All you need to know about the Southern Alps
Nestled between the mountains and the sea, the Provence-Alpes and Riviera/Côte d'Azur regions are home to myriad scenic treasures and a plethora of sports and leisure activities in both summer and winter. Find out all you need to know about the resorts of the Southern Alps - the perfect choice for an unforgettable winter holiday in France!
Briançonnais / Hautes-Alpes
La Grave-La Meije: 1,400 - 3,200m
This village, officially recognised as one of the most beautiful in France, clings to the mountainside at the foot of the famous Le Lautaret pass, deep in the Romanche valley. In recent years this discreet yet internationally renowned resort has become a mecca for freeride skiing, with "riders" travelling here from around the world to hurl themselves down wild valleys of virgin snow, beneath glaciers and one particularly legendary summit: La Meije. This peak, rising close to 4,000m, represented a major challenge for the early pioneers of mountaineering. Today, an ice cave sculpted by artists attracts interest from visitors arriving at the cable car station at the Col des Ruillans, at an altitude of 3,200m. For intrepid skiers, caution is the watchword alongside a sense of exhilaration, as although the slopes are marked, they are neither protected nor maintained.
Montgenèvre: 1,850 - 2,630m
An important border pass, this area is also home to one of the world's oldest ski resorts: it was here, in 1907, that the epic saga of skiing began in France. The ski domain itself is spread across two mountain slopes with 65km of pistes. However, if you add in the extension of the network into Italy, incorporating the Monts de la Lune (Clavière-Cesana), the total rises to 100km. It's even possible to ski as far as San Sicario and Sestrières (a site used in the Turin Winter Olympics) along 400km of additional runs known as the Milky Way. On the French side, cross-country enthusiasts can head for the unspoilt and protected Clarée valley dotted with its traditional chalets. Another big bonus for this Southern Alps resort, along with elsewhere in the Briançonnais region, is that it's quick and easy to get to by TGV, via the railway station in Oulx across the border in Italy.
Serre-Chevalier: 1,350 - 2,680m
The home village of French ski champion Luc Alphand, the ski area in Serre-Chevalier covers a huge expanse yet has still preserved the traditional appearance of its hamlets and villages. Linked to Briançon, Europe's highest town and an officially recognised "town of art and history" known as the Cité Vauban, the resort's ski area encompasses three separate villages in the Guisane valley and a total of 250km of pistes (with views of the peaks of the Ecrins from the top of the slopes). "Grand Serre-Che" as it is affectionately known boasts a wide variety of excellent accommodation options, ranging from the recently opened Club Méditerranée des Alpes to new boutique bed & breakfasts and typical hotels close to or even right in the heart of the slopes. An ice-driving circuit and the new Les Grands Bains spa centre (centre thermoludique) add to the impressive eclecticism of this star Alpine resort with a distinctly Mediterranean ambience.
Puy-Saint-Vincent: 1,400 - 2,600m
Clinging to one side of the Vallouise valley, this resort (which has been awarded the "Famille Plus" label and ISO 18001 certification) has developed on two levels (one at 1,400m, the other at 1,600m) above a village on a mountain slope, opposite the grandiose landscapes of the Massif des Ecrins. The 75km of downhill runs wend their way through larch forests, while cross-country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts are spoilt for choice throughout the area. The village resort of Vallouise-Pelvoux (34km of runs between 1,250 and 2,300m) provides an alternative to Puy-Saint-Vincent up the valley. This world apart is prized by cross-country and downhill ski connoisseurs. In addition, the valley, located at the heart of the Parc National des Ecrins, is very lively and a major gateway to some of the finest natural scenery in the Alps.
The resorts of the Hautes-Alpes
Vars and Risoul (Forêt Blanche): 1,400 - 2,750m
These two resorts tucked away amid forests of larch between the Val de Durance and the Massif du Queyras are connected "on high" to create a ski area with 180km of runs (and an altitude drop of 1,100m) around the Pic de Chabrières. Both resorts have contemporary wood-clad architecture, yet each village retains its own identity on either side of the mountain that separates them. Risoul 1850 is considered a pioneer in the concept of snowparks, while Vars, which is renowned for the typical ambience of its neighbouring villages, has one of just three speed skiing runs in France, where world speed skiing records are regularly beaten!
