I’ve met a lot of experienced American skiers who are intimidated by the very notion of a European ski vacation. The discomfort goes beyond the language barrier, as many are savvy travelers who don’t hesitate to vacation in Paris, Milan, or Zurich. It’s more that the entire model is different, from the towns to ski schools, lifts to lunch, resorts to lift tickets. It’s not an unjustified concern, but once you understand the basic logistic differences between European and North American ski travel, it opens up a whole new world, with dozens of first-rate destinations in the place where the ski vacation was invented – and where food and hospitality still reign supreme.
The Big Difference Between American and European Ski Resorts
American ski resorts tend to be organized from the top down: a company owns the mountain and operates everything on it, including lifts, ski school, rentals, restaurants, and increasingly, this same company also runs hotels and ski shops in town, which is almost always located at the base. Europe has a much more mom and pop model, where the lifts and trails they serve comprise a “ski station” rather than a resort, and several stations might share a single mountain with various degrees of interconnection and cooperative ticket options.
This is especially true in France, where several interconnected mega resorts—including the three largest on earth—are home to many of the best-known destinations in European skiing. Everything from dining to ski schools is independently run, and rather than a “ski town,” larger resorts are usually comprised of multiple villages spread up and down the mountain. For example, Vail is Vail, one huge mountain run by one company with one large town at its base. But Courchevel, while just as internationally famous and glitzy, is comprised of four different villages, and it is just one of eight areas comprising the world’s largest interconnected ski resort, Les Trois Vallees.
Which Mountain to Choose?
When deciding where to ski in the French Alps it is important to think in terms of resorts, mega-resorts, and villages. The good news is that all have ample excellent options for dining and ski schools, details that are easily sorted out. Also, European resorts have a much richer tradition of chalet rentals over hotels, and because of their popularity, some of the toniest destinations don’t even have a luxury hotel option. Typically chalets include concierge services to assist with the finer details, like lunch reservations—an integral part of the Alpine ski vacation experience—and booking guides. When there are luxury hotel options, usually famous names like Badrutt’s Palace or the Victoria Jungfrau, they tend to be in larger towns further from the slopes, and while almost all the better chalets are trailside, accommodation in the Alps is rarely ski-in/out.
French, Italian and Swiss Influences Combine
The largest concentration of major ski resorts on earth is in the Tarentaise Valley, home to Les Trois Vallees, Paradiski, Espace Killy and a few other mega-resorts. These are located in southeastern France’s Haute Savoie region (Savoy in English), an area near the French, Swiss and Italian borders, on or around the flanks of Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc. Thanks to historically shifting borders the mountain is not quite French, not quite Italian and not quite Swiss, but rather a melting pot of the three cultures with unique traditions, particularly when it comes to food – think fondue, coq au vin, and risotto on the same menu. This is the heart of French skiing, and most resorts in this region share a common ambiance, with traditional alpine architecture, chalets made of stone and dark brown timber, wide with gently sloping peaked roofs. The cuisine revolves around potatoes, bread, sausages, cured meats, and cheese—especially melted cheese in its myriad forms including fondue, raclette (melted cheese scraped onto veggies and meats), reblochonnade (similar), tartiflette (casserole of cheese baked atop potatoes and bacon), and berthoud (ramekin of melted cheese served with sausage, cured meats and potato). The French serve delicious crusty bread at every meal and the Northern Italian influence makes polenta and risotto menu fixtures. Wines are widely enjoyed at lunch and dinner, and even in mountaintop family-owned huts, lengthy white-tablecloth lunches are a highlight of the ski day.
Courchevel: Of the mega-resorts, Les Trois Vallees is the biggest, and of its eight stations, the most famous are Courchevel and Meribel. The scope is staggering even to those familiar with North America’s largest resorts, such as Whistler/Blackcomb, Vail and Park City. Les Trois Vallees (which also includes Val Thorens, La Tania, Brides-Les-Bains, Orelle, Les Menuires, and St. Martin De Belleville) has well over 300 trails and 40 terrain parks, spanning nearly 400 miles of runs linked by 170 lifts. Few North American resorts have a single cable car, but Trois Vallees has three, plus 33 gondolas. It is as big as the five largest US resorts combined.
Courchevel and Meribel are among the most upscale ski resorts in Europe, with Michelin-starred restaurants, posh nightclubs and celebrity clientele, sort of the Aspen of France. Courchevel is comprised of four different villages, named, as is common practice in the Alps, for their respective elevation in meters: Courchevel 1,300, 1,550, 1,650 and 1,850. The slopes themselves soar up to around 3,000 meters, and this ensures generally reliable snow for both resorts. Courchevel 1,850 has one of France’s most destination-worthy Michelin 3-star eateries, Le 1947, named for a mythical vintage of Cheval Blanc but known for Chef Yannick Allneo’s cutting-edge contemporary cuisine and neoclassic creativity.
While Courchevel 1,850 is considered the swankiest village, the distinctions are minor. The key factor is that while staying in any of them you can also ski village to village across the rest of Les Trois Vallees, maybe stopping in tiny La Tania village, a car-free slice of frozen in time charm with nary a paparazzi in sight, for lunch. The breadth of experience during the ski day in this kind of village to village layout cannot be underestimated, and in many cases, you literally ski through the streets.
