France's 'super resorts' - such as the Espace Killy, Three Valleys and Portes Du Soleil - are known the world over, but there are a few downsides to taking one of those well-worn options. Any hope of an 'authentic' Gallic experience is dashed from the off - when you walk into the pub after a day on the hill, you half expect to see steak & kidney pie on the menu. During school holidays, you'll probably spend just as long in the lift queues as you do on the pistes. And don't get us started on the price of a croque monsieur...
However, there is another way. Nestled in quiet corners of the Alps, away from the monolithic tourist magnets, lie several smaller resorts that are cheaper, quieter and can offer just as much quality snowboarding.
Of course, the chances of getting a transfer from the airport are massively reduced - even if bus transfers are available, they're infrequent and have to be booked far in advance, - plus there's not really a contingency option should you miss your connection.
No, your best bet is to take a car (one that can handle the mountains - some of the approach roads can be sketchy) and plan a road trip. This is real France you're heading to, so stick a French phrasebook in the glove compartment and soon you'll be mainlining joie de vivre at one of these hidden gems:
Bonneval-Sur-Arc is located at the end of a long and picturesque road that goes right through the Haute-Maurienne region. The resort is actually right at the end of the road, so there’s zero chance of missing the turn-off! One you get there, you’re greeted with a relatively sleepy village with approximately 200 residents – and only one pub.
Nearest Airport: Chambery (1h 55mins)
Day Pass: €25
Km of runs: 25
Best for: Powder kickers
The resort is right at the end of the road, so there’s zero chance of missing the turn-off!
Being a hidden gem, Bonneval’s ski area isn’t the biggest – but while there may only be three chairlifts to the whole place (as well as seven drag lifts), don’t let that fool you; this place has some insane terrain! It’s especially awesome if you like building powder booters, with plenty of spots to get a good cheese wedge on the go. And it goes without saying that you’ll get more than your fair share of freshies after a dump.
There’s one big snag, though: every year, there is an absolutely massive avalanche that starts at the main kicker-building zone. Just how big is it? Well, when it slides it can sometimes knock out the electricity for the whole village – for as long as a week! When that happens, there’s not much to do other than head to stay at other villages nearby, such as Bessans Val D’Arc.
This is one of France’s smallest resorts, and you’ll definitely feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere as you head up on one of the few lifts (1 chair, 6 drag). The pisted area has something for everyone, with plenty of beginner zones as well as more challenging runs like the Lourette and Jalavez. Riders of all levels will also appreciate the long, wide blue runs that snake down the mountain.
Nearest Airport: Turin (2.5 hours)
Day Pass: €27
Km of runs: 36
Best for: Splitboarding
Good snow is pretty much guaranteed at Ceillac, and – like with all of these resorts – you won’t be fighting for fresh tracks. To really make the most of your trip, bung a splitboard in the car so you can take advantage of the many excellent touring options.
To really make the most of your trip, bung a splitboard in the car
Off the hill, don’t expect crazy après. It’s a traditional farming village, so there’s not much to do except fill up on the local produce. If it’s an authentic French experience you’re after – preferably combined with peace, quiet and seriously low prices for everything – then Ceillac is well worth checking out. The season wraps up in late March, though, so be sure to plan your trip for before spring…
If Ceillac leaves you crying out for a bit more civilization, then look no further than Vars. Just 40 minutes down the road, this is one of France’s most under-rated resorts – and is a lot bigger and less remote than some of the others on this list. As such, prices are a bit closer to what you’d get in France’s ‘super resorts,’ but they’re still considerably cheaper. Plus you won’t find the British seasonaire/holidaymaking contingent that plagues places like Val D’Isere and Meribel. If you’re still looking for a quieter experience, you can stay in one of the smaller hamlets of Vars Saint Marcellin or Vars Sainte Marie, as opposed to the relatively busy Vars Les Claux.
Nearest Airport: Turin (2.5 hours)
Day Pass: €38
Km of runs: 185
Best for: Park
This resort’s top selling point has to be its terrain park, which has risen dramatically in stature in the last decade or so and is now considered among the finest in Europe. It’s certainly the best in the Southern Alps, so any freestyler visiting that part of the country really needs to check out its pristine kicker lines and countless jib features.
Elsewhere there’s plenty of pistes to bash, and when the pow comes there’s everything from wide open bowls to tree runs. It also links up (awkwardly, mind) with neighbouring Risoul, giving you even more ground to cover.
This resort’s top selling point has to be its terrain park, which has risen dramatically in stature in the last decade or so
Here's one to consider if you’re looking to give your kids an authentic French snowsports experience. Located in the Écrins National Park, Orcieres is one of the top family-friendly resorts in the country - and even claims to have established the first ever ski resort childcare operation back in 1967. There’s a specific area decked out for young rippers, and all runs return to the main village so there’s little chance of them getting lost.
Nearest Airport: Grenoble (2 hours)
Day Pass: €32
Km of runs: 85
Best for: Families
With slopes facing in all directions you can be sure you’ll be able to find good snow all day – especially when you take the area’s high altitude and extensive snowmaking facilities into consideration. It also gets more sun than a lot of French resorts, as most of the runs are south-facing.
Orcieres is one of the top family-friendly resorts in the country
The park is pretty basic, heavy on boxes and beginner-to-intermediate jumps. It has its own tow, though, so you’ll get fast laps all day long, and there’s a boardercross course as well. Pow fans will love the wide open off-piste areas, so when a storm does come you’ll get fresh lines for days.
While relatively (and mercifully) close to an airport, you definitely need a decent set of wheels to get to this one; the final approach to the resort is a long and winding road that has seen better days. Snow tyres are preferable, and chains are mandatory!
Nearest Airport: Chambéry (1hr 20mins)
Day Pass: €25
Km of runs: 60
Best for: Backcountry
The ski area itself is popular with intermediate to advanced riders, as the majority of pistes are on the challenging side. There are still a few mellow groomers (including a beauty of a long green run that snakes through the trees), but overall this place is for those who can handle the steep stuff.
The approach road has seen better days. Snow tyres are preferable, and chains are mandatory!
While there aren’t many lifts or runs, what there is covers a relatively large area, so there’s plenty of terrain on offer. Without much effort you should be able to access some truly stunning backcountry – make sure you’ve packed all the necessary safety gear! On top of all that, there’s a well-stocked park with features for every level of rider, not to mention airbag sessions and a boardercross track.
This resort has a family vibe too, but there are a few options for getting loose after the session including the Bar@ka nightclub. The village is actually car-free, so you can leave your motor in one of the free parking spots and have a stomp around town.
Of course, these are just a few of the many French resorts that get overlooked by the main UK travel operators. If you’ve got the pluck to tear up the rule book and try something new, then it's simple: load up the car, venture off the beaten path and discover some of them for yourself. It may be ‘forgotten France', but the memories you make there will last a lifetime.