Skiing without the crowds in France

If you want to ski without the crowds, try these smaller locations that the French have kept to themselves, says Judy Armstrong


Arêches-Beaufort, Savoie

1,080m-2,320m, €28.60 *

Surrounded by the Savoie-Mont Blanc ski giants of Chamonix, Portes du Soleil, Paradiski and more, Arêches-Beaufort is a breath of fresh air. The resort rises from a traditional Alpine village and is accessible from the airports at Geneva, Lyon, Chambéry and Grenoble. Split into two sectors, with the bonus of wonderful cross-country trails, it offers tree skiing, powder bowls and exciting off-piste and ski mountaineering options, including le Grand Mont, on the perimeter of the ski area. Unlike the big resorts, you can find untracked snow for days after a heavy fall. Lifts are efficient, restaurants are sunny side and the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. It’s not a place for nightlife, but you’ll be skiing so much, you won’t be out partying anyway.


Cauterets, Hautes-Pyrénées

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1,850m-2,415m, €34.50 *

Cauterets is surrounded by immense peaks and the pristine terrain of the Pyrénées National Park, and is split into two ski areas. Cirque du Lys, set mostly inside a huge natural bowl, is for skiers and snowboarders and includes a terrific freestyle ski park, which is accessed by a slick gondola. Le Pont d’Espagne is mellow and beautiful, for sledding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Cauterets is also a spa town, with sulphur-rich thermal water, so you can indulge in a massage and soak after a day on the slopes. Cauterets is well set-up for families and has some good restaurants. Easy access from Lourdes and Pau airports.


Le Mont-Dore, Massif du Sancy, Puy-de-Dôme

1,200m-1,850m, €30.30 *

Surrounded by the volcanic peaks of the Auvergne, Le Mont-Dore is low key; despite also being low altitude, its snow record is impressive. The ski resort is small but links via easy blue runs to the modern Super-Besse ski station, which trebles the number of runs. Skiing here stretches back a century and, in 1936, Le Mont-Dore was one of the first resorts to introduce a cable car. It is best for beginners and intermediates, but there are plenty of off-piste options which, unlike in the big resorts, take a while to be tracked-out. The village – which you can ski back to in a good snow year, or use the free shuttle bus – is also a spa. You can reach it by train from the Auvergne capital, Clermont-Ferrand.


Saint-Véran, Hautes-Alpes

1,750m-2,800m, €26.90 *

At 2,042 metres, Saint-Véran is the highest commune in Europe and among the most beautiful villages in France. One of eight mountain hamlets in the Parc Naturel Régional du Queyras, Saint Véran in winter is a bijou resort best appreciated by intermediate skiers. It is also a great base for learning ski touring (randonnée), with relatively gentle terrain backed by spectacular cliffs and peaks. Saint-Véran (also known as Le Travers, spread out across the slopes of the Beauregard mountain) claims 300 days of sunshine a year and has high-quality snow, courtesy of the altitude. Access can be time-consuming: flights to Grenoble or Marseille, with train connections or car hire (the nearest towns are Guillestre and Briançon).


Autrans, Isère

1,050m-1710m, €18.50 *

On the high plateau of the Parc Naturel Régional du Vercors, Autrans is a resort to test your versatility. The traditional wood-and-stone village is perched on a meadow, surrounded by cliffs and peaks, and the Alpine skiing offers a little for every level, in two sectors – Le Claret and La Sure. It’s not extensive or expensive, but why stop there? Autrans is the French capital of cross-country skiing, with 160 kilometres of groomed tracks, plus marked trails for dog-sledding, snowshoeing and walking. Its location on a plateau with a gentle, steady airflow makes Autrans the ideal place to try snowkiting (skiing with a small parapente wing). Grenoble is just over 30 kilometres away. * Prices are for a full-day adult ski pass for the 2014-2015 season