Flaine in France is a skier’s dream resort. Just an hour and a half from Geneva, it’s high in the mountains, which means good snow late in the season, and the skiing is great for all levels.
Yet this French gem is fairly unknown in the UK market. It attracts around 15,000 Brits a year, compared with the 40,000 who typically ski at Mirabel or Val d’Isere.
Flaine opened in 1968, almost 10 years after the site was discovered by geophysicist Eric Boissonnas while he was skiing through the Grand Massif.
He commissioned Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the man behind the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, to design a resort that brought art and culture to the mountains.
Bauhaus style favours functionality, regularity and lots of sharp angles, and it can be striking, but most visitors to Flaine – myself included – see nothing but concrete blocks.
There is also very little après-ski, although Le White Pub and Flying Dutchman get busy at night. You can’t beat the Le Sucré Sale for dinner – filled pittas and home-made desserts to die for – but it is small, so tell your clients to book a table as soon as they arrive in resort.
Whatever else Flaine lacks, its skiing is sensational. It has 166 miles of piste, with 68 easy, 49 intermediate and 12 difficult runs. You can ski for miles, including to the resorts of Les Carroz, Samoëns, Morillon and Sixt. There is usually good snow up to mid-April.
Outgoing director of Flaine tourist board William Fux said: “We don’t need to be pretty because we have other assets – the skiing, the history. Flaine is a child of the 1960s. It has enduring appeal.”
Crystal/Thomson Ski and Lakes head of product Melvin Westlake said: “Flaine is a great resort but British skiers tend to overlook it in favour of better-known and interlinked resorts in the Tarantaise. It has a reputation for being ugly. I don’t think people realise how good the ski area is.”
The resort, at 1,600 metres, is split into two areas – the traffic-free Flaine Forum where it all started, and Flaine Forêt, above, which opened in 1975 – linked by two free funiculars.
More importantly, both are on the edge of the ski area, so skiers can be on the piste within minutes of leaving their accommodation. At some hotels and apartments, including Crystal’s Club Hotel Le Totem, you step outside the door, strap on your skis and go.
The DMC gondola is the fast way up the mountain, taking you to 2,500 metres with views of Mont Blanc in just 12 minutes. Inevitably it gets the worst of the queues, especially in the morning.
An alternative is the Aup de Veran cable car, known as the ‘egg’ on account of the shape of the cars, or the ‘yogurt pot’, a bucket lift that gets Forum skiers to Forêt level, from where they can take button and chairlifts to the top.
And that is one of Flaine’s disadvantages. The DMC is modern, and Flaine was the first resort in France to get a high-speed eight-seater chairlift, but much of the other equipment is dated – lots of buttons and small chairs, which means slow movement, although I’ve never seen really long queues.
But things are improving. In April, most of the old ‘eggs’ had been replaced with modern cars. In Christmas 2008 a new six-seater chairlift will give another alternative to the bucket and button lifts; in 2009 the bucket will be updated and a new chairlift built, giving access to the left side of the resort.
At the same time, 4,700 beds are being added in Flaine, increasing the current stock of 9,400, but there’s little fear of over-development.
Fux said: “The ski area has more capacity than Flaine has beds so I don’t fear it will be overrun. Other resorts have 25,000 or more beds. It will stay a little big resort.”
Sample packages to Flaine
Crystal has seven nights at the Club Hotel Le Totem in Flaine from £479 per person half-board including flights and transfers.
Erna Low has seven nights at the Club Hotel L’Aujon in Flaine from £359 per person full-board including Eurotunnel crossing from Folkestone to Calais/Coquelles.
Inghams has seven nights’ self-catering in the Residence de la Forêt in Flaine from £321 per person including flights and transfers.
Avoriaz is living proof that purpose-built resorts can be attractive. Concrete buildings are covered with red cedar, and angling roofs match the fall of the slope.
The resort, two hours from Geneva, is at 1,800 metres, traffic free – sleighs replace cars – and offers doorstep skiing, so there is easy access to the 400 miles of high-altitude slopes.
- Neilson has seven nights at the Hotel La Falaise in Avoriaz from £739 per person half-board including flights and transfers.
Valloire, one hour, 45 minutes from Chambery, is a traditional French ski resort – a small farming community built up around a 17th century baroque-style church that turned out to have very good skiing.
A ski school was opened after the Second World War. Skiers now have access to 94 miles of slopes, 20% of which is above 2,000 metres.
- Crystal has seven nights at Les Carrettes Hotel in Valloire from £621 per person full-board including flights and transfers.
Courmayeur in Italy is one for traditionalists who don’t want to compromise on their skiing. A mountain village at the foot of Mont Blanc, it has small chalet-style hotels, cobbled streets and cosy bars.
It also has access to 63 miles of runs, and the lift pass includes skiing in nearby La Thuile, reached. The resort is two hours from Turin.
- Inghams has seven nights at Le Grand Chalet Residence from £366 per person self-catering including flights and transfers.