MODERNIST Flaine isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but the skiing in this part of the French Alps is superb, writes Nan Spowart
Legend has it that, many years ago, a giant wandered over the French Alps and, exhausted by his travels, lay down in the Savoyard area where his heavy head left a huge bowl shaped dent in the mountains.
In winter, this is the famous snowy bowl which attracts skiers and snowboarders to Flaine which takes its name from the word “flainoz” or “pillow” in the local tongue.
It is a beautiful area with commanding views of Mont Blanc from the highest points and lovely, tree-lined runs lower down the slopes, but the town itself is not to everyone’s tastes although it is the only ski resort built in the 1960s to be listed in the French Historical Monuments Survey.
Even when it was first built, the town proved controversial as the modernist design by architect Marcel Breuer was not universally popular, diametrically opposed to the current trend of using local materials and styles in ski development. One of the first and youngest students at the Bauhaus, the radical German arts school, Breuer favoured the use of modular prefabricated concrete panel façades which provoked critics to complain of repetitiveness.
On the plus side, its functional character means it is “ski-in, ski-out” with the building complexes at the hub of the ski slopes.
First earmarked as a potential site for skiing in 1959 by geophysicist Eric Boissonnas, the resort opened for the 1968/69 ski season and since then has grown a little and is now bordered on one side by an enclave of Scandinavian style chalets painted in pretty pastel colours gathered round a dinky little chapel, ski shop, store and first class restaurant. Hameau sits slightly above the main town and is a peaceful place with beautiful views across the valley and we were lucky enough to be based here where it is possible to enjoy the scenery as well as the excellent skiing in the area.
Flaine has one of the best snow records in the Alps as the north-facing amphitheatre keeps its snow cover well and is protected from prevailing winds with its slopes converging towards the centre of the resort. Together with neighbouring Samoëns, Morillon, Les Carroz and Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval, Flaine has 267km of pistes in total – one of the largest linked ski areas in France – and features the first eight seater high speed chairlift, Les Grands Vans, and the first snow cannons to be installed in Europe.
Heavy investment over the last few years in new lifts means that queues are seldom a problem other than at peak times such as the French school holidays in February.
Snow-making on many of the lower runs, excellent grooming and the fact that the north-west main bowl keeps snow well, continues to draw people to the area.
It is particularly good for beginners with plenty of wide, blue runs linking all the areas so that even the newest skier can cruise comfortably over a vast and varied terrain.
An added bonus is that excellent nursery slopes can be accessed by free lifts, meaning that beginners do not have to buy a pass until ready for the higher runs.
It is also ideal for intermediates, with an interesting variety of pistes, good snow in the Flaine bowl and reds that mostly gain their designation from short steep parts rather than overall difficulty.
There are few very challenging runs but there is good off piste so more able skiers do not need to miss out although they should take care – and preferably a guide – when skiing off piste at the top of the bowl where there are deep crevasses. In the weeks before we arrived, 14 skiers had to be hauled from them, many with broken limbs or ligaments.
The woods outside the main bowl and the varied terrain are an attraction for boarders, but cross country skiers may be disappointed with the rather fragmented tracks.
Flaine boasts the longest run in Europe at 14km which goes from the top of the snowy bowl (2,500m) to Sixt but it is only open when the snow coverage is very good as Sixt is fairly low.
Having so many tree lined runs is a distinct advantage if the weather is poor as it is still possible to have an enjoyable day’s skiing in the shelter of the trees which offer more definition to the runs when the light is flat.
Mountain restaurants are dotted about the area and prices are average. Our favourite place was l’Anfionne on the run to the Les Carroz bubble lift as it boasts a roaring log burning stove as well as sun terrace for the warmer days.
On the Flaine side, La Pente a Jules, where the Almadine and Faust red runs meet, has very good food although it is a bit more expensive. The Bissac and the rustic Blanchot also have a good reputation.
As well as wonderful tree-lined runs and impeccably groomed pistes, the attractive and traditional villages of Sixt, Samoëns, Morillon and Les Carroz offer a wealth of lunch stops which are worth checking out.
Back in Flaine, popular for après ski are the White Pub, which sometimes has live music, the Perdrix Noire and the Flying Dutchman while the bar at the bowling alley attracts families.
Activities for those who do not want to ski include snowmobiling, dog sledding, a cinema and a popular ice-driving circuit.
Shopping is limited and, while there are a couple of good restaurants such as Chez Pierrot and Brasserie Les Cimes, there is only one night club – Flaine is not renowned for its après ski.
Yet because of the good skiing and the short transfer from Geneva, Flaine has many fans with people coming back year after year.
A few British companies operate out of the resort and one, Ski Total, has a couple of lovely chalets in Hameau which have access to a small pool, steam room, sauna and jacuzzi.
The company runs a shuttle bus every morning and evening from the chalets to the eight person chair and there is a ski bus serving the area as well as a free evening shuttle bus which drops passengers at the pub or restaurant of their choice.
The nearby restaurant, L’Ancolie, is very good but there was little need to visit it as we were provided with a hot breakfast most mornings plus afternoon cake and coffee on our return from the slopes, followed by an excellent three course evening meal with aperitifs, canapés, wine, coffee and chocolates.
From our balcony we could watch the snow-capped mountains turn red as the sun set and view the lights of Flaine as they twinkled in the darkening sky. At night time even a place like Flaine can look pretty.
• Ski Total (skitotal.com, 01483 791933) offers seven nights in the Chalet Bouquetin from £578pp. Departing Edinburgh on 13 December, this price, based on two adults sharing, includes return flights to Geneva, transfers, free wifi, half board including buffet breakfast, afternoon tea and a four course evening meal with complimentary wine. Adult lift passes cost £181 for six days. Prebooked ski equipment with the company qualifies for a 50 per cent discount, making it £49 for six days.