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BARGAIN SKIING IN THE ALPS
by Anne Raymond
Special to America's Seniors
Sharing the passion of skiing since 1960, my husband and I had long
dreamed of making our tracks in the world’s biggest ski area: the 3
Valleys in the French Alps. Of course, a European ski-trip is a bit
hefty for our retirement budget. Luckily I have another passion which is
bargain-hunting. Thanks to the internet, my contacts and just plain good
luck, we were able to visit the 3 Valleys twice: five weeks during
January and February 2001 and four weeks in January 2002. Who knows, my
findings might also help your dream come true.
If you have never skied in the Alps, forget everything you’ve already
experienced. This is more than big; it’s humongous. At the risk of
sounding like a teen-ager, it’s mind bursting, far-out, and as awesome
as awesome gets. Try and picture this: 200 lifts (including a couple of
cable-cars with a capacity of 160), almost 400 miles of trails, 25
mountain peaks, endless verticals and steeps to die for --- it’s
something you have to see to believe.
This Grand Kahuna of all ski areas is divided, as its name says, into
three valleys, Courchevel, Méribel and Belleville. Numerous villages
line the valleys however 14 are interconnected with lifts, allowing
skiers an infinite variety of itineraries.
As with most senior skiers, we’ve become lavishly spoiled by uncrowded
weekday slopes. I figure we‘ve paid our dues over the years waiting in
the interminable weekend lift lines. Consequently, we've become quite
critical when evaluating a location for an extended ski-trip. Our
No. 1 - Weather : sunny and mild. We experienced 26 days of sunshine
during our four weeks in the 3 Valleys last winter.
No. 2 - Snow : good quality and absence of ice. The large number of snow
guns (478 in Meribel alone) insure adequate covering even when the real
stuff is lacking like it was last season. When it snows, the powder
No. 3 - Terrain : uncrowded slopes, good variety of trails and absence
of lift lines.
No. 4 - Money : reasonable rates for lifts and lodging.
No. 5 - Safety : We want a place where we can feel secure if we go out
walking at night and where we can sleep quietly without being disturbed
by loud parties.
During the month of January, the 3 Valleys mega-resort fills all these
requirements. However, like Cinderella at midnight, come February, when
hordes of vacationers invade the slopes, the enchantment is over.
Lodging prices in each resort vary greatly. As in a host of European
Countries, the currency used in France is the euro. Since the
exchange rate is consistly fluctuating, it would be wise to check it out
before you decide on a place to stay. Last winter the US dollar
was slightly stronger than the euro and the prices quoted herein reflect
this difference. As this article goes to print, the euro and the
US dollar are worth about the same.
Because apartments are usually cheaper than hotel rooms, I’ve chosen to
quote comparative rates for a small studio for two. Just keep in mind
when planning your vacation to inquire what is included in the price.
For example, many establishments in France consider towels and bed linen
extras, especially when renting apartments. If this is the case, you can
decide whether you want to pack one or two sheets and a couple of towels
instead of paying the rental fee.
Arnold Lunn, the Englishman who invented the slalom, was the first to
discover Courchevel Valley. In 1946, a local named Jean Leblanc came up
with the idea to build the first new area in the Alps. More than a
pioneer ski resort, Courchevel has been copied many times.
The plush red carpeting on the sidewalks leading to many of 4-star
hotels distinguishes Courchevel 1850 as the playground of the jet set.
Its designer boutiques, art galleries and fancy restaurants require big
bucks. But oh what fun to sit on a large sunny terrace, in a sidewalk
café, and savor a “crêpe au Grand Marnier” (very thin pancake with
liqueur) while pretending to be a millionaire! No bargain lodging found
here, but nothing prevents tourists from renting a studio elsewhere and
skiing down to Courchevel to take in the sights.
Val Thorens, Les Menuires and Saint-Martin-de-Belleville are located in
Belleville, the biggest of the 3 Valleys. Lift tickets here represent
one of the best senior bargains in the Alps. The most expensive lift
ticket, the 3 Valleys pass which gives the skier full run of the
terrain, is the same price throughout the entire area, $31 a day for
adults, and $25 for seniors 60-69. However those deciding to ski in one
valley or a part of a valley, will be pleasantly surprised to find a
special senior price for lift tickets in the Belleville area. Unlike the
other valleys which quote a senior price for 60-69, Belleville has
another discount for seniors 65-70. Thus, while a senior day-ticket
costs $23 for Courchevel or Méribel, the same ticket costs $14 in
Belleville if the senior happens to be in the 65-70 category. If one
decides to stay within the limits of a resort such as Val-Thorens or Les
Menuires, the savings is even greater at $12 a day. Considering today’s
high price of lift tickets, this deal is hard to beat. All told, 60+
skiers can probably save more by buying their tickets on a day-to-day
basis rather than blowing a bundle on a multi-day 3 Valleys pass.
