Portes du Soleil:

Sunday, 15 Jan, 2000 0

With unseasonally warm weather across the Alps this month it’s best to check the snow report before booking any last-minute ski trips as a lot of resorts are suffering from patchy coverage. Indeed, many are depending on man-made snow to keep runs open, which has resulted in less than ideal conditions.

In France, the Portes du Soleil has enjoyed some of the highest snowfall across the Alps since the start of the month, with more than 90 cms falling just before I arrived last week. Although much of it quickly turned to slush on the lower slopes due to temperatures which topped 8°C on some days, the good news is there has been more snow there this week and the area is well covered by snow canons to top up the natural stuff.

The highest slopes currently have about 160 cms of snow, which is more than many European resorts right now and as much as Val Thorens, which sits at a much higher altitude.

The Portes du Soleil consists of 12 linked resorts – eight in France and four in Switzerland. Two of the best-known to British skiers are the French resorts of Les Gets and Morzine, both of which are traditional villages which are very popular with families – and it’s easy to see why.

Both have a good selection of quality three and four star hotels, many of which are within a short stagger of the slopes so there’s no need for little ones to walk far in ski boots. Most are still family run and in typical Alpine style, but with plush, modern facilities.

Less well-known, in the UK at least, is the smaller village of Châtel, which has, in my opinion, some of the best skiing in the area, more of which I’ll mention later.

It’s possible to ski between all 12 resorts in the Portes du Soleil, which boasts over 600 kms of runs, so you can have breakfast in France, ski to Switzerland for lunch and be back in France in time for the après ski.  Each ski resort has a local lift pass or visitors can buy a single pass to cover the whole of the Portes du Soleil area.

Much of the skiing here is suited to beginners and intermediates, with lots of wide, fairly gentle runs, ideal for those who love cruising and soaking up the 360 degree views. The toughest run is a steep, 1km long mogulled descent above Les Crosets on the Swiss France border, known to the English as The Swiss Wall, which is a bit of a knee trembler for all but the most experienced skiers.

One of the great attractions of the Portes du Soleil, however, is its easily accessible off-piste terrain. Now since ex-racing driver Michael Shumacher’s tragic accident while skiing last month, and following the unusually high number of fatal avalanches in Europe so far this winter, many clients will be understandably nervous about straying from the marked runs, but for those who do want to venture off-piste, the Portes du Soleil is ideal.

The best area for off-piste is in Châtel.  Known as the Happy Valley, which is easy to reach straight from the village via the Pré la Joux lift, provides oodles of unpisted runs where, according to Olivier, a local instructor from the French ski school ESF, it’s relatively safe to ski without a guide and as the slopes aren’t too steep it’s not essential to carry avalanche equipment.

"It’s best to go there with an instructor the first time, because there are some hidden crevaces, but once you know the area there’s no need for a guide, " he said. "The runs aren’t too steep so there is little risk of an avalanche. Skiers love playing around in there, it’s great fun."

Unfortunately the snow wasn’t good enough for any off-piste skiing last week, but now I have an excuse to go back!

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Linsey McNeill

Editor Linsey McNeill has been writing about travel for more than three decades. Bylines include The Times, Telegraph, Observer, Guardian and Which? plus the South China Morning Post. She also shares insider tips on thetraveljournalist.co.uk

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