Les Portes du Soleil is amongst the biggest ski areas in the world. It is made up of a network of village resorts in the Haut Chablais, a province of the ancient Duchy of Savoy, now split between France and Switzerland. The 289 ski runs totalling 650 kilometres are spread across the valleys of Abondance, Aulps, Illiez and Morgins with thousand-year-old villages in valleys where agriculture is still an important part of the economy.
Despite an absence of 3000-metre peaks, the area benefits from the microclimate originating from Mont Blanc a few kilometres to the south. Okay so we have all heard about micro-climates but this one really exists – the area has a cumulative seasonal snowfall of more than seven metres each year. In case the micro climate proves unreliable there is a regiment of 764 snow cannons supported by 89 caterpillar tracked dameuses to make sure the snow is there. A bonus is the beautiful scenery with Lake Geneva not far away. The ski trails run through magnificent forests from village to village.
The Commune of Morzine is the key to the area containing the twin resorts of Morzine and Avoriaz.
On the slopes in Morzine. Credit Morzine Tourism.
Morzine (1,000m -2,470m) has kept its traditional architecture. New developments imitate the typical chalets or the 19th-century bourgeois architecture that grew out of an earlier economic boom in the slate industry. Morzine’s conservative style is not unconnected with the fact that it has a hundred year old connection with winter sports. The ski club was founded in 1910 and the first ski lift was built in 1934. The net effect is that the hot heads and vandals of the construction industry have been kept under control and the avant-garde architects confined to Avoriaz.
Video: Avoriaz in the Portes du Soleil
Avoriaz (1,800m-2,466m) is a product of the imagination of local boy Jean Vuarnet who won a gold medal in the downhill at Squaw Valley Winter Olympics in 1960. The developer was Robert Brémond the founder and current President of Pierre et Vacances. It is the 10th largest French winter sports resort and the only one of the 12 in the Portes du Soleil that was purpose built from scratch in the 1960s. It makes up for this by being the only resort in France that is totally car free. As a result its centre is a real safe haven for parents with young children. It is not an empty boast that Avoriaz is the resort where the children can go alone and fetch the bread in the morning.
Despite its contemporary feel it is also a resort where older skiers feel at home. There are a lot of intermediate and beginners ski runs. For expert skiers there are two runs not to be missed – la Combe de Machon (going down towards Prodain and the Mur Suisse) and the Swiss Wall that lives up to its name (towards Les Crozets). It is no dishonour to take the ski lift down rather than venture down this vertiginous black run – well not much anyway. An added plus with Avoriaz is that the accommodation is 100-percent ski-in, ski-out.
The Avoriaz Snowpark was built in 1993 and was the first in France. After some heavy new investment, this eco-park it is now totally up to date with a 120-metre super-pipe. It is one of 10 in the Portes du Soleil.
Avoriaz's eco snowpark. Credit Avoriaz Tourism
The new water park L’Aquariaz opens this summer on July 1 with waterfalls, rocks and tropical jungle all at 1,800 metres under giant trees. Thrill seekers can enjoy the Sidewinder a sort of half-pipe water slide 10 metres high. Suitable for all ages there are rivers and pools all at 29°C. On the outside there is a Jacuzzi with a stunning view of the surrounding alpine valley.
The village of Les Gets (1,172m-2,460m) perched on a mountain pass has also managed to preserve its village appearance. It was founded in the 14th century by Jews driven out of Tuscany. The 110 kilometres of ski runs are not difficult on the whole, ideal for beginners. The Snow park Les Gets has all the latest obstacles and different modules available according to the degree of skill of the participant and the state of the snow.
Taking the gondola in Les Gets. Credit Les Gets (N. Joly)
The Val d’Abondance (820m-2,420m) is an area that carries the label "Area of art and history". It has five resorts linked with the Swiss side of Les Portes du Soleil. The valley also boasts a fine race of cows, the Abondances that produces an AOC cheese. The valley itself, with the village of La Chapelle d’Abondance, is one of the most beautiful in the French Alps with the look of a great garden that one normally associates with neighbouring Switzerland.
The highest of these resorts is Châtel (1,200 to 2,200m). It is the resort that links the Swiss villages with the French side of Les Portes du Soleil. Near the la Bellevue ski run, there is a 250-metre-long ski area protected by nets where you can check your speed via a photo measuring device with a luminous panel that also tells your breaking and stopping times. The resort also boasts the Milka mauve run for absolute beginners at Super Châtel restricted to children with illustrative panels telling them all about the local flora and fauna.
Scenic Chatel. Credit Chatel Tourism
Montriond (949-2,350m) is in the Valley d’Aulps and is linked with the other resorts in the area so no need to take your skis off. A bit lower down is the very attractive St Jean d’Aulps with fine runs through the forest and famous for the annual toboggan race, the Jooner.
On the Swiss side there are the village resorts of Champéry, Morgins, Torgon and Val d’Illiez-Les Crozets-Champoussin. Skiing from France to Switzerland and vice versa for lunch is no problem. A bit more demanding is doing the tour of all the resorts of the Portes du Soleil in a day. A good skier can do it with an eye on the clock so as not to get stuck too far from home base. However it is recommended to ski clockwise to avoid having to ski down the Mur Suisse if you are not an expert.
In Val d’Illiez in Switzerland there is the Thermes Parc where you can relax in the thermal baths.
In the Portes du Soleil, up to five years old you ski for nothing and you remain a child longer – up to 16.
For adult beginners there are the ‘youcanski’ special package deals to learn in a relaxed sort of way and ‘without embarrassment’. The deals of 3 and 6 days (€169-€269) include ski pass, lessons and equipment hire. You can develop your skills on slopes specially set aside, equipped and made safe so that your first skiing experience is relaxed and stress free as possible.
If you decide to visit the area in Summer to enjoy the great hiking trails across the open valleys and mountains you can purchase a multi-pass. For one Euro a day you have unlimited use of the ski lift network as long as you stay in accommodation in Les Portes du Soleil that is a partner in the scheme. The pass includes other advantages – free access to swimming pools, ice rinks, tennis courts etc… Enquire before booking to make sure you can take advantage of the scheme www.multipass.com.
Rock the Pistes – this unique mountain rock music festival takes place for the third year on March 23-27, 2013. If rock music is not your thing best stay away – it is a considerable rave with around 13,000 fans swarming all over the ski runs. If on the other hand you appreciate that sort of thing, go for it. It is a great event and free.
Les Portes du Soleil is ideally placed for quick access one hour fromGenevaAirportand centrally placed for car drivers.
Paris - 5hrs-40mns
Calais - 8hrs-11mins
Rail access: High speed trains –TGV - run to Thonon-les-Bains and Cluses in France. In Switzerland the nearby stations are Lausanne, Montreux and Aigle.
There are shuttle buses to the different resorts from the stations.
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