At 1800 metres, Avoriaz in the French Alps enjoys a reputation for being one of the best ‘snow safe’ resorts in Europe. Cathy Bartrop takes a seasonal ski break and reports on this year’s extraordinary New Year snow conditions.
If you are a skier, you don’t need me to tell you that Portes du Soleil in the French Alps is one of the best and most varied ski areas in Europe. Made up of 12 different resorts and villages, it straddles the French/Swiss border and, not only comes with jaw-dropping mountain panoramas, it offers the enticing prospect of skiing in two countries on the same day. Its perfect for skiers of all levels with an extensive, ultra efficient lift system connecting 600kms of varied pistes from gentle beginner slopes right through to the most challenging of black runs.
It is also one of the most reliable in terms of its snow record, particularly in the highest altitude resort of Avoriaz. A safe bet then for a Christmas/New Year ski holiday? Well yes, until 2022 when three solid days of torrential rain just before Christmas pretty much washed away the promising snowbase that had been established earlier in the month, taking with it local hopes of a triumphant post pandemic return to a full season.
We arrived the first weekend of January to find blue skies and Springlike temperatures. As we drove up to Avoriaz through the lower resorts of Les Gets and Morzine, there was barely a flake to be seen. But we could still see snow up on those peaks and had heard that skiing was still happening at altitude in Avoriaz. In early season, there is a golden rule – to be snow sure, aim high!
If you are self driving, the final stretch from Morzine is a 25 minute slow drive up, and up, a fairly narrow and very winding road to Avoriaz. Anticipation mounted with every bend but there was still no snow until we came round the final few hairpins and the village suddenly loomed up from the mountainous landscape. And yay! There was the snow – albeit nowhere near as deep as we’d hoped.
Avoriaz, the eco winter wonderland
From a distance, with an icy dusting, the resort has a distinct villain’s lair vibe. Without the usual softening of snow covered roofs, the angular, high rise, wooden clad blocks mimic the jagged contours of the surrounding peaks. Easy to imagine 007 was on the architect’s minds when they came up with the avant garden design for its construction back in 1966.
Avoriaz was conceived as an eco responsible resort way before the words ‘climate change’ entered our vocabulary. Built on a plateau it benefits from consistent exposure to the sun and the building designs take full advantage. For example, 95% of apartments face south and shutters are forbidden so they are naturally heated by the solar gain. Similarly, doubled roofs further improve insulation. The resort’s eco credentials are undisputed and continually enhanced year on year as new technologies enable improvements to the commitment to a sustainable development policy. Its latest award came in 2021 winning the coveted Flocon Vert Trophy (Green Snowflake)
For visitors, one of the most obvious green credentials is the fact that Avoriaz is a 100% pedestrianised, ‘ski in ski out’ resort. There is a well oiled system in place. Arriving by car, you are directed to unload your luggage and then park in one the cavernous multi-level underground car parks. The transfer to your accommodation is by horse drawn sledge (or snowmobile). Sleigh bells jingling and with blankets to keep warm, it is a fun way to arrive and feel instantly immersed in a car free winter wonderland.
We stayed at the Residence Atria-Crozats, one of several Pierre et Vacances apartment complexes in Avoriaz. Our neat one bedroom apartment, functional but very warm and comfortable, was in the perfect location at the top of the resort with a sunset facing balcony from which we could enjoy uninterrupted views of the village below. Wherever you stay, everything is within easy walking (or skiing) distance so you are close by not only to lifts but the huge choice of bars, restaurants, cafes and, of course, shops and ski hire outlets.
We were relieved to be able to ski but limited ourselves to mornings only, getting out early and up as high as we could on the lifts before the queues became too long. The early morning conditions were icy but soon softened as the sun rose over the peaks. That golden early morning light is pure magic in the mountains.
By early afternoon though, the sterling overnight efforts of the piste bashing heroes had largely turned to slush. The issue for us was not so much the snow conditions but the sheer volume of people. Holiday season is always busy but, add in coach loads of skiers bussed in from surrounding snowless resorts and, inevitably as the day progresses, the lift queues just keep on growing, the slopes become ever more crowded.
Locals were clearly reeling, they’d not seen conditions this bad for decades. Diehard skiers were frustrated – skiing is an expensive business and its gutting if your goal is get maximum value from your ski pass. Most though were fatalistic, resigned to making the most of their holiday even if it wasn’t quite what they had envisaged.
Years ago I might have been in the first category but, I have to confess, a a couple of hours skiing a day is just about enough for me these days – more time for aching limbs to recover and more time to enjoy other aspects of the resort. I love to ski but above all else, I just love being in the mountains.
Beyond the pistes
The good news is that Avoriaz is also a solid choice when it comes to non ski activities. Apres ski, eating and drinking are always a huge part of the fun and Avoriaz has no shortage of options on that score – from high end restaurants to traditional cheese based mountain fare and intriguing options like a fondue evening in an igloo. Traditional snow based fun like dog sledding, snow shoeing and sledging are all on offer. Ice climbing or paragliding might help compensate those who feel they’ve not had a sufficient ski adrenalin fix but there are also less extreme pursuits like Fat Bike excursions as well as plenty of choices for pampering in a luxury Spa or relaxing in a sauna, steam room or outdoor hot tub.
Down in the lower resorts (easily accessible via the Prodain Express linking Avoriaz to Morzine), they were busy wheeling out what are usually considered the summer options of go karts and e-buggies – a great way to enjoy the mountains tracks at speed when snow is in short supply. Not everything has to cost a fortune either – hiking in the mountains, whatever the weather, is always a joy as is simply relaxing on a sunny balcony and taking in the views.
Of course the day after we left, guess what, the snow began to fall and, as I write, happily for those already booked and for the sake of local livelihoods, it looks like a much improved picture in coming weeks. But this poor start to the season has bought in to sharp focus the reality that all ski resorts are having to face – how to react and adapt to irregular weather conditions in order to survive. Avoriaz has already committed to a process to assess the impact of climate change on its evolution. The results of the study will be published at the end of this winter season and will make for interesting reading…
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Cathy stayed at Pierre & Vacances Residence Atria-Crozats in the pedestrianised resort Avoriaz 1800 in the Les Crozats area.
For ski holidays call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678 and head for the snow.
Tourist Board: Avoriaz: www.avoriaz.com