French Skiing Experience at Les Arcs, France
Skiing Destination in France: Les Arcs
Situated above the valley town of Bourg St Maurice on a sunny plateau, Les Arcs came to life in the 1960s with the construction of Arc 1600, one of the first ski-in, ski-out developments. The buildings, which were presumptively intended to blend into the mountains and mimic them in the eye of the architect, instead mimic a kind of tatty holiday park, but at least the design was user-friendly and ensured Les Arcs' success for years to come. Ever since, Les Arcs has boomed steadily into Arc 1800 and Arc 2000, two more unattractive yet convenient slopeside villages, plus a rare new development, Arc 1950, which is built in faux-Savoyarde style and whose apartments were snapped up within three days of going on sale in Paris.
So why the rush? Firstly, new 'resorts' in the Alps are as rare. Secondly, despite its faults, Les Arcs is an underrated ski resort, having a vast and varied ski area (even more so now it's joined with La Plagne), ski-in, ski-out accommodation, lifts up to 3,200m and a vertical of more than 2,000m, plus a funicular down to the railway at Bourg St Maurice, not to mention fast rail links to Paris and London.
In the 1990s Les Arcs endured an image crisis, almost going to the wall at one point as other resorts stole the limelight and the custom, but with the connection to La Plagne completed and the new Arc 1950 development, the resort is once more positioning itself at the forefront of French skiing.
The biggest talking point in the Alps come to fruition many years back, the marriage of convenience of Les Arcs and La Plagne under the banner of Paradiski. The Vanoise Express, a 200-person double-decker cable-car, spans the Ponthurin gorge dividing the two resorts and gives skiers access to 425km of runs and 143 lifts. But at a cost of 15 million euros, the question still stands: what is the point? After all, Les Arcs' skiing mirrors its new-found bedfellow in terms of size, shape and appeal, and the two areas are big enough to satisfy any skier for a week on their own. But in the modern world of skiing, size matters. Small and cute works, big and bold works, but the middle ground is turning less and less attractive.
What Les Arcs does have over its new partner is some really steep piste skiing, including the sublime 7 km Aiguille Rouge run from the summit of the resort down to the valley village of Le Pre, a vertical drop of more than 2,000m. On the downside, most of Les Arcs' tough stuff happens way above the treeline and is open to the vagaries of the weather, which can promptly close down the highest lifts, in particular the Aiguille Rouge cable-car which extends up to over 3,200m and leads to the Aiguille Rouge piste. Luckily, there are plenty of other steep blacks dotted among the trees, including heady descents from Les Deux Tetes and L'Arpette.
For lesser mortals, Les Arcs is a paradise of long, tree-lined blues and reds ending in specially assigned 'quiet zones' stretched all the way across the mountainside from Arc 1600 to Plan Peisey, which is also the starting point for the Vanoise Express to La Plagne. Crowds could be a serious problem above Arc 1800 and the west-facing aspect of the bulk of the area can lead to slushy home runs, but pick a quiet blue above Arc 1600 or Vallandry.
Up there, lunch is mostly a saucisses-frites affair, but the west-facing sun terraces make the fast food a little more palatable. Best bets include the Chalets de I'Arc above Arc 2000 in the lee of the Aiguille Grive, which serves trad Savoyarde dishes inside an attractive spot, or Pizza 2000, which unsurprisingly dishes out tasty pizzas at Arc 2000. If you prefer lunch with a rustic touch, you need to head to the outlying villages like Pre St Esprit, home to the enchanting 500-year-old Belliou La Fumee, or Nancroix, home to the highly regarded L'Ancolie auberge and worth the five-minute bus or taxi ride from the bottom of the pistes.
Les Arcs is a huge snowboarding destination and the organic Apocalypse Park, just down from Arpette and served by the Clair Blanc chairlift, changes features all over the season. There's a boardercross course, plus hips, jumps and rails. Special snowpark passes are avialable on a per day basis and give access to the park. There's also a floodlit half-pipe at Arc 2000 and acres of tree-lined off-piste wherever you look.