Give it a try if… You would do (almost) anything to ski down really good slopes.
Steer clear if… You are obsessed with customer service and value-for-money.
The French Alps are one of the key destinations for skiers coming from all sorts of countries (from Italy to the United Kingdom, from the United States to Germany and increasingly from Russia – as if they didn’t have enough snow over there). They do offer amazing pleasures to ski lovers, but they can be equally frustrating if you do not know your way around here. So let me share a few general lessons I have learned after several winter vacations in the area – mostly geared towards flat rental, the hardcore skier’s preferred option, as opposed to
luxurious hotels – to be followed by specific posts on the resorts I have visited this year. Before firing my guns, I shall clarify that negative remarks are related to this country’s largest resorts, the ones I have focused on (perhaps uncleverly) so far. There is a lot more to explore, friendlier places with more room and better service, and I will be glad to visit them in the future.
Pick the Right Time
Go in January; it is considered low season, meaning a little less people and lower prices, though you might find a surprising amount of people anyway. Never, ever book your stay during the French school holidays – which are extraordinarily lengthy, since the different regions take turns with only partial overlapping – or you will end up craving the peace of your city’s peak-hour traffic jams.
Especially if you are on a low-to-medium budget, prepare to sleep in ugly flats with limited space and poor fixtures. To calculate the actual breathing room as you browse through what is availabile, keep in mind that in France “5-people apartment” means “a harmonious couple might survive without necessarily filing for divorce”. I am not joking; maximum use is made of every single inch of space. For the same reason, upon arrival, you’d better explore every nook and cranny of your mansion: you might as well find the clothes horse folded in 24 and hidden behind the pan lids, or the shower mat dried and compressed like an organic sea sponge.
Lodge with Caution
Before booking, check each and every detail of your stay with the fastidiousness of a Carthusian monk – without appearing fastidious, of course – knowing that anything you have not checked might turn into an unpleasant surprise. Even my French friends confirm that small print rules around here, so take out those long-sighted glasses and squint like it’s “Baywatch” time again. Also, you might want to think twice if you are Bree-obsessive about hygiene. First, upon opening the door to your flat you will be welcomed by its virtually inevitable floor carpet – a specimen of “living, breathing, self-reproducing” interior design. Second, people around here seem to have no idea of what bathroom windows are. And no, that does not mean you will find air fans instead (at least not of the working kind). Last but not least, triple-check the Internet connection in advance if you really need it: “broadband” usually takes the most figurative meaning around here, and you may easily end up paying 30€ a week for a wireless service that will take away several precious years of your life.
How Do You Say… Dee-Yummi?
Gourmet food in France is just as good as you have been told. If you are willing and able to splurge, ask around for the most exclusive on-piste restaurants (sometimes hidden away on the higher floors of the same mountain huts where the most casual hot-dog stalls attract a whole other target) and do not forget to call or drop by one or two hours in advance to reserve. Your meal will be so great that you will be tempted to skip the afternoon sport session and roll down to the resort on your belly while singing La Vie en Rose; in case you don’t, please remember to not drink and glide (or at least buy Carre Neige insurance, wear a helmet and carry a generous mint dispenser). If you stop at the lower floor instead, I suggest you get a glimpse of people’s plates before ordering: the same dish can be cooked in all sorts of ways around here, from the most rewarding to the most disappointing, so you want to know what you are buying. In the evening, be twice as careful about your resort’s restaurants: most are tourist traps, but there are a few hidden gems worth unearthing. As for self-catering, supermarket prices are insanely high; I would suggest you bring the basics (oil, vinegar, even dish soap) from home if you can.
The Legendary French Savoire Faire
Yeah, right. Rather, get ready to receive the rudest treatment from local shopkeepers, waiters, receptionists and the like: they’ve got the f***ing power, if you excuse my French, and they can’t wait to show it. In return, always smile with the fakest ostentation; if you have to complain about something, give the impression you are actually making a compliment and of course, smile twice as harder. So why on Earth, you might think after reading this, do you go there so often? Because in spite of all these challenges the French Alps remain a great area to enjoy amazing slopes in large, snowy, and well-organized resorts. All in all – and although I am increasingly choosing Austria instead – I am afraid this love-hate relationship will light up my life for quite a while. À bientôt!
UPS Score (Utmost Perfection Scale): 8/10 + wow!