Les Orres (Embrunais): 1,650 - 2,720m
Spread across two sites in a wooded setting, the resort of Les Orres is known for its wood-clad buildings, 88km of downhill runs and views of the impressive Serre-Ponçon lake. The ski area is situated between the peaks of Le Boussolenc and L'Aupillou, with 60% of its upper areas equipped with snow machines, although these are rarely needed on the resort's wide slopes. Away from the slopes, Les Orres is proud of its innovative cyberspace facilities, which include a multimedia area open to the public, and free Wi-Fi access throughout the resort (with a total of 55 computer terminals in public buildings and areas).
Réallon (Embrunais): 1,560 - 2,140m
Rising above the 30km of downhill pistes here, the belvedere of the Aiguilles de Chabrières is quite unique and almost tempts you to launch yourself into the reflections of the Lac de Serre-Ponçon below, the largest artificial lake in France and the whole of Europe. The resort is both quiet and family orientated, while the old village is a gateway for snowshoe and cross-country fans to the pristine environment of the Parc National des Ecrins (towards the hamlet of Les Gourniers).
The village resorts of the Queyras
A single valley, a single mountain range, and a pioneering Parc Naturel Régional combine to form this unique region. The Queyras is often cited as a model because of its "environmentally friendly" (or "sustainable" to use the current popular term) development, where friendliness and tradition are deeply embedded in its history and the state of mind of its inhabitants. The past isolation of this community of seven villages has had the effect of creating local initiatives and perpetuating a typical village feel with its traditional architecture, artisanal know-how (furniture and wooden toys), preserved landscapes, ski areas on a more measured scale, Nordic skiing facilities and winter trekking options. The region boasts close to 100km of downhill ski runs at altitudes of between 1,600 and 2,700m, dotted around six resorts, including Abriès, Ceillac, Molines and Saint-Véran. Superb cross-country skiing tracks can also be found around Arvieux, Ristolas and other resorts, with a total network of 200km - a record in the Southern Alps! You still get the sense, however, that the key feature of the Queyras can be found in the atmosphere of its individuals hamlets and villages.
Orcières 1850 (Champsaur): 1,850 - 2,720m
This resort has undergone significant development and modified its somewhat obtrusive appearance by opting for large-scale facilities (a sports centre with a swimming pool, fitness area and ice rink), an ambitious traffic project (large underground car park and shuttle bus service) and even the reprofiling of its ski area, which extends around a mountain lake, the Lac des Estaries. Its non-skiing programme of activities includes original ideas such as under-ice diving beneath the frozen surface of the lake, cosy nights in a traditional igloo, and speed-riding - the latest high-adrenaline activity to hit the slopes!
The village resorts of the Champsaur-Valgaudemar
While Orcières is anchored at the foot of the Champsaur valley, a collection of smaller resorts can be found lower down the mountain around Saint-Bonnet and beneath the watchful gaze of an imposing peak, Le Vieux Chaillon. This string of resorts (Ancelle, Saint-Léger, Chaillol, Laye and Serre-Eyraud) each have their own identity and character with pleasant ski areas (between 10 and 20km of pistes) staggered between altitudes of 1,300 and 2,000m. Nordic skiing is very popular around Ancelle in particular (24km of tracks), as well as on the Col Bayard (a 50km network of routes) and deep in the wild and stunning Le Valgaudemar valley, in a mountain area that is a world apart!
Super-Dévoluy & La Joue-du-Loup: 1,470 - 2,510m
The two sides of Le Pierra are home to 100km of runs between the resorts of Super-Dévoluy and La Joue-du-Loup, at the heart of a pre-Alpine range that is quite unique. Sculpted out of the limestone, the pre-Alpine Massif du Dévoluy boasts some impressive rock formations, including the famous Pic de Bure (2,700m). Enjoy a wide range of winter sports and a great atmosphere in glorious sunshine and magnificent open landscapes.