Meribel: The ski station was created in 1938, so February 14 will see its gala 80th birthday celebration. Though posh and well known, it enjoys a sliver of hidden gem status thanks to being overshadowed to a small degree by neighbor Courchevel. It has the same high-altitude snow quality plus an enviable position in the center of Trois Vallees, between Courchevel, La Tania, and Val Thornes, with great access to the enormity of skiing here. It is comprised of several villages, with Meribel Village as the gateway at 1,400 meters and Meribel Centre, where most of the après and action happens, at around 1,700 meters. The main villages have a good mix of shopping, dining that skews slightly more casual than at Courchevel, and a lively après scene, and the destination is popular with British skiers. There is plenty of terrain for all abilities, on and off piste, but it is especially beloved by intermediates, with over 100 red (blue in the US) runs, and more gondolas than any resort in the world. For advanced intermediates, the Women’s Downhill race course from the 1992 Olympics (2.2 miles long) is the signature challenge. Meribel is a solid choice across the board, strong at everything from dining to entertainment to skiing.
Chamonix: The site of the first ever Winter Olympic Games in 1924, Chamonix is a region more than a town, comprised of ten smaller interconnected ski resorts, four upper ones at higher altitude, and six lower down. It covers almost a vertical mile, which is extremely rare, offering extremely diverse conditions, from above tree-line powder fields to low altitude protected terrain to a large glacier where there is almost always snow. Because of the unusually deep powder by European standards and severe off piste terrain, including the infamous Valle X, Chamonix has an intimidating Jackson Hole-like experts’ reputation.
In reality, there is plenty for all abilities, and even solid intermediates can get the full Chamonix experience on the world-famous Vallee Blanche run, an out of bounds descent that includes a glacier and goes on for a hard-to-believe 13 miles. It is the vast expanse of skiing and terrain that is the appeal here, rather than the main town, which sits along a busy roadway near the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel and is rarely described as charming or idyllic, though most of the chalets are much higher up and more in tune with nature. Because it doesn’t court the same luxury crowd as many of its neighbors, money goes further here, and there is still lots of luxury lodging. At the end of the day, it is not traditional Alpine charm or culinary offerings that draw visitors: most people seek out Chamonix because they are very good skiers or snowboarders, and among this group, it is a well-known badge of honor.
Megeve: Not far from Chamonix and also surrounding the high peak of Mont Blanc, an hour’s drive from Geneva, Megeve was the first purpose-built resort in the Alps, conceived in the 1920s as a homegrown alternative to Switzerland’s St. Moritz, the original ski destination for the French aristocracy. It is still one of fanciest ski towns in the world and the most reminiscent of a US ski town at the base of an interconnected network of 10 stations, more than 110 lifts, and over 200 marked runs. Yet the adjectives universally used to describe it include “old-fashioned,” “charming,” “escapist,” and “hidden gem,” with no crowds on slopes or at lifts.
Megeve has ample skiing for all abilities, but less off piste, and nearby Chamonix tends to draw away those looking for more extreme terrain (and more raucous partying). In many ways, it is Europe’s Beaver Creek, with the same empty slopes and subdued après ski scene, though on a larger scale and with constant beautiful views of Europe’s highest peak. On the downside, it sits at a lower altitude and gets less reliable snow than its neighbors, and compared to some of the other mega-resorts, the different stations and lifts are not nearly as seamlessly interconnected, and it can take a long time to move around and appreciate the scope. If long days spent skiing an enormous amount of different terrain is more important to you than the relaxed luxury of having the place to yourself, consider Les Trois Vallees; but Megeve is a real charmer, and great for families.
Downtown Megeve has a pedestrianized district with lots of luxury shopping, an upscale casino, a very famous jazz club/bar, Les Cinq Rues, and two renowned Michelin-starred fine dining eateries, 1920 and the 3-star Flocons de Sel. While it would be an exaggeration to call it rustic, Flocons de Sel is distinctive and unusual among the highest possible Michelin rating for serving elevated mountain inspired cuisine, with lots of veal, beef, and mushrooms. It also offers cooking classes.
Val d’Isere: Along with neighbor Tignes, Val d’Isere compromises Espace Killy, perhaps the most efficiently linked of all French mega-resorts, with over 180 miles of well-connected trails served by 78 modern lifts with little need for traversing, and among the finest grooming in Europe. Its 24,000-acres of terrain is three times the size of Whistler/Blackcomb, and when you add in reliable snow stretching all the way up to 3,456 meters, it is easy to see why for the British, who have long loved French ski holidays, Val D’Isere is number one.
However, the main town itself, situated more American-style directly at the base of the resort, just launched a massive five-year upgrade that will better connect its pedestrianized core with the slopes and add new hotels, which means the potential for lots of construction. There are two other major village options higher up, La Daille and Le Fornet, plus a few smaller ones, but the big three are all full of fancy restaurants and lively bars, and Val D’Isere is a choice it is hard to go wrong with. In fact, it’s perhaps the most “turnkey” ski resort in Europe for planning purposes, though it is so popular with foreigners that some lament its lack of French-ness (yet it has a great abundance of traditional Savoyard cuisine).
There is massive skiing for all abilities, yet Val D’Isere has a deserved reputation for understatement, and some of its intermediate trails are closer to expert while some expert trails can be very daunting—its steep La Face has hosted both the Olympic Men’s Downhill and World Championships. On the other hand, it has two sizable designated “tranquil” zones strictly for beginners to enjoy without intimidation. The lack of laborious traverses, the high-altitude powder, and the state of the art Oakley-branded terrain park also makes it very attractive to snowboarders. Its nightlife and après scene also spans all tastes, from live jazz and subdued cocktail bars to the on-snow beach club feel of the raucous Folie Douce, complete with dancing on the tables – in ski boots. For something more revered, there is the 2-Michelin starred L’Atelier d’Edmond, charming, rustic and excellent.