You may think that a week spent hitting the endless slopes, followed by mandatory après-ski and a gooey raclette, is more than enough to satisfy your winter holiday needs. Particularly in the second largest ski area in the world – Les Arcs and La Plagne in France, with some 450km of pistes between them.
But resorts are stepping up their game. With growing numbers of non-skiers holidaying in the Alps, Les Arcs in particular has seen four times as many pedestrians take the cable car from resorts as two years ago. This proves that enjoying the winter mountain culture is not the prerogative of skiers and snowboarders alone.
Views, unsurprisingly, are a draw. “It’s called the balcony of the Alps, explains Cécile, our guide for the day, because there are so many panoramic views. At the top of Europe’s longest run – a winding 7km red run in Les Arcs – it shows Italy and Switzerland across the sea of peaks.
Panoramas can also be enjoyed from the double-decker Vanoise Express, claiming to be the largest cable car in the world, linking Les Arcs to La Plagne – known collectively as the Paradiski domain (paradiski.com). And instead of the classic stippling of chalets, French architect Charlotte Perriand designed Les Arcs in the late 1960s “with taller buildings, so people could see more of the mountains rather than a lot of chalets,” says Cécile.
The multi-altitude offering is also unique: there are five different resorts at five different altitudes – from Arc 1600 to Arc 2000. The latter area is home to the region’s only five-star offering, Taj-I Mah Hotel (from from €184/£164pp B&B; hotel-tajimah.com/en), which takes full advantage of the views of the snowy slopes from the dining room and pool – as well as my bedroom with its soft, textured walls and cabin vibes luxury.
And there is a serenity here. While other French resorts like Val Thorens and Tignes may offer more black runs, Les Arcs and neighboring La Plagne (with no less than 11 resorts from 700m to 2,100m) have a reputation for being better suited to families, both for gentle incline options (more than 50% is blue and green and there’s a great beginners area) and for less nightlife.
But with lots of competition for our money, many resorts are offering more than before. It could also be a protection for the future: with climate change reducing snowfall at lower stations, more holidaymakers will be forced to climb to higher altitudes, which will make the slopes much busier. And so comes a growing range of alternative adrenaline sports for skiers and non-skiers alike…
A newly opened zip line hangs directly above a speed skating track (known as the extremely steep ‘flying kilometer’), where Simone Origone set the world record of 252.4 km/h in 2006 Although you won’t reach Origone’s top speeds, it does claim to boast jaw-dropping speeds “up to 130 km/h”. Its starting point is 2,680m at the top of the Varet gondola, where I park my skis and put on a harness ready to be launched at 1,800m.
For the real adrenaline junkies, there’s an option to go horizontal and headfirst, but I opt for seated (the views are nicer apparently) and after being clipped in and a quick “a , two, three” the drop is steep, stomach-elevating and exhilarating. It’s a wonderful, albeit quick, way to see the snow-capped mountains in all their glory, with the village of Arc 2000 closing in on me at such speed, I wonder if I’ll slow down in time at the bottom. It’s a sweeter return to earth than it seems, thankfully.
How: €55/£49 per person or free with a Premium Pass (fr.lesarcs.com)
Favorite discipline of the Winter Olympics, it is possible to hurtle down a professional bobsleigh track as a novice. La Plagne is home to the only bobsleigh and skeleton track in France, nestled on the mountainside at 1,800 meters.
In the 1992 Olympics, 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 meet your adrenaline needs: the ‘bob raft’, slightly wider than Olympic bobsleds with lots of padding, for three or four people, reaching speeds of 80 km/h; the ‘speed luge’, for individuals lying feet first, with peaks at 90km/h; and finally, the fastest and closest competition experience to professional competition you will ever experience is the “bob race”: a pilot sits in the front with three passengers behind and speeds ranging from up to 120 km/h.
As beginners, my fellow travelers and I opt for the bob raft, which I mistakenly assumed would feel tame when I put on a helmet and enthusiastically jump inside. The clock above counts down and we are pushed down the slope, quickly picking up speed. Turn after turn (there are 19 of them), it gets faster as the raft bounces off the sides of the tracks and the G-force increases, until we get to the finish line. Absolutely exhilarating.
How: €49/£43pp for the bob raft (en.la-plagne.com)
It’s rare on a ski holiday to fully see the mountains in all their glory when the sun goes down. But for those who can’t get enough of a dose of adrenaline during the day, Oxygène in La Plagne offers moonbiking at night. An eco-friendly alternative to the gas-powered (and noisy) snowmobile, Lunar Motorcycles are all electric, quiet, and have big wheels to help grip the snow.
I quickly realize that it is more delicate than it seems. Motorcyclists may find the super-sensitive throttle easier to control, but these vehicles have plenty of power (which is needed for climbing steep snowy hills). Our guide, Gerard, takes pity on my nervous ride and offers to take me on an easier but still scenic route. By the time we reach a plateau, the sun has completely set and the lights of the village of La Plagne are twinkling in the pockets of the mountain sides.
The descent is easier and more fun, and back on the 1,600m flat terrain, I’m grateful that our four-star Araucaria Hotel (from €156/£139 B&B; araucaria-hotel.com/fr) has of a hammam, sauna and swimming pool, where I can relax my nerves.
How: €90/£80 per person for a one-hour session with a guide (oxygene.ski)
Consult lesarcs-peiseyvallandry.com for updated prices for winter 2022/2023 Paradiski passes.