You have to look up, way up, to see sunny Val Thorens on the trail map.
At an altitude of 7,546 feet, surrounded by six glaciers, the village of
Val Thorens is the highest ski area in Europe. Born in 1971-72, this
relatively new resort outshines its competition with the high quality of
its lifts. A 160-passenger aerial tramway whisks skiers up to the
10,500-foot summit of Cîme de Caron where a 3,700-foot vertical
lies waiting. This particular mountain peak, the highest of the 3
Valleys, is a must-see (and a must-ski) for all.
The Caron tram is only the beginning. Val-Thorens has always been a
forerunner in the ski-lift category. In 1990, the first funitel was
inaugurated at the Péclet Glacier (9,850 feet). A funitel is a small
aerial tramway with a capacity of 30 which runs on two cables. This
concept fascinated me as I had never seen such an installation.
Primarily a safety feature, these double cables attach to both sides of
the tram. The lift is thus stabilized and the swinging effect greatly
reduced during strong winds. This is especially important for a resort
at such a high altitude. During the 90’s, a second funitel was added to
transport skiers up to Grand Fond (a 3,200-foot vertical) together with
15 high-speed detachable chairlifts. The funitels alone cost 26 million
USD. In 1995 the first high-speed detachable six-seater was installed.
Considering the high quality of all this ultra-modern equipment, only 31
lifts are needed to service the whole ski area. With a capacity of
60,000 skiers per hour, most lift lines are relatively non-existent even
Log on to www.valthorens.com for a virtual visit around the mountain.
This user-friendly site is detailed, thorough, and jam-packed with
helpful information. One can visit the slopes via the webcams, take a
panoramic tour of hotels and apartments, book accommodations online and
find the answer to most questions that come up when planning a vacation.
With a 24,000-bed capacity in Val-Tho, there is plenty of room for all
winter-sports enthusiasts. At rock bottom, a week in a studio apartment
for two costs around $200 USD at Immo 3 vallées (tel 04 79 00 02 76, fax
04 79 00 09 92).
Just below Val-Thorens is Les Menuires, a resort chock-full of bargains.
While Val-Tho was built as a traditional European village with
street-lined stores, hotels and restaurants, the concept in Les Menuires
is an urban city in the mountains. Efficiency and practicality are the
norm here. A surprisingly large and complete shopping center connects to
hotels and apartments thus reducing the amount of walking. Les Menuires
and the lower village of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville make up the second
part of the Belleville Valley.
With a 26,600-bed capacity, the Menuires - Saint-Martin ski area is
considered one of the most inexpensive resorts, especially for families
and seniors. A studio for two goes for about $200 a week in January at
Agences des Alpes A.N. (www.agencedesalpes.com), Agence des Belleville
(firstname.lastname@example.org), Cogeril S.A. (tel 33 04 79 00 69 22 -
fax 33 04 79 00 62 98), or even less at Interhome (tel 33 04 79 00 64 86
- fax 33 04 79 00 24 77) and Sogepa (tel 33 04 79 00 62 19 - fax 33 04
79 00 75 76). Here again, the Tourist Center at www.lesmenuires.com
provides potential visitors with all the necessary information regarding
lodging and other activities. As an added bonus, the on-mountain sites
of Les Menuires and Val-Tho translate into ski-in ski-out accommodations
Of the 14 villages in Meribel Valley, most lodging is concentrated in
three main locations: Meribel, Meribel-Mottaret and Brides-les-Bains.
Meribel and Meribel-Mottaret
Of course Meribel, in the heart of the 3 Valleys, is the looker of the
bunch. They don’t call it beautiful (“very belle”) for nothing. This is
the place for those who like to stroll along the many streets, browse in
shops, enjoy a meal in one of the 45 restaurants and admire this
masterpiece of traditional mountain architecture. Adherence to a strict
building code established in 1945 at the creation of the resort, has
resulted in a model of architectural harmony, with a style unique to
Meribel’s little sister, Mottaret looms 2½ miles higher. Centrally
located, higher-up, with rapid connections to mountain peaks, this
resort is one of the best sites for the serious skier wanting to visit
different parts of the 3 Valleys. Also, the ski-in ski-out
accommodations enable early-birds to make first tracks in the fresh
corduroy. Due to their North and South Faces, both Méribel and
Mottaret offer skiers the possibility of skiing in the sun all day.
