentic as the croziflette (traditional cheesy pasta bake) you just had for lunch.
Haute Maurienne Vanoise
Close to the Italian border and surrounded by France’s first national park, Parc National de la Vanoise, the picturesque Haute Maurienne Vanoise (en.haute-maurienne-vanoise.com) in the Savoy region is one of France’s secret idylls. Rural villages dotting the valley are anything but pretentious, local restaurants are very welcoming, and you’re more likely to see an Alpine ibex than intoxicated snow bunnies looking for their lost chalet at night.
A working valley year-round, there is backcountry, Nordic and a range of downhill skiing here. A free shuttle bus runs up and down the valley so no matter where you base yourself you can explore the other ski areas without needing your own transport. The small township of Lanslebourg-Mont-Cénis, which locals somewhat ironically refer to as ‘the capital’, is the liveliest. Further up the valley, Lanslevillard has a rural boho vibe with a handful of restaurants – top pick in the region is La Peau de Vache (restaurant-lapeaudevache.com) – and plenty of bars to choose from but limited shopping. It's a good base for families and beginners, with the longest continuous green piste in France.
At the very end of the valley is Bonneval, a more remote village (on the road to Val d’Isere) below a ski area with pistes for intermediate to advanced skiers. From here guided off-piste ski touring is an option for the thrill-seeker. The nursery slopes and an ice skating rink are close to the main street, but this village better suits competent skiers looking for somewhere more exclusive.
For après-ski options in Vanoise, check out the cosmic sauna and ice diving. Ice diving involves channelling your inner James Bond then, in full scuba kit, diving under a frozen lake entering the inky blackness through a small hole cut in the ice. For a more relaxed, yet equally exhilarating, experience the cosmic sauna sees guests warmed to around 50°C then running down to the frozen lake in the snow, plunging in ice cold water, and returning once more to the wood-lined sauna with skin tingling and heart racing. For more info check out plongee-vanoise.fr.
Accommodation in Vanoise ranges from mid-range self-catering chalets (for around €270 a night for a family of four) to high-end apartments with an indoor pool (at around €400 per night). For English speakers, Peak Retreats (peakretreats.co.uk) can arrange accommodation, ski hire, lessons and ski-lift packages to suit your needs. Fares from London to Modane with French train operator Voyages SNCF (uk.voyages-sncf.com/en/) begin at £110 per person return.
Also in the Savoy region, Valloire is less sleepy but still relatively rustic with over 50 green and blue pistes and 34 chair lifts. The village centres around a 17th century church and has a wide range of restaurants including authentic Savoy cuisine (try the Génépi liqueur) as well as plenty for the night-owls from bowling to bar-hopping.
Most pistes are above 2000m so decent snow is pretty much guaranteed for the start of the season. For families, Valloire is a great option because of its long winding green and blue runs, and wooded trails on La Sétaz. More skilled skiers and snowboarders will find half a dozen black runs plus off-piste terrain for the adventurous. And if you’re really looking for more variety the Les Trois Vallées (The Three Valleys) is close enough for a day trip – so you have even more terrain to carve through.
We recommend timing your trip with the fairytale-like International Snow Sculpture Contest (valloire.net). Teams of artists design and construct large-scale snow-and-ice sculptures in the main street (cast your vote for the ‘people’s choice’ awards) that are all the more otherworldly when lit up at night.
The snow train from London/Paris arrives in St Michel Valloire in the late afternoon in time to get your accommodation and gear sorted before dinner. And with Chambéry Airport around an hour’s drive away, Valloire is an option for a long ski (or snowboarding) weekend to give the kids a taster before committing to a whole mid-term week.
Tasmin Waby travelled to France with support from Atout France (france-montagnes.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.