Skiing in Les Trois Valleys, France
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Les Trois Vallees or The 3 Valleys is a vast ski area in the French Alps. It dates back to 1925, when Arnold Lunn (father of the slalom and general skiing legend) proclaimed it the perfect setting for a Swiss-standard ski area. Decades down the line, it’s grown to become the biggest ski lift network in the world and many would say (with ample reason), the best.
The ski area spans eight different resorts, an octuplet of original and purpose-built settlements.
Most internationally renowned is Courchevel. It may have become known as the stomping ground of the private-jet-set (the type who do more designer shopping than skiing, order champagne like it’s tap water and wear coats costlier than your whole holiday budget…). But what attracted such elite guests in the first place remains wonderful as ever - this is certainly one of the prettiest ski resorts in France (tree-lined pistes, wood and stone chalets, cobbled streets). There’s plenty to do off the slopes for half-day and non-skiers (the aforementioned shopping, scenic spots for reading, walks galore…) and for foodies, it can’t be beat (more about that later).
Méribel has long been the favourite resort of British skiers. Smack in the middle of the ski area, it was founded by a Scotsman and has a lot of Brit-run businesses, creating a familiar atmosphere. The architecture’s attractive and authentic, consisting of lovely timber chalet hamlets. Après ski is infectiously merry and if you’re bringing the grandkids, the children’s offerings are top notch.
The third big resort is Val Thorens, which is higher than any other ski resort in Europe. Created for skiing convenience, it’s made of tall, wood-clad blocks from the seventies and some new, avant-garde hotels. Easy piste access and snow sure slopes more than make up for the absence of authentic charm.
The rest of the resorts are smaller, lesser known and also likely to let your budget stretch further. Les Menuires has the easiest slope access - a set of newly built properties up on the piste-side. Its neighbour, St Martin de Belleville is an attractive oldie, parish church and all. La Tania’s a smaller, quieter version of Méribel – with a British feel and traditional style buildings. Then there’s Brides les Bains, a pretty spa town and lastly, miniature Orelle - barely more than a single bar, restaurant and shop but accessing some of the highest slopes in the region.
Each of the eight resorts has at least one lift, and what those lifts take you up to is the main attraction. In numbers, 600km / 1,512 hectares of pistes (over 85% of them above 1,800m, the highest at 3,230m) and 166 lifts. In words, this is the world’s largest lift-linked ski area and it’s nothing short of spectacular.
There is every type of piste imaginable here. If you’re a little wobbly on the planks, Courchevel’s good for gentle greens and Meribel has specific ‘Zen Zones’ for slow skiing on wide, quiet slopes. Ski schools are scattered all over the area, many of them British run. If you’re confident carving on the steep slopes, there are plenty as well as guides who can show you the off-piste… Long distance skiers can schuss far and wide on red runs, while those with smaller comfort zones get acquainted with the lovely loops from the main lifts. If you’re visiting with the grandchildren, there are themed runs to delight kids, snow parks for teenagers and excellent kindergartens to give you some time off childcare.
While we’ve just declared the skiing as the main attraction - for a lot of us, that role really belongs to the food... The 3 Valleys is in the region of Savoie, which creates the most magnificent cheeses: Raclette, Reblochon, Beaufort and Emmental among others, which feature in Alpine delicacies like tartiflette, fondue and croque monsieur. Local cured meats and wines join the mix alongside the French favourites of pastries, steak tartare and crepes - adding up to a wonderful week of justified indulging (you’ll be skiing it all off, after all!).
For the most discerning diners, no ski area in the world has more Michelin stars than this one – on last count, there were 17 shared between 10 restaurants in Courchevel, St Martin de Belleville, Meribel, and Val Thorens. Courchevel shines the brightest with 12 of those stars in 7 of its restaurants.
Where to stay
With multiple resorts (many made of multiple villages), there’s accommodation of every sort.
Catered chalets are popular in these parts and if you haven’t tried one, they can be a cosy, sociable and fuss-free way to ski. Meribel and Courchevel are two of Europe’s best resorts for traditional chalet holidays, with everything from basic mountain huts to splendidly luxurious lodges (with private swimming pools and spas). Between these and La Tania is where you’ll find prettier, stand-alone properties, often a walk or drive away from the lifts. Swapping old world charm for new age convenience, Val Thorens and Les Menuires have dozens of chalet apartments (traditional chalet catering in big modern buildings, divided into separate lodgings) with seamless slope and lift access.
Hotels aren’t hard to find and come in all ratings. There’s eye-opening extravagance at the most expensive end of the scale, with Courchevel’s 5-star palace hotels and Val Thorens’ high-end, high altitude hostelries. But you don’t have to spend thousands, with plenty of decent 2 and 3-star options across the area too.
Apartments are also available but neither food shopping or eating out here come cheap, so if you’re working with a budget, a catered chalet or half board hotel will almost certainly be better value.
Fly to Geneva, Lyon, Chambery or Grenoble (try SkyScanner for routes, prices and information) or travel to Moutiers on train via the Eurostar.
Chalet packages with travel, accommodation and ATOL protection are available through tour operators and travel agents and range from £300pp to £3000pp+ (we found the biggest range on SNO).
Hotel rooms can cost anything from £70 to £1,500+ a night (Hotels.com has an enormous selection).
Photo sources: David Andre / Courchevel Tourism, C. Cattin / Val Thorens Tourism, Sylvain Aymoz / Meribel Tourism
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