With Christmas-card landscapes and hot chocs cutting through crisp, clear skies, a family skiing holiday in the French Alps had always looked pretty enticing to us. Yet more than once, in seeking to kick start planning our first adventure, we’d stumble on the same old block: no clue – not the foggiest – how to organise it.
Every time we reached for the Sunday Papers’ Travel sections for expert advice and inspiration, the editorial seemed aimed at people who’d been-there-done-that, umpteen times before.
Where on earth do you begin with planning that first family ski holiday in the Alps?
Happily, Reader, we have now gone and done it – and we’re pleased to report back that our holiday skiing in Val Cenis, a lesser-known resort recommended for families and beginners, was every bit as fun and fulfilling as we’d hoped it would be.
If you too are thinking of embarking on that first time experience, or thinking that you’ve never heard of Val Cenis, here’s my go-to guide for first timers, to help you with your planning – from scratch.
By Lucy Shrimpton
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Where is Val Cenis?
The ski resort of Val Cenis is located in the Haute Maurienne valley in the French Alps. It’s both near the Vanoise National Park and not far from the Italian border. It’s not the only resort dotted along this valley; you’ll also find La Norma, Aussois and Valfréjus located here.
Val Cenis, however, is the largest ski resort in Haute Maurienne and comprises three traditional villages (Val Cenis Lanslevillard, Val Cenis Lanslebourg and Val Cenis Termignon). Together they offer 125 km of pistes, modern lifts and skiing for all abilities. There are 16 green runs and 20 blue pistes for beginners; 22 red for intermediate skiers; and for those advanced skiers who like a black piste, there are five black runs to choose from.
Located at the top of the Met at 2,800m (the highest point of the ski