Secret ski resorts

For ski resorts full of charm away from the crowds, look no further than the beautiful southern Alps. Anna McKittrick heads out to the slopes of Serre-Chevalier, Vars-Risoul and Les Orres

Skiing doesn’t normally spring to mind as an activity to try in the region of Provence-Alps-C�te-d’Azur. But leave the lavender fields and beaches behind and travel north to discover a range of fantastic skiing options in the Haute-Alpes, the highest d�partement in the Alps. With 1,400 kilometres of downhill skiing and 31 ski areas including seven at high altitude – three of which I visited on my whistle-stop tour – there really is plenty to discover on a winter break to the region. The southern Alps are also easily accessible from the UK by rail and air, with both Turin and Marseille offering low-cost flight options and minimal transfer time to the ski domaines. My first destination was the resort of Serre-Chevalier, known as Serre-Che’ to its regulars, one of the largest ski areas in France. Serre-Chevalier Situated in the Guisane Valley and sheltered by surrounding mountains, Serre-Chevalier benefits from its own microclimate with 300 days of sunshine a year. The resort is a vast ski area that covers some 250 kilometres of slopes ranging from 1,200 to 2,800 metres in altitude and it lies at the foot of the spectacular peaks of the Parc National des �crins. Serre-Chevalier is not just one resort – in fact it consists of 13 villages spread over four areas: Brian�on, Chantemerle, Villeneuve-la-Salle and Mon�tier-les-Bains, each of which has access to the entire ski domaine. It was in 1941 that the first ski lift, the Chantemerle cable car or t�l�ph�rique, opened in Serre-Chevalier, putting the resort firmly on the ski map. Since then, it has grown to become one of the largest ski resorts in Europe, offering an extensive range of skiing for all levels with numerous nursery slopes nestling alongside excellent tree-skiing for the more adventurous skiers. As such it was the ideal place to test my ski legs. I grew up in Canada where skiing was a habitual winter activity, but I hung up my skis at the age of eight when I moved to the UK. So I was intrigued to see how I would fare nearly 20 years later on the slopes in France. As soon as I clipped my skis on and our instructor Philippe asked if we felt confident doing black runs, a grain of fear was planted. It was clear that, while I was not a novice, the others in my group were leagues ahead, so I decided to take a one-to-one lesson with a ski instructor for the morning. Padraig, a native of Serre-Chevalier with a hint of Irish blood, was practically born on a pair of skis. He knew every inch of the resort from the main runs to secret off-piste slopes and told me he thought of them as his back garden. How I wish I had a garden as beautiful and vast as this. He took me on a tour of the slopes, gently introducing blue and then red runs, slowly building up my confidence – and it came back. I remembered how to snowplough and adjust my weight in order to swish down the neatly packed powder without taking a tumble. I visited just before the French school holidays began in December and the slopes were blissfully clear, enabling me to discover the beautiful surroundings without the crowds. The Mediterranean and Alpine climate meant the snow was fresh and, with the sun shining, it made ski conditions very pleasant. After a morning’s skiing I only had one fall under my belt, but was ready to take on more of what the Hautes-Alpes had to offer.  Where to stayLe Christiania23 Route de Brian�on05240 La Salle des AlpesVilleneuve Serre-ChevalierTel: (Fr) 4 92 24 76 33www.le-christiania.comThis charming family-run hotel in Villeneuve is less than 100 metres from the slopes of Serre-Chevalier. Enjoy the hearty breakfast before embarking on a day of skiing. Double rooms from €82 per person. Where to eatLe Bivouac de la CasseSecteur Casse du Boeuf05240 La Salle Les AlpesTel: (Fr) 4 92 24 87 72For a gourmet lunch on the slopes look no further than Le Bivouac, above the Casse de Boeuf chairlift. We enjoyed delicious pumpkin soup followed by a confit de canard and finished with a traditional fromage blanc with walnuts and mountain honey. Mains around €16.What to doA relaxing session in the Grand Bains du Mon�tier is a must for soothing tired muscles after an energetic day on the slopes. Unwind in the heated outdoor pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and steam rooms or spoil yourself with a treatment in the health and beauty zone. A two-hour session, including entrance to the swimming pools, sauna and steam room, costs from €15 for adults, €5 for children. Tel: (Fr) 4 92 40 00 00 or visit www.lesgrandsbains.frSeason12 December 2009 – 24 April 2010Lift pass pricesDay ski pass €40.50 adults/€32.40 childrenSeven-day ski pass €222.50 adults/€178Tourist officeOffice de TourismeBP 20, 05240 Serre-Chevalier  Tel: (Fr) 4 92 24 98 98 www.serre-chevalier.comVars-RisoulAbout 40 kilometres south from Serre-Chevalier lies Vars-Risoul, two separate resorts of Vars and Risoul linked by the Domaine de la For�t Blanche. The two resorts have been connected by ski lift since 1976 but the official union didn’t take place until the creation of the For�t Blanche in 1990. Nestling among larch forests, the two resorts combined sit at an altitude of 1,850 metres and offer 110 slopes and 55 ski lifts, with the eight-seater in Risoul one of the few of its kind in the Alps. The gentle slopes are perfect for intermediate skiers who favour enjoying the scenery over speed, which I found ideal for building up my confidence. Take the lift over to Vars and ski the lovely eight-kilometre tree-lined Vallon blue run that meanders down to Vars Sainte-Marie – just make sure you start heading back to Risoul before 3pm in order to catch the last lifts of the day. With the majority of runs blue and red, some expert skiers may find the ten