Be it hammering down heart-thumping blacks in the ice-blue shadow of Mont Blanc, ski-touring beneath glistening saw-chiseled peaks or tree skiing through picture-book forests, France sports an unrivaled variety of skiing – for all abilities, styles and budgets.
The winter ski season in the blockbuster French Alps, quieter Pyrenees and low-key Jura Mountains typically runs from mid-December to April. The highest-altitude alpine resorts, such as Val Thorens (Europe’s highest), Val d’Isère and Les Deux Alpes, are the first to open in late November, depending on snowfall. Limited downhill skiing on glaciers above 3000m (9842ft) in Tignes and Les Deux Alpes guarantees a corduroy fix for four weeks or so in July or August; each year, warmer temperatures and glacial melt shorten the summer ski season a little more.
Christmas and February school holidays are peak season: expect sky-high transport and accommodation prices, packed bars and restaurants, and queues for ski lifts. Book months in advance to bag your choice of place (old-world alpine hamlet, car-free village, purpose-built resort) and bolt-hole (mountain hut with bunks, family-run hotel, self-catering chalet, luxury cocoon with spoiling hot tub and soul-soaring, snowy-peak view).
To cut carbon, train it to the French Alps and use public transport or local car-sharing services like BlaBlaCar or Morzine Co-Voiturage for the final leg from station to snow. From the UK, ride the overnight snow train TravelSki Express to Bourg St-Maurice or pair a Paris-bound Eurostar with connecting TGV and regional train; Snowcarbon is a handy rail planner.
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Best for eco riders
A resort’s ecological footprint is becoming increasingly vital to skiers. Green-thinking Morzine-Avoriaz hits the spot with renewable energy-powered chalet accommodation, electric-vehicle transfers and car-sharing, zero-waste initiatives and plant-based dining. Skiers can rent ski clothing from Crevasse Clothing, feast on artisan cuisine showcasing local produce at Avoriaz’s cool new hotel-restaurant hangout MiL8, drink zero-waste coffee roasted in the valley by Cafés Vorlaz and chink craft beer with local eco-riders at Morzine’s experimental microbrewery Bec Jaune. Both resorts, accessible by train to Cluses or Geneva and then shared transfer, carry the Flocon Vert (‘Green Snowflake’) label, awarded for sustainable practice to 11 resorts in France.
Skiing for all levels is sublime. Morzine and Avoriaz lounge in the family-friendly Portes du Soleil ski area (400km/249mi of runs), but they couldn’t be more different in character; Brit-loved Morzine is a party-loving market town stitched from traditional wooden chalets and slate-tiled roofs; higher up the mountain at 1800m (5906ft), ski-in-ski-out Avoriaz is a whimsical car-free cocktail of 1960s avant-garde architecture and snowy streets charmed with old-world, horse-drawn sleighs.
Megève is a hit with foodies who love to ski with three Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurants © andresr / Getty Images
Best for foodies
Another Chamonix Valley honeypot, this upmarket village resort with its baroque old town and a photogenic fleet of chichi horse-drawn carriages was dreamt up in the 1920s by alpine escape-seeking Baroness Noémie de Rothschild (of vintner and banking fame). It has been a hit with Parisians, gastronomes and well-heeled families ever since.
This is the only French ski resort to twinkle with three Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurants (top French chefs Emmanuel Renaut, Anne-Sophie Pic and Anthony Bisquerra) and winter reboots of St-Tropez’s iconic Le Café and the Parisian piano-cocktail bar Le Piaf.
Lunching on the slopes is memorable. Rustic chalets d’alpage, once used by summertime shepherds, pepper the resort’s family-friendly slopes in the Évasion Mont Blanc ski area. Some harbor atmospheric Savoyard eateries. Refueling on melted Comte on toast, tartiflette oozing gooey Reblochon cheese, and blueberry tart at Chalet Le Forestier or Auberge du Bonjournal are ski-holiday highlights. Après-ski with truffle pizza and oysters at L’Idéal 1850 and dinner at 1930s mountain restaurant Les Mandarines (ski down by torchlight afterward) are equally wow.
The popular ski town of Val d’Isere is the dream all-rounder resort © ventdusud / Getty Images
3. Espace Killy
Best for families (especially teens)
Gargantuan in size and variety, Espace Killy in the upper Tarentaise Valley is the dream all-rounder. From miles of jaw-dropping off-piste descents to green, beginner- and tot-friendly baby slopes, this phenomenal ski area has your back – whatever your age or level. At its heart sit blockbuster resorts Val d’Isère and Tignes. Both require cash to splash but compensate with world-class facilities, the whole gamut of accommodation and dining, and brilliant nightlife: legendary Folie Douce is the alfresco hotspot on the snow to kick off the après-ski party with glitzy dancers on stage, DJs and rogue table dancing.
Lakeside Tignes is for adrenaline junkies. On frozen Lac de Tignes, younger children can play in a snow labyrinth and igloos, ice skate and try curling. Daredevil teens can fly down a ski jump and hurl themselves bungee-jump style into a 40m (131ft) void with Bun J Ride. Ice diving and ice floating are pretty cool too.
