France offers ski resorts with chocolate-box charm and severe modernism in equal measure, and values both highly.
This perhaps says a lot about our nearest and dearest neighbours: if it is French, and in France, it can only be good, whatever the material, modern concrete or traditional wood and stone. But this is no mere chauvinism: the avant garde does look delightful in the Alps.
Consider high-rise, purpose-built Les Arcs, the heart of the giant Paradiski area. Prince Charles might dismiss it as a high-altitude slum – the Windsors favour picturesque Klosters, in Switzerland, and it can’t be for the slopes, which are average at best. But the French Ministry of Culture crowned Les Arcs a 20th Century landmark in 2006.
This was quite a coup; usually the award only applies to individual buildings, but the villages of Arcs 1600, 1800, and the lift stations of the Aiguille Rouge cable-car up to Arc 2000 share the honour jointly.
For those preferring a smaller, more traditional base, but still wanting to rack up miles after mile of snow-sure pistes, the rustic village of Villaroger, also part of the Les Arcs ski area, is a suitable back door to the Paradiski’s 425km of slopes.
In a similar vein, the small but pretty town of Samoëns is a secret entrance to Grand Massif – at 265km, the fourth largest ski area in France. But, like Les Arcs, Samoëns has won plaudits from the government; the whole village is considered a Monument Historic, an accolade shared with the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
New four-star lodging by French brand MGM provides a compelling reason to book now, but what might visitors see when they get there?
A quiet medieval town, with a stone church, a pretty covered marketplace, a botanical garden and a giant linden tree dating back to the 14th century. Looming over it all is the hulking rocky mass of Le Criou.
This bull-headed peak quite literally provided the town’s foundations. Its quarries were mined by successive generations of stonemasons – frahans – many of whom went to work on the great buildings of Paris. They brought back prosperity and a degree of worldliness, which still evident today. In short, Samoëns is an agreeable sort of place; a well-to-do town as opposed to a purpose-built ski resort.
Boarding its eight-person gondola, however, is like stepping through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. The Grand Massif Express ascends to 1,600m, linking Samoëns-Le Saix with the neighbouring resorts of Flaine, Les Carroz, Morillon and Sixt, which share the ski area.
Ahead is the unmistakeable hump of Mont Blanc; behind us the more modern shape of the Grand Massif Samoëns Morillon Club Med resort, which in its own way is just as important.
The all-inclusive giant opened the 420-room property here last year, on condition the resort would open some more blue and red pistes. This it did, and there are plans to add another lift and some more terrain for 2019, improving the connection between Sixt and Samoëns – all good news for skiers and snowboarders.
Grand Massif lift passes cost £233 for a week, which is comparable with the cost for the Val d’Isère/Tignes pass covering 300km at €308 (£269), or for the Paradiski area shared by Les Arcs with La Plagne (€304/£265).
The ski areas compare favourably too, with lots of wide, open pistes, ideal for beginners and intermediates and especially for those hovering between the two. The mostly north-facing slopes hold their snow well, so off-piste conditions can be terrific. But mostly, the joy of the Grand Massif is the variety of its separate villages, from tiny Sixt, lying low in the trees at 760m, to high altitude Flaine, topping out at a reliable 2,561m.
Lunch is perhaps the best way to appreciate the choice – there is almost Michelin-rated fare down at Le Servage in Les Carroz, and the hard-to-reach Lac de Gers is something of a local legend. Call from the phone provided about halfway down the Piste de Cascades, on the western side of the mountain towards Sixt, and the owner will come and collect diners on a snowmobile.
My choice was the Luge à Téran, a traditional hut next to the Zizi Panpan run, (about halfway down the mountain by the Chariende Express chairlift), which has a sun terrace, good coffee and a wood-burning stove inside on which to warm gloves. Heaven.
Which of these monuments then is better as a ski resort? The cosy and relatively quiet Samoëns, or the showy modernity of a Les Arcs?
MGM’s new Hotel Alexane in Samoëns may clinch it for some. The property is split between a four-star hotel and five-star apartments, all decorated in a high-altitude theme. Depending on the floor residents might encounter a giant stuffed bear, or a Tibetan yak.
The rooms are smartly fitted out in local wood and stone, their sleek modern design a contrast to Samoëns itself. The self-catering apartments are the better choice; spacious and well kitted out, with Nespresso machines in the kitchen and generously-sized bathrooms.
The in-house restaurant, Fabio, occupies the same building but is independently run. Surprisingly, this was only part of the operation that lets it down. A lacklustre breakfast is an unsatisfying start to the day, and an expensive one at €15. Self-caterers are better off stocking up at the supermarket and the delightful bakery, Tiffanie, a five-minute walk away.
A luxurious spa, shared by all guests, is the MGM’s best feature, with a 20m pool, piping hot sauna and steam room and, among other novelties, a shower with sound and light effects.
It’s all a far cry from the medieval days of the frahans who practically carved this town out of the rock but, on reflection, a lot more enjoyable. Sometimes the good old days are best left in the past.
Room only at the four-star MGM Hotel Alexane costs from €150 per room per night; seven nights in a self-catering apartment costs from £479 per person with Inghams including flights and transfers.