Skiing Nice to Geneva
Written by Arnie Wilson Photography by John Norris
The warm breezes, palm trees, and open-air restaurants of Nice might seem a far cry from anywhere you could possibly ski – except, of course, in the Mediterranean – but appearances can be deceptive. In winter, snow is not far away. As we head north for another stretch of water, Lake Geneva, what gems will we find en route?
The ancient city of Nice, sometimes known as Nice La Belle, is only 90 minutes by road (or a quick hop in a helicopter) from the ski resort of Isola 2000 in the Alpes Maritimes. And that’s just the beginning. From here on in, as you move towards Geneva, you’re in classic high-alpine territory, with the option of visiting some of the very finest ski areas in the world – almost too numerous to mention. So we’ll just name the crème de la crème.
If size matters, then most skiers who know the Alps will want to include a visit to the celebrated Trois Vallées at some stage in their travels. It’s huge, and has almost no challengers to its claim to be the largest linked ski area in the world. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you’ve got to ski it all. But eager, fit, and gung-ho skiers will be keen to cover as many runs in a day as they can, as they set out from the chic, traditional resort of Courchevel, the chalet village of Méribel, the traditional village of Saint Martin de Belleville, or (in the reverse direction) the high-rise resorts of Val Thorens or Les Mènuires. But unless you’re determined to have a high-mileage day, or can’t resist discovering what’s over the next peak, there’s no real need to leave whichever resort you’re staying in. Each has more than enough skiing to keep you occupied for days. Courchevel, in particular, is itself divided into a number of ‘resortlets’, mostly named after the altitudes in metres at which they’re perched: 1850, 1600, 1550, and 1300. The highest, 1850, is inevitably the most fashionable, scenic, and expensive, with the finest hotels, chalets, and restaurants. But this means you can still decide whether to stay more cheaply at a lower altitude without being denied access to the highest, snowiest, and most interesting slopes.
Less than 40km across the mountains to the northeast is the equally impressive region of Val d’Isère-Tignes, known as the Espace Killy in honour of the great French ski racer Jean-Claude Killy. Val d’Isère provided the fierce men’s downhill course for the 1992 Albertville Games.
Although not as big a region as the Trois Vallées (few if any places are, apart from the vast area of the Portes du Soleil along the French and Swiss border) it is still huge, and for those who like their skiing off-piste, it has few rivals. For some, ‘Val’ – as it is endearingly known – is perhaps the best single resort in the world. Coupled with the stark, space-age village of Tignes, it provides an even more adventurous playground than the Trois Vallées, and also has skiing on the Grand Motte glacier in some of the summer months. Unlike the Trois Vallées, which has a little of everything in its skiing portfolio, the Espace Killy is not really ideal for beginners, although, like any ski area, it does of course have nursery slopes.
Some 55km north of Val d’Isère (again, this is as the crow or its ubiquitous cousin the Alpine Chough flies – it’s considerably farther by road) is the world-famous climbing and skiing town of Chamonix-Mont Blanc. It’s a moody, slightly claustrophobic place, but without doubt has some of the most spectacular skiing and scenery imaginable.
The Chamonix Valley is dotted with resorts, some minor, some major. One in particular, Argentière, rivals Val d’Isère for the title of best in the Alps and possibly the world. But again this is based on the supreme challenges its steep slopes present rather than any all-round skier-friendly slopes. You go to Argentière for excitement, difficulty, exhilaration, and to test your nerve to see what your steel content is. Its vertical descent (the difference in altitude between the highest and lowest slopes) of 2,065m is largely steep and off-piste. But with a scattering of other areas such as Brévant, La Flégère, and Le Tour, there is plenty of skiing too in the valley for families and novices. Other resorts nearby include St Gervais and Les Contamines.
One of the highlights of skiing in Chamonix is the truly astonishing scenery, and the best way of seeing this is to take a breathtaking cable car ride up to the Aiguille du Midi. This is the route skiers take to reach the top of the celebrated Vallée Blanche, a 24km descent (in a decent snow year) which is one of the longest off-piste runs in the world, with some of the most dramatic scenery you’re likely to see outside the Himalayas. It’s well worth making the cable car journey just for the jaw-dropping views, even if you have no plans to ski this run. And if you do ski it, be sure to take a guide.
Our last port of call, some 20 km to the southwest, as we take a dog-leg before heading on towards Geneva, is Megève, the original high-end resort of France and older by far than Courchevel. Fashionable, traditional, upmarket, and expensive (but old money compared with Courchevel), Megève was all the rage until the French started building their high-altitude ski areas in the 1960s. And because they built their brave-new-world resorts at altitude to capture the best snow, resorts like Megève, with lower, less snowsure slopes, fell out of favour with hard-core skiers, and it was left to the wealthy cognoscenti to enjoy the sophisticated ambience and somewhat unremarkable slopes. Not that Megève does not have good skiing. Hidden away, you need a guide to help you find it. Come to Megève for the good life. And it is good. The skiing can be too, but you can’t quite count on it as you can in the bleaker worlds of Val Thorens and Tignes. Well, we’d better press on. It’s only an hour or so to Geneva and we have a flight to catch. Hope you’ve enjoyed the skiing!
Places to stay en route
Shemshak Lodge is a stunning new chalet right on the piste at Courchevel 1850. Sleeping up to 12 guests in five ensuite bedrooms, the chalet has an entire floor dedicated to ‘wellness’ and relaxation: a large swimming pool with panoramic views of the valley. Also has a sauna, hammam, and gym.
With arguably the best views of any chalet in the Alps, the luxury Eagles Nest in Val d’Isère, is perched high overlooking the resort, is one of the best chalets in the Alps, with superb views of the town and mountain backdrop. It has an indoor swimming pool, sauna, and steam room.
In Megève it has to be Les Chalets des Fermes de Marie, a celebrated little hamlet of 18th-century alpine mountain farms. The swimming pool is under the beams of a Savoyard barn, and there’s a sauna and fitness room. The restaurant sources food fresh from the market.
Les Granges d’En Haut, on the mountainside above the village of Les Houches, a few minutes’ drive from Chamonix, is a hotel with 14 separate small chalets in its grounds. It has one of the finest views in the area, with the dramatic peaks of the Mont Blanc Massif rising up from the valley.
Isola 2000, 16km from the village of Isola in the Alpes Maritimes, opened in 1972. Originally rather an eyesore as many purpose-built French resorts of this era were, its image has since been softened with the introduction of wood-clad apartment blocks and chalets. On a clear day you can see the Mediterranean – just 90km away. Yet the slopes, served by 23 lifts, reach a surprising altitude of 2610m, which means the resort often gets a surprising amount of snow, even as late as April.
And the drive from Nice is truly spectacular, along the steep-sided Gorges de la Mescla and the ravines of the the Tinée Valley. Isola’s main skiing is divided into three linked areas – St-Sauveur, Pélevos, and Lavant – which form a horseshoe round the resort. The skiing is pretty relaxed and uncomplicated: more than half the 50 runs are easy enough for lower intermediates. And there are some wonderfully exhilarating, wide-open spaces where you can help yourself to fresh tracks off-piste. Sometimes there’s so much snow on the road back to Nice you might be tempted to take the helicopter link. Either way, once you’re back in town, watching the palm trees sway in the breeze, you might need to pinch yourself to see whether you perhaps didn’t dream the whole thing.