A guide to black, off-piste and difficult skiing in the Trois Vallées

Part 1. An Introduction to the Trois Vallées

Who should stay where?

The Trois Vallées (Three Valleys, 3-V) comprises a group of resorts in Savoie. The valleys all run roughly north to south. They claim, I believe correctly, to be "le plus grande domaine skiable du monde" (the biggest ski area in the world). However you measure it, its probably true, each valley separately could make a case to be included in the Worlds Top Ten resorts, put them together and you come up with an impressive ensemble. The resort consists of several separate lift companies. Beginners and weak intermediates can buy a lift pass for a single company, or even a sub-set of lifts in a restricted area but the vast majority of skiers will buy a 3-valleys lift pass. However, if you start off with one of the fairly restricted passes, it is always possible to buy a day's extension to make a special trip outside the specific area of your original pass. Each valley is made up of a number of villages, each of which has a distinctive character. I will briefly give a guide to who should stay where, then move on to the skiing.

Courchevel is the most french, the most chic, and the most expensive. The valley also has the prettiest views and the most varied skiing. It would suite all grades of skiers from absolute beginner to expert, and is therefore particularly suited to groups of mixed ability. The resort is split into various villages. Courchevel 1850 (the premiere accommodation), Courchevel 1650, Courchevel 1550, Le Praz (1300), Le Tania and various smaller hamlets. (The number are the altitude in meters). 1850 is easily the most convenient but also the most expensive. 1650 is quiet and seclude but should only be considered by intermediate skiers, or groups with intermediates and beginners. Skiers wanting to take full advantage of all three valleys should choose a more central village, ideally 1850. The lower villages are all less convenient for skiing, but are more interesting older villages and not purpose built resorts.

Meribel is a British enclave. If you want to apres-ski with the French stay elsewhere. It has two main centres and a number of satellite villages lower down the valley. Meribel's main advantage is its central position in the Three Valleys. It is ideal for advanced intermediates who want to ski everything. If you have beginners in the party choose Centre rather than Mottaret (the nursery slopes at Mottaret are impossible), otherwise there is no skiing reason for choosing between them. The main disadvantage of Meribel is the altitude of the main lift station, only 1450 meters. In an average year one safely skis to the bottom from mid-December to early April, but in poor years there will be weeks when the day starts and ends on grass (or mud :-). Timid intermediates would probably prefer Courchevel. All of the satellite villages are charming but are to some degree inconvenient for those expecting easy access to the lifts or the certitude of skiing back to the village. If in these lower satellites or in the more remote suburbs of Meribel Centre you will either need your own transport or a good minibus service from your tour operator.

Belleville, the third valley, has two very different resorts: Val Thorens and Les Menuires. Val Thorens is the highest village (2000m), and therefore the safest for snow (it even boasts summer skiing). At one time it was the most secluded and quietest area but now it is unpleasantly crowded at peak times. I used to recommend it to beginners, because it has excellent nursery slopes. I no longer do so except perhaps out of season. Val Thorens is probably the best resort for dedicated off-piste snow boarders. Les Menuires is the least fashionable village (“Les Manures” to the Brits). But, do not sneer at it. It is easily the cheapest (most of us were poor once) and has enormous numbers of modest self catering apartments. If you want to ski on a shoe string, consider Les Menuires. You get the same skiing as those paying much more in Courchevel, and still get to stand in the same lift queues as Brigitte Bardot and Giscard d'Estaing. (Oh dear, I suspect that my choice of Courchevel celebrities clearly reveals my generation.) There are very few hotels. St. Martin (the original village for the valley) is now much expanded and does have easy lift and piste access to the rest of the 3 valleys. However, like Courchevel 1650 it is too remote for anyone expecting to take full advantage of the rest of the ski domaine.

Other thoughts: prices in Brides-les-Bains may look tempting but it is a very long trip on the gondola connection to the skiing. I wouldn't recommend it except for the odd night.


Copyright: © Dennis Summerbell, 2003,

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Updated 8th february 2004