A group of skiers hits the slopes at Les Menuires © Getty Images/ Westend61
4. St-Martin de Belleville
Best for a pretty village vibe
With its cute steepled church and cluster of traditional Savoyard houses, this Real McCoy village in the Tarentaise Valley is straight out of a beautifully illustrated storybook. Skiers spill out of bed and onto snowy slopes at 1450m (4757ft), linked by lifts to the snow-sure Trois Vallées – the world’s biggest ski area stitched from 600km (373 miles) of slopes. Its seven resorts include Brit-loved Méribel, sky-high Val Thorens, family-friendly Les Menuires and A-lister Courchevel, where the super-chic hobnob. Skiing here is for all levels, although intermediates and above have an absolute blast.
Other pretty ski villages: Les Gets and St-Jean d’Aulps (Portes du Soleil); Lanslebourg-Mont Cenis, Lanslevillard and Bonneval in backcountry Val Cénis
Best for budget skiers
Little-known Hirmentaz in Haute-Savoie’s Vallée Verte is one of the tiniest resorts going, with 25 slopes and 15 lifts suitable for beginners and unambitious intermediates. A lower altitude of 1100m (3609ft) means snow can be patchy at either end of the season. But in terms of bang for your buck, budget skiers won’t ski for less – an adult one-day ski pass costs €23.90 (or €21.00 for five hours) compared to €67 in Chamonix (no half-day pass available).
Much loved by local families, young kids tumble out of the car and onto the slope. Sports shops renting ski gear are likewise snowball-throwing distance from the car park, and the crepes cooked up on the slope-facing terrace of Hôtel Les Skiers are surely the cheapest in the Alps. Bernex (forest trails in pine woods) and Thollon-les-Mémises (panoramic views of Lake Geneva) are other small, excellent-value resorts in the area.
A group of skiers heading for Valle Blanche, the most famous off-piste run in the Alps © Roberto Caucino / Shutterstock
Best for advanced skiers
Propped up by a Herculean alpinist heritage and ski icons in spades, this historic town in Haute-Savoie’s Chamonix Valley is spectacular. Mountains loom large in every direction, climaxing with Mont Blanc (4807m/15,771ft) – Europe’s highest peak – and Aiguille du Midi (3842m/12,605ft), accessible year-round by cable car. From here, experienced skiers cruise across crevasse-chiseled glaciers with a guide on the 20km-long (12.4mi) Vallée Blanche descent, one of Europe’s most legendary off-piste runs.
Freeriders after big lines head to the steep, challenging slopes (many unbashed), moguls and gnarly pow of the Grands Montets ski area in Argentière and to white-knuckle blacks in Les Houches; the vertical Kandahar on the Verte des Houches piste is legendary. The sunny slopes of Brévent-Flégère are also excellent for advanced skiers. Pamper aching muscles post-ski with a glorious spa dip with a view at QC Terme.
Chamonix downtown is equally high octane. Drinking, dining and shopping ops abound. Don’t miss raclette and other local cheeses at the boutique of dairy cooperative Coopérative Fruitière en Val d’Arly (93 rue Whymper) and the best waffles in the Alps, cooked to order in a humble wooden street hut at Gauffres de Chamonix (65 rue Whymper).
7. Alpe d’Huez
Best for festival junkies
Alpe d’Huez is famed for its snow-sure altitudes, abundant intermediate reds, and one of Europe’s longest black runs – the almost vertical, 16km-long (10mi) La Sarenne (top tip: catch the sunset on the last run down of the day from the Pic Blanc cable car). The resort’s steep and sinuous, 14km-long (8.7mi) access road with 21 hairpin bends is a frequent star in the Tour de France. But for festival lovers, the resort is about dancing to live house, techno and other electronic music performed by world-class artists on multiple indoor and outdoor stages – some at 3300m – at the week-long Tomorrowland Winter festival each March.
Other unmissable music fests in the snow: Snowboxx (Avoriaz), Rock the Pistes (Portes du Soleil) and Rise Festival (Les Deux Alpes)
8. Métabief Mont d’Or
Best for cross-country
Ski life unfolds at a slower, gentler rhythm in the sparsely populated Jura Mountains, which extend northeast along the Franco-Swiss border from Lake Geneva to Belfort. Cheese-making, cross-country skiing and melodic cowbells chart out the hours of the day, and little beats cruising at a steady pace along 214km (133 miles) of cross-country trails around Métabief Mont d’Or. One lift in the pastoral ski station whisks downhill skiers to the top of Mont d’Or (1463m/4800ft), from where serene views of Lake Geneva, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc unfold on the horizon. Warm the cockles after with a fiery, après-ski shot of local liqueur de sapin (pine tree liqueur).
Other scenic cross-country resorts: Autrans in the Massif du Vercors (Isère); Domaine du Chioula, an hour’s drive from Toulouse (Ariège)