It’s time to strap on your skis; with winter comes the opportunity to explore the ‘massifs’, aka mountains with a spot of skiing in winter. And with six massive mountain ranges (no pun intended) offering various adventures and activities, there’s something for everyone, from thrilling winter sports, fantastic family resorts and superb après ski facilities.
One of the largest mountain ranges within Europe, the Alps spans 1,200 km across eight countries. Its highest point is at Mont Blanc, aka ‘White Mountain’ which reaches a dizzying 15,781 feet (4,810 meters) tall. Some of the world’s best known winter sports resorts are nestled within the Alps, including;
- Chamonix-Mont-Blanc – Set around a modern village resort at the base of Mont Blanc, Chamonix is home to soaring glaciers, mysterious ice falls and the most famous cable car on earth, the Aiguille du Midi. Located at 4,810 meters this is skiing with altitude! Chamonix has superb ski conditions from December to May with an enviable array of off-piste skiing opportunities as well as some breathtaking vertical drops. A well as skiing, snowboarding and speed riding, adventure enthusiasts will appreciate the Grands-Montets route.
- Les Trois Vallées – This is the largest ski area in the world, with eight resorts in total making up the three valleys. Fashionable resorts such as Méribel, Courchevel, Val Thorens and family friendly Les Ménuires are to be found here. Thanks to an interlinked network of ski lifts, travellers can experience all grades of slopes – with an even mix of easy and intermediate on offer. And with the majority of ski slopes over 1,800 meters Les Trois Vallées season runs from December to April.
- Val d'Isère – This cosmopolitan resort features traditional chalets crafted from wood and stone. At the heart of the village is a baroque church which sets the scene come wintertime. Snow is almost guaranteed here from November into May, thanks to the 1850 meter altitude.
The Pyrenees massif winds its way for 400 km between France and Spain and peaks at 11,168 feet (3,404 meters). This region is more laidback than the Alps and with over 1,000 km of marked piste, this is the place to relax and enjoy yourself.
- Barèges – One of the three largest resorts within the Hautes Pyrenees, Bareges boasts 70 ski runs and is the perfect spot for snowboarding, telemarking, snowshoeing and snow mobiling, as well as skiing.
- Val d'Azun – This is the ideal location for those looking for perfect cross country skiing trails, with around 110km in total. Val d’Azun concentrates more on snow sports such as cross country, snow showing and snowboarding, although there are 11 ski runs (but no ski lifts).
- Pays de Sault – To really get away from the crowds, head to Pays de Sault in Aude, which is a great destination for beginners, with sixteen ski runs and fourteen km of cross country trails, snow traffic is kept to a minimum.
Lying in the east of France, the Vosges Mountains reach a peak of 4,672 feet (1,424 meters) at Grand Ballon.
- Ballon d’Alsace – Offering a great mix of beginner, intermediate and difficult slopes, this Alsace based resort the perfect spot for a mixed group of skiiers. Set at 1231 meters, the season here runs from mid-December through to early April.
- Gérardmer/La Mauselaine – The largest ski resort within Lorraine has twenty runs for all levels set amidst glorious pine forests. Recent enhancements include enlarging the children's area, creating a designated sledging area and construction of a slalom stadium. And with 60% of the runs labelled as easy, this is ideal for family friendly skiing in France.
Nestled between the Alps and the Vosges, the Jura Mouati range lies in France, Germany and Switzerland. The vast high-plateaux range peaks at 1,720 meters with the Crêt de la Neige. Nordic skiing is popular here in both Métabief and Monts Jura. And if you’re looking for a beginners downhill ski slope, head to Les Rousses. The main draw however is the pristine landscapes – picture rolling snow-capped hills, verdant pine forests and waterfalls frozen in time. The highlight of Jura from a winter sports point of view is undoubtedly the Grande Traversée du Jura, which at 175 km long, is considered the best cross-country route in Europe. The annual ski marathon the Transjurassienne race has been staged here each year since 1980. In 2014 La Transjurassienne will run from 8-9 February.
The Massif Central
South central France is dominated by the Massif Central mountain range, which peaks at Puy de Sancy, an ancient stratovolcano at 6,188' (1,886 m). This range is a particular favourite with Nordic skiiers, cross country, ice skaters and snowshoeers.
- Massif du Sancy – Peaking at 1,850 meters, this is the perfect location for a spot of downhill skiing. This area boast impressive stats: 85km of runs and 58 varies pistes, all supported by 37 ski lifts and 3 cable cars! Massif du Sancy (Puy-de-Dôme) is linked with Chastreix-Sancy which offers a further 16km of runs. This area boasts floodlit skiing, snow kiting facilities, 400 snow machines, snowshoe trails and an impressive speed run.
- Le Lioran (Cantal) – Skiing here is a traditional business, dating back to 1910. Retaining its small-village feel, Le Lioran sits at 1,855 meters and is home to some 42 runs spread over 60 km. Downhill skiiers are drawn to the plush slopes of Le Plomb du Cantal. There are also a myriad of family friendly facilities, with an ice rink, dog sled track, snowpark and more than 75 km of peaceful cross-country runs.
The pristine Ile de Beauté, aka Corsica is probably best known for its array of superb beaches, but it’s also home to soaring mountains, perfect for winter sport adventures. In fact 80% of Corsica is comprised of serious mountains – perfect for cross country skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding. Winter walks can be enjoyed along the mythical GR20 trail which weaves through the Corsican National Park, which is set mostly above 2000 metres.
Conditions are less reliable than other French ski resorts, but Corsica is skiable from March to May, as a rough guide. Val d'Ese peaks at 1,825m and is well set up for families, with a snowpark and magic carpet for kids. The resort of Ghisoni Capanelle is somewhat tucked away but offers superb trekking and snow sports facilities, coupled with awesome views over Corsica, the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.