When skiing in France I had always stuck to the Alp’s biggest resorts to get my winter kicks; hotspots like Tignes, Val d’Isere, Chamonix and Alp d’Huez not only offer hundreds of kilometres of ski terrain and a network of speedy lift connections, but also boast all-action après scenes, non-stop nightlife and a smorgasbord of restaurants and accommodation options – so, why settle for anything less?
Cost was the main reason that I dared to consider a ski a resort with anything less than 200km of piste and 50-odd après bars.
But, a few winters ago, after a costly MOT had left my bank account at an all-time low, I begrudgingly booked a cheap apartment in the compact resort of Les Contamines Monjoie, where 40 piste-runs and handful of bars stood in very poor comparison to the 200 plus pistes and countless bars I’d enjoyed in Val d’Isere the year before. But with ski-pass and accommodation in Les Contamines costing around half the price of last year’s splurge, it was small-resort or none at all.
Since then, I’ve tried other smaller resorts and realised there’s much more to skiing holidays in France than offered by the biggest and most famous destinations, and here’s why:
After just half a morning, ‘Contamines’ was already growing on me; without queues, skis and boots were fitted in a matter of minutes, lift passes were processed even faster and we were on the slopes by mid-morning. By day three, we could navigate the pistes without the aid of a map and were joining the locals for lunch, taking our shop-bought baguettes to unpretentious BYO mountain huts. With just a handful of bars to choose from, we soon began passing our time with familier faces and, without the temptation of 20-Euro cocktails and seasonaire-filled night clubs, we woke fresh-faced – and with heavy wallets – on every morning of our six day stay.
Returning home relaxed, well-skied and with healthy bank-accounts, I pondered that maybe we were onto something here. Does budget skiing in France actually deliver just as much? I tried two more resorts to prove the theory:
Skiing in Puy Saint Vincent
The following season we went even smaller: Puy Saint Vincent covers a mere 75km of ski terrain and offers just 34runs. Our trip was blessed with knee-deep powder and I spent most of the week bounding in-between the uncrowded pistes, perfecting my powder turns on two planks and sleeping deeply each night after a few vin-chauds in ‘the local’.
Skiing in Sainte Foy
Last year, I went mad and booked a trip skiing in Sainte Foy: with just 32km of piste and 15 runs, it takes a mere four lifts to transport skiers and boarders around Sainte Foy’s ski area. Not to worry, I assured my wary partner, Tignes and Les Arcs were both less than 30 minutes’ drive away and, with ‘ski safaris’ to neighbouring resorts offered by our chalet company, a back-up plan was in place.
The first thing you notice as you walk around the charming village streets of Sainte Foy, is the curious smiles and impressive kit carried by its inhabitants. First-time families stroll around with enthusiastic grins, and seasoned ski-bums carry gnarly-looking boards and fat powder-skis over their shoulders – a little unnecessary for a resort with just a few kilometres of piste, don’t you think?
And then we discovered Sainte Foy’s secrets: For first-timers, the lack of crowds means expansive, empty runs and, for powder-hounds, less piste means more off-piste. We joined in, spending our days exploring acres of patrolled powder fields, before bounding into the backcountry to visit seasonal hamlets, weave through the pine forests and tour some of terrain’s most extreme faces. Apres involved a few hours on ‘the sun deck’ before clunking glasses with the ski-guides in one of three popular bars.
This year: Skiing in Chalmazel
This season, I’m again off skiing in France, and thinking of going even smaller: Chalmazel has even fewer runs than Sainte Foy and is home to just two bars, yet is rumoured to have a stupendous snow-park, nurtured by local enthusiasts, the Chalmazel Freestyle Crew. Watch this space…
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