How do you decide what makes a good family ski holiday? Like plenty of parents, my criteria include convenience, cost, snow cover and pistes to suit all members. Not surprisingly, however, what an eight-year-old prioritises is quite different. Forget the ease of ski-in/ski-out accommodation and powder snow – let alone who’s going to pay for it all – no, it turns out that all the under-10s really care about are their stomachs.
My son Sam and I pulled into Bourg-Saint-Maurice in the French Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes by train. Our destination was the Paradiski area in the Tarentaise valley, one of the largest ski areas in Europe and the second biggest linked domain area in the world – this winter it celebrates 20 years since its inception.
The two main resorts in its boundary are Les Arcs and La Plagne, purpose-built villages created in the 1960s that are linked by the double-decker Vanoise Express, the world’s largest cable car. Tucked away in the middle is Peisey-Vallandry, a more traditional Alpine base among the oldest in France.
British families have been unwavering in their affection for Les Arcs and La Plagne since they were first built. As well as copious amounts of group-friendly accommodation, this vast winter playground offers 425km of slopes to suit all abilities and delivers some phenomenal skiing. And, with over 70 per cent of the area sitting above 2,000m, you can carve tracks from the day the lifts open (December 16) through to Easter and beyond in relative confidence that snow conditions will deliver.
So similar are the two resorts, however, that it can be difficult to choose between them. On paper both Les Arcs and La Plagne tick all my boxes but how would they fare under the scrutiny of the most demanding of clientele, an eight-year-old boy? Always up for a challenge, together we set off to try and decide which of these twinning resorts is really the best for families.
Les Arcs: unrivalled convenience and clocking up miles
No sooner had we disembarked from the train than we were on the funicular zipping up from Bourg to Arc 1600, a compact village and the original resort of the Les Arcs ski area (there are four in total). Our hotel for the next three nights was the newly-renovated four-star La Cachette, a light-filled venue housed within a building designed by Charlotte Perriand, the trailblazing French architect responsible for designing much of Les Arcs. With a ski shop, an outdoor hot tub and sizeable family rooms, the hotel is the epitome of the resort’s family-friendly accommodation. More importantly for Sam, the restaurant buffet featured a generous dessert table filled with mountains of gooey cakes and sticky pastries.
Over the next few days, we set out testing the ski runs. Sam headed off in the mornings with a series of ever-cheerful instructors from the ESF ski school tackling the beginner slopes and I explored as much of the local area as possible. One of the great things about Les Arcs is the plethora of blue runs – ideal for a showcase of beginner snowplough turns from Sam. However, we did note that if it’s your first time ever on skis, easy green pistes are thin on the ground.
At the other end of the spectrum, experts are drawn to the Aiguille Rouge, the highest point in the Les Arcs-Peisey-Vallandry area at 3,226 metres. From these lofty heights, you can tackle an eponymous black-then-red run, which swoops down to the rustic village of Villaroger at 1,200m. Altogether the piste measures a thigh-screaming 7km, making it one of the longest runs in Europe and one of the finest in the Alps.
For après ski, we headed not to the dancefloor of La Folie Douce at Arc 1800 but to test the resort’s more age-appropriate activities. Sam was too young for the Aiguille Rouge Zipline, but he loved the twisting and turning Luge 1800 that finishes with a flourish through a rainbow tunnel of LED lights. One afternoon we skied over to neighbouring Peisey-Vallandry, one of only three places in France where you can take a reindeer sleigh ride.
La Plagne: sheltered slopes and endless fun
On our fourth day, the clouds rolled in. Fortunately, this was also the day that we skied over to La Plagne; Les Arcs excels at wide open spaces and stellar panoramic views, but the skiing is significantly less convivial when visibility is bad. By contrast, its twin boasts a varied topography including coniferous forests that provide shelter in snowstorms.
La Plagne is made up of 11 connected villages and our home was the piste-side Hotel Araucaria in Plagne Centre. It wasn’t just the ski-in/ski-out convenience that we loved, the Araucaria is packed with kid-friendly amenities including arcade games, a tiered cinema space with popcorn and a dessert trolley that would put Willy Wonka to shame. Sam was in heaven.
When I eventually managed to drag him away from the hotel we tackled the Funslope, a 1.6km-long bordercross-style run and the Buffalo Park, a Wild West-themed piste. When the sun appeared, we took the gondola to La Grand Rochette for 360-degree views of marshmallow peaks and, when the clouds rolled in once more, we skied through the Forêt des Lutins along a wide arching beginner run peppered with whimsical carved wooden statues.
One morning we swapped skis for snowshoes and marched along La Voie Blanche, an area of rolling hills and gullies, and quickly discovered that tobogganing down the fells was infinitely more appealing to an eight-year-old than walking up them. We spent one afternoon at Deep Nature in Belle Plagne, which uniquely offers spa treatments for kids, and another hurtling down the 1992 Olympic bobsleigh track, the only one of its kind in France and one of only 18 tracks in the world.
After a week in the Paradiski area, we were unable to reach a unanimous decision on which of the two resorts is the jewel in the family-friendly crown. Both resorts delivered everything I was looking for but in different ways. Les Arcs offers some fun and challenging runs but if you have complete beginners in your group then La Plagne is definitely better suited. Off the slopes, the architecture in Les Arcs is preferable, but we enjoyed the variety of La Plagne’s non-ski activities more.
For the final verdict I testingly awarded Les Arcs my vote but when I asked my sidekick for his decision, he was unwavering and chose La Plagne. When I asked him what had swung the vote, his answer was, quite simply, “pudding”.
Need to know
A week’s stay for a family of four staying at the Hotel Araucaria with breakfast costs from €2,717 total or €2,186 without breakfast. A six-day lift pass for the La Plagne ski area only costs €330/adult €264/child (up to 12 years old). A six-day lift pass for Paradiski costs €369 per adult or €296 per child.
A week’s stay for a family of four staying at the Hotel La Cachette with breakfast costs from €1713.18 (tourist taxes not included). A six-day lift pass for the Les Arcs / Peisey-Vallandry ski area costs €330/adult €264/child (up to 12 years old).
La Plagne and Les Arcs can both be reached by train; the Eurostar Snow train offers rail service from London St Pancras International to the Aime-la-Plagne for La Plagne and Bourg-Saint-Maurice for Les Arcs. Both require a change in Lille. Trains will depart London St Pancras International on Saturdays and return to London on Sundays.
Katja Gaskell and her son were guests of Les Arcs, Peisey-Vallandry and La Plagne tourism.