You may think a week spent endlessly careering down slopes, followed by obligatory après-ski and a gooey raclette, more than enough to satisfy your winter holiday needs. Particularly in the second biggest ski area in the world – France’s Les Arcs and La Plagne, with some 450km of slopes between them.
But resorts are stepping up their game. With an increasing number of non-skiers holidaying in the Alps, Les Arcs in particular has seen four times more pedestrians taking the cable car up from the resorts than two years ago. It proves enjoying winter mountain culture is not only the preserve of skiers and snowboarders.
The views, unsurprisingly, are one draw. “It’s known as the balcony of the Alps,” says Cécile, our guide for the day, “because there are so many panoramic views.” At the top of the longest slope in Europe – a 7km winding red run in Les Arcs – she points out Italy and Switzerland across the sea of mountaintops.
Panoramas can also be enjoyed from the double-decker Vanoise Express, claiming to be the biggest cable car in the world, connecting Les Arcs to La Plagne – known collectively as the Paradiski area (paradiski.com). And instead of the classic dotting of chalets, French architect Charlotte Perriand designed Les Arcs in the late Sixties “with bigger buildings, so people would see more of the mountains rather than lots of chalets”, explains Cécile.
The multi-altitude offering is unique too: there are five different resorts at five different elevations – from Arc 1600 to Arc 2000. The latter area is home to the area’s only five-star offering, Taj-I Mah Hotel (from €184/£164pp B&B; hotel-tajimah.com/en), which makes full use of the snowy slope views from the dining room and the swimming pool – as well as my room with its plush, textured walls and luxe cabin vibes.
And there’s a serenity here. While other French resorts like Val Thorens and Tignes may offer more black runs, Les Arcs and neighbouring La Plagne (with no less than 11 resorts from 700m to 2,100m) have a reputation for being better for families, both for gentle slope options (more than 50% are blue and green and there’s an excellent beginners’ area) and for less nightlife.
But with a lot of competition for our cash, many resorts are offering more than they used to. It may well be protection for the future too: with climate change reducing snowfall in the lower resorts, more holidaymakers will be forced up to higher altitudes making pistes much busier. And so enters a growing array of alternative adrenaline sports for skiers and non-skiers alike…
A newly-opened zipline hangs directly above a speed skating slope (known as the extremely steep ‘flying kilometre’), where Simone Origone set the world record of 252.4 kph in 2006. While you won’t reach Origone’s top speeds, it does claim to boast heart-in-mouth speeds of ‘up to 130 kph’. Its starting point is 2,680m at the top of the Varet telecabin, where I park my skis and step into a harness ready to be flung 1,800 metres down the mountain.
For real adrenaline junkies, there’s an option to go horizontal and head first, but I opt for seated (the views are more enjoyable apparently) and after being clipped in and a quick “un, deux, trois” the drop is steep, stomach-rising and exhilarating. It’s a wonderful, if quick, way to see the snow-covered mountains in all their glory, the village of Arc 2000 hurtling closer towards me at such a speed, I wonder if I’ll slow down in time at the bottom. It’s a softer snap back to earth than it looks, thankfully.
How: €55/£49pp or free with a Premium Pass (en.lesarcs.com)
A favourite discipline in the Winter Olympics, it’s possible to hurtle down a professional bobsleigh track as a novice. La Plagne is home to France’s only bobsleigh and skeleton track, nestled into the mountainside at 1,800 metres.
In the 1992 Olympic Games, world athletics descended on this small alpine village to compete on this track, and currently, the Danish national team trains here.
There are three options to suit your adrenaline needs: the ‘bob raft’, slightly wider than Olympic bobsleighs with plenty of padding, for three or four people, reaching speeds of 80km/h; the ‘speed luge’, for individuals lying down feet first, with top speeds of 90km/h; and finally the fastest, and closest to pro competition experience you’ll ever get, is ‘bob racing’ – a driver sits in the front with three passengers behind and speeds of up to 120 km/h.
As first timers, my fellow travellers and I opt for the bob raft, which I wrongly assumed would feel tame as I pop on a helmet and excitedly hop inside. The clock above counts down and we’re given a push down the slope, quickly picking up speed. Bend after bend (there are 19), it gets faster as the raft bounces of the tracks sides and the G-force builds, until we pull into the finish line. Absolutely exhilarating.
How: €49/£43pp for the bob raft (en.la-plagne.com)
It’s rare on skiing holidays to fully see the mountains in all their glory when the sun goes down. But for those who haven’t had enough of an adrenaline fix by day, Oxygène in La Plagne offers moonbiking by night. An environmentally-friendly alternative to the petrol powered (and noisy) snowmobile, moonbikes are all electric, silent, and have fat wheels to help grip the snow.
I quickly realise it’s trickier than it looks. Motorcyclists may find the super sensitive accelerator easier to control, but these vehicles have a lot of power (which is needed to get up steep snowy slopes). Our guide, Gérard, takes pity on my nervy riding and offers to take me on an easier, but still picturesque, route. By the time we reach a plateau, the sun has gone down completely and La Plagne’s village lights sparkle in pockets in the mountain sides.
Descending is easier, and more fun, and back on the flat ground of 1,600m, I’m grateful our four-star Araucaria Hotel (from €156/£139 B&B; araucaria-hotel.com/en) has a steam room, sauna and swimming pool, where I can relax my nerves.
How: €90/£80pp for one hour session with a guide (oxygene.ski)
How to plan your trip
Visit lesarcs-peiseyvallandry.com for updated winter 2022/2023 Paradiski lift pass prices.