Mottaret is a singular place where you can buy a slice of pizza, a
hot-dog or a hamburger for a few bucks. Another plus for Mottaret is the
free internet service at the ski in - ski out Tourist Center. All other
Tourist Centers offer this service for a fee.
Meribel and Mottaret have a 30,000-bed capacity and, as in other
resorts, the pricing scale varies greatly. Given the many added
attractions and services offered, lodging in Meribel is slightly more
expensive, but still affordable . A studio for two during January goes
for about $325 at Meribel Agence (www.meribel-agence.com) and Les
Résidences de la Chaudanne (www.chaudanne.com). Mottaret being smaller,
is less expensive. The same size studio costs about $200 at Agence
Latitude 1700 (latitude email@example.com) or Maeva (www.maeva.com).
Log on to www.meribel.net for information regarding the many lodging
possibilities. You will also find numerous other features helpful in
If you decide, like us, to spend your vacation in a studio, you’ll
find grocery stores available in all resorts with a good selection of
fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and staples at reasonable prices. A day of
skiing with a baguette sandwich of ham and cheese, a bottle of wine and
some dark chocolate in a backpack, is one of our fondest memories. We
are free to eat lunch on a sunny rock somewhere on the slopes wherever
we happen to be. It is economical, efficient and delicious. However,
dinner in a mountain restaurant is a delight for the palate. Should you
wish to sample a gourmet meal without paying a fortune, board the
Cascade chairlift in Val Thorens, ski down the blue trail for about 600
feet and you’ll come to Le Bar de la Marine. You’ll recognize the owner,
Gérard Gachet, by his bushy moustache and twinkling eyes, probably
chatting with the customers. With a variety of delectables on the menu,
a meal costs anywhere from $10 to $23 plus a few dollars for a good
bottle of wine.
Go down, way down to Brides for bargain basement prices on lodging.
Compared to the 7,546-foot altitude of Val Thorens, Brides at 1,900
feet, is the lowest village. This is a quaint little 4,000-bed hamlet
famous for its thermal springs. Formerly a summer-only tourist
destination, the 1992 Olympics opened up a whole new winter dimension
with the installation of a high-speed gondola connecting Brides to the
Meribel ski area. The 25-minute gondola ride is one reason why Brides is
such a good deal. We recommend Le Grand Chalet built in 1992 to provide
lodging for Olympic officials and athletes. Its 92 apartments
accommodate parties of 2 to 6 people. An apartment for two here costs
even less than $200 a week. The website www.brides-les-bains/gd/chalet
provides good photos of the apartments. The address: Le Grand Chalet,
Esplanade des Thermes, 73570 Brides-les-Bains, tel: (0)4 79 09 46 00,
fax: (0)4 79 55 31 37, email
Another interesting aspect of Brides are the many walking paths for
non-skiers or skiers who decide to take a day off. Since Brides is much
lower in altitude, there is usually little or no snow. The alpine
scenery along the paths make for a breathtaking experience. There is
also a pedestrian lift-ticket available where, for a small sum,
non-skiers can ride the same lifts and visit different villages in the
Compared to the other resorts, Brides is the quiet one. Basically a
summer tourist destination, many shops are closed for the winter. Then
again, that’s why Brides has bargain lodging. For more information about
The easiest way to access the 3 Valleys is a flight to Geneva, then the
Transavoie bus to Moutiers ($87 round-trip) and finally, a local
connecting bus to the valley you have chosen. All terminals are
adjacent, facilitating transfers, and the transportation system is
well-organized. There is another alternative from the Geneva Airport to
the 3 Valleys which could be interesting if there are several people in
your party. Negotiate a price with a taxi. For example, if you are a
party of four, offer a taxi $400 for a round-trip directly to your
lodging. It just might work. While the savings is minimal, the extra
convenience is worthwhile.
The euro, which is now the official currency, greatly simplifies all
transactions in France and wherever you decide to stay in the 3 Valleys,
you’ll be more than satisfied. The beauty of the scenery, the vastness
of the domain, the warmth of the employees, the majority of whom speak
English, and the challenge of “making it” in Europe all combine to
create a vacation you’ll remember for years to come. I call it making
deposits in my memory bank. For now, my account is in good standing.