black runs limited, although the off-piste skiing in Risoul is worth checking out. Don’t venture off-piste without a guide who knows the ski domaine well and can tell you the danger spots to avoid. For daredevils or spectators, the Pic de Chabri�res run in Vars – the world’s fastest ski run – is worth a look. It’s definitely not for the fainthearted, as its gradient reaches 98 per cent at its peak and it takes 850 metres for racers to brake after tackling the dramatic slope. The short, sharp snowfalls characteristic of the Haute-Alpes make the cloud clear quickly to reveal beautiful blue skies bouncing off the crisp white snow. Coupled with the bright sunshine, the ski conditions once again were second to none. If needed, there are 40 snow-cannons that cover 37 per cent of the runs, making skiing possible right up until the end of the season in April. Where to stayR�sidence Luxe V�gaR�sidences de tourisme05600 Risoul 1850Tel: (Fr) 4 92 46 03 47www.sara-residences.comThis three-star apartment block is comfortable and conveniently located in the resort. Each benefits from a balcony and a ski locker. A week in a studio for three people costs €546.25. Where to eatLa MarmiteLes Chalps 05600 Risoul Tel: (Fr) 4 92 46 66 50 This friendly restaurant is in the heart of the resort and the perfect place to enjoy an apr�s-ski meal of steak frites.What to doIf you’re looking for an adrenaline rush after the pistes have closed, why not try a ride on a skidoo? If you’re daring you can hire the scooter yourself or if you prefer you can be accompanied by a guide.  A one-hour ride with a guide costs €40 or €75 if you’re the driver. Les BanchetsLe Languieu05600 RisoulTel: (Fr) 4 92 45 16 80www.risoulsnowscoot.comSeason12 December 2009 – 18 April 2010Lift pass pricesDay ski pass €33 adults/€26.40 children aged 5-11Seven-day ski pass €184.80 adults/€147.80 childrenTourist officeRisoul Office de Tourisme05600, Risoul 1850Tel: (Fr) 4 92 46 02 60www.risoul.comVars Office de TourismeCours Fontanarosa 05560 VarsTel: (Fr) 4 92 46 51 31www.vars-ski.com Les OrresSurrounded by larch forests and with exceptional panoramic views sweeping down to Lac de Serre-Pon�on, Les Orres really is a hidden gem worth exploring. The resort, about 30 kilometres south of Vars-Risoul, was built in 1970 and consists of two ski villages; the original village Les Orres 1650 and the recent addition Bois-M�an 1800, which was completed in 2007 and has the benefit of being ski-in/ski-out. The resort gets good snowfall thanks to the shelter from the Massif du Parpaillon but also enjoys the lovely sunny climate characteristic of the south of France. The resort has 88 kilometres of runs ranging from sheltered woodland trails to undulating blues interspersed with more challenging steep slopes. There are a lot of red runs, 19 out of the 34 in Les Orres. My guide Bettina and I headed up the Fontaines chairlift and then got a draglift to the summit of the Blanchon red run at the dizzy height of 2,660 metres. I have to admit I was a little bit scared, but luckily Bettina advised me on the best way to conquer the steepest parts, by gliding sideways with my skis parallel or faisant le d�rapage, and soon the worst was over and I was swishing down the mountainside again. After a day on the slopes we decided to try another winter sport – snowshoeing. The sun had long since set so we wrapped up warm – ski gear was a must – before clipping our toes into the large shoes. Once we’d mastered the technique, we made our way up the barren ski runs with only a piste basher momentarily shattering the peace as it did its daily groom of the slopes. There had been a fresh snowfall that afternoon and, after an hour of wading through the soft powder, we stopped for an alfresco dinner. The idea of eating outdoors in December didn’t sound too appealing but, before I’d even had chance to unclip my snowshoes, our guide Bruno had dug a hole in the snow and lit a roaring fire. The snowshoes were used as seats to stop the snow from turning us to icicles and cups of vin chaud were passed round, bringing back feeling to numb fingers. Local salami and p�t� stuffed into fresh baguettes followed by wedges of Saint-Laurent cheese filled hungry bellies. A final sip of g�n�pi gave us the blast of warmth we needed to head back down the mountain ready to rest tired limbs after an energetic day of Alpine activities. Where to stayLes Monts du Bois d’OrBois M�an 05200 Les OrresTel: (Fr) 4 92 46 03 47www.sara-residences.comFor affordable yet comfortable accommodation option in Bois M�an this ticks the boxes. A week-long stay in a studio apartment that sleeps fours costs only €427.50.  Where to eatL’Or�e des PistesGallerie Comerciale 05200 Les OrresTel: (Fr) 4 92 44 01 98www.loreedespistes.comThis charming restaurant situated in the heart of Les Orres 1650 offers a lovely vantage point out to the slopes. Sit outside to benefit from the fantastic weather characteristic of the resort.  What to doThe skating rink, which opened last year, offers panoramic views of Lac de Serre-Pon�on and is extremely family-friendly. Entry to the ice rink costs €4 including skate rental. Under fives are free. The patinoire offers both hour-long individual (€50) and group lessons (€20). There’s also a tea room with a viewing platform. Tel: (Fr) 4 92 52 73 05Season5 December 2009 – 25 April 2010Lift pass pricesDay ski pass €27 adult/€22 childrenSix-day ski pass €135/€110Tourist officeOffice de Tourisme05200 Les OrresTel: (Fr) 4 92 44 01 61www.lesorres.comGetting thereBy rail: From Paris take the night train to Brian�on (10 mins from Serre-Chevalier) and arrive at 9am, or take the TGV from Paris to Turin and stop at Oulx (in Italy), 45mins from Serre-Chevalier.For more information contact Rail Europe tel: 0844 848 4064 or visit www.raileurope.co.ukBy air: The nearest airports are Marseille and Turin. Additional informationHautes-Alpes Tourist Boardwww.holidays-alps.co.uk