Mercantour / Alpes-Maritimes
Auron: 1,160 - 2460m
Nestled at the end of the Tinée valley, which is connected to the village of Saint-Etienne (lower in the valley) by road and cable car, the resort of Auron is renowned for its abundant snowfall. Perched on a plateau, its 130km of downhill runs (accessed via 2 main cable cars) extend towards the sun-blessed area of Las Donnas and the wooded slopes of Demandols. A snowpark and half-pipe attract youngsters from Nice and elsewhere who are keen to experience thrills and spills on the slopes. In the surrounding area, the Parc National du Mercantour is famed for its superb landscapes (a mix of Alpine and Mediterranean characteristics) and an unexpected cultural heritage which includes churches and painted Baroque chapels, many of which are listed historic monuments.
Isola 2000: 2,000 - 2,603m
On clear days the Mediterranean is visible from the Sistron peak, at the top of the resort's pistes. In the opposite direction you can also make out the far-off pointed summit of Le Cervin, in Switzerland. In the heart of the Mercantour-Argentera range, close to the Italian border (the Lombarde pass is closed in winter), this high-altitude resort promises visitors a sparkling winter experience on its 120km of runs. Isola 2000 offers a choice of accommodation options ranging from chalets to 4-star hotels in a resort with a unique yet functional layout. From Nice it's just a 90min drive to this resort, which boasts the closest large ski area to the sea, as well as a whole host of fun activities including ice-driving!
Valberg: 1,520 - 2,025m
With its 90km of ski runs (and 350 snow machines) which link the slopes around Beuil-les-Launes and Valberg, this resort at the "gateway to the Mercantour" in the upper valley of the Var has lots going for it, particularly for kids (Valberg has been awarded the "Famille Plus" label, which is given to resorts which are particularly child-friendly). Mountain treks by quad and snowbike through the area's forested landscapes add to the charm of this resort.
La Colmiane: 1,500 -1,800m
This small resort, just an hour's drive from the Mediterranean and Nice's Baie des Anges, has a snowpark, plus six ski lifts serving 30km of runs between altitudes of 1,500m and 1,800m.
Ubaye / Haut-Verdon (Alpes de Haute-Provence)
Pra-Loup: 1,600 - 2,500m
These two well-established resorts (at altitudes of 1,500m and 1,600m) enjoy superb facilities overlooking the Ubaye valley and Barcelonnette, a small town with an eventful history and a unique character, with architecture that features a number of typically Mexican villas. The resort is linked with the Val d'Allos to form the "Espace Lumière" ski area with 230km of runs (accessible via 50 ski lifts) and includes a "Rider Space" and excellent off-piste skiing (an activity which requires a great deal of caution and the services of qualified ski instructor guide) in a landscape dominated by the imposing peak of La Grande Séolane.
Val d'Allos: 1,600 - 2,500m
Located at the source of the Verdon (a river which passes though the largest canyon in Europe), the resorts of La Foux and Le Seignus, at altitudes of between 1,400m and 1,800m above the village of Allos, complement each other perfectly. In additional to a full range of facilities, the two resorts offer abundant opportunities for cross-country ski and snowshoe treks towards the breathtaking Lac d'Allos - a site of natural beauty in the heart of the Parc National du Mercantour.
Super-Sauze: 1,400 - 2,440m
From their position above the Ubaye valley, the Le Brec and Fours ski areas boast 65km of pistes in Super-Sauze. This "village-cum-resort" has a particularly welcoming atmosphere and a real vocation for winter sports as demonstrated by the first ski tow, installed here in 1934, and the skiing career of local girl Carole Merle, a word champion in the 1990s who amassed a glittering array of titles!
Vallée de la Blanche (Alpes de Haute-Provence)
Chabanon-Selonnet, Saint-Jean-Montclart and La Seyne-Grand Puy form a discreet trilogy of resorts in the Vallée de la Blanche (not to be confused with the almost identically named valley in Chamonix), situated away from the region's highest peaks, between Digne-les-Bains and Serre-Ponçon lake. This is a major part of the attraction of this family destination with three downhill ski areas on the edge of the Massif des Monges.
2 "miniature" resorts around Le Grand Parpaillon
The resort of Sainte-Anne-la-Condamine stands on the Ubaye valley side of the Le Parpaillon range (with 6 ski lifts between 1,800m and 2,400m), while Crévoux is situated to the west, closer to Embrun (6 ski lifts between 1,500m and 2,400m).