France as a whole features a preeminence of food, wine, and beautiful surroundings, so it’s no surprise that these crucial cultural elements also hold a pivotal place in the French Alps. Add to the towering peaks with a vertical drop that can only be described as dizzying, seemingly endless terrain, surprisingly affordable lift tickets, and horizons offering Dr. Seuss-like craggy summits in the background with ancient churches and castles (yes, castles) in the foreground, and you’ve got a ski vacation straight out of a fairy tale.
1. History of Winter Sports
The country’s most expansive ski region, the Rhone-Alpes, has been embraced as a winter sports wonderland for more than 100 years. La Clusaz is one of the world’s oldest continuous resorts, in operation since 1907. Chamonix, arguably France’s most renowned resort, hosted the very first Winter Olympic Games in 1924. Grenoble followed in 1968 and Albertville in 1992. In 1947, a guy named Francois Salomon transformed his saw blade metalworking shop in Annecy, France, into what has become one of the most universally renowned, respected, and innovative ski, boot, and binding makers across the globe.
2. Sprawling Terrain
If you think a resort like Vail or Park City is massive, you haven’t even begun to explore. France is home to the largest connected expanse of slopes in the world. From the same home base you can ski for an entire week covering hundreds of miles, scarcely hitting the same run twice. To put it into perspective, there is nearly five times more skiable terrain at Les Trois Vallées (nearly 26,000 acres) than at Vail (just under 5,300 acres). Most ski areas in the region–Les Trois Vallées, Alpe d'Huez Grand Domaine Ski, Paradiski–combine multiple resorts so you can literally travel between villages via the boards under your feet and, in some cases like Chamonix-Mont Blanc and Espace San Bernardo, even travel between countries, dipping into Switzerland or Italy.
3. Runs for Everyone
While it’s true that many French resorts are famous for their expert terrain—gravity-defying, narrow chutes, off-piste powder stashes, and rocky precipices—an ample portion of the offerings (at least a third at most areas) is comprised of corduroy-smooth, groomed intermediate runs as well as plenty of wider, flatter runs for beginners. One reason the French Alps are so impressive to look at is that they loom—seriously, loom—with an insane vertical drop from top to bottom. While America’s top resorts summit out at a higher elevation, they also start at a much higher elevation. A super steep resort like Jackson Hole offers an impressive vertical drop of 4,105 feet, but it’s possible to glide down for about 9,000 feet from Chamonix’s famed Vallée Blanche.
4. It’s More Affordable Than You Think
Sure, it’s farther to travel than Colorado or Utah, but ski for a single day at any of America’s top resorts and you’re paying $100 or more per lift ticket. In France–even at super posh areas like Courchevel and Val d’Isere during high season–the price is roughly half of that...and it drops considerably if you buy a pass for consecutive days or purchase as a group. Resorts like Club Med Val Thorens feature resonable rates for access to the largest ski area in the world. There you'll also find incredible panoramic views of the area, an active après-ski scene, and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
5. A Better Way to Re-Fuel
Then there’s the fine dining. You can you start your day with a flakey pain au chocolat and steaming cappuccino and end it with some belly warming pièce de résistance of melted cheese (one of the many culinary specialties of the French Alps including fondue, raclette, and tartiflette) for the same price as hitting a fast food restaurant at any major American resort. There’s also the option of counterbalancing all of those calories you burned on the slopes with a five-star, multi-course dining experience featuring locally grown and produced meat, vegetables, and cheese, not to mention exquisite wine from the region that generally also clocks in at about half of its high-end American counterparts.
6. A Transcendent Cultural Experience
Let’s admit that there is always an otherworldly quality to spending your days cruising down a mountain with the wind in your face. But while the modern culture of American ski resorts is characterized by catching every turn on a selfie stick and tracking vertical and other stats on a resort-sponsored app—while eating smashed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the chairlift—in the French Alps, people focus on the finer things.
The magical surroundings are the centerpiece, and every mountain top is equipped with an outdoor social area. These could include a couple of small tables outside of a drink shack where skiers huddle shoulder-to-shoulder over their beverages, a smattering of lounge chairs in which to kick back with your eyes closed to the sun, or an upscale lodge with patio lounges covered with real animal-skin blankets inviting guests to cuddle up against the winter chill and tuck into a four-course meal.
7. Enjoy a Mug of Wine
At the end of the day, the French enjoy a steaming mug of vin chaud (hot wine). That’s a quintessential winter delight found in every mountainous region of Europe but oddly non-existent at most U.S. resorts.
8. Advanced Après
After a day of sun and snow, celebrating in some way or another is on the agenda. While swaying to an acoustic guitarist playing "Brown-Eyed Girl" at the lodge is awesome, in France, there are full-blown dance parties happening throughout the base villages. There’s something about cutting a rug in ski boots that makes a person feel bionic, and it’s that much better if there is a live DJ cranking Euro-style electronica that gives Manhattan’s best late-night clubs a run for their money.
Even non-skiers flock to places like Chamonix, Val d’Isere and Meribel for the nightlife, which continues into the wee hours, cocktails and shots poured down ice luges and the international crowd transforming into a throbbing mass of happy warm bodies. Let’s face it, when it comes to the ultimate ski experience, the Rhone-Alps is where it’s at. From castles in the snow, too-vast-to-be-real panoramas of peaks, and a culture that encourages the savoring of each and every detail, you’ll come back not only a better skier, but probably a better person.
Originally written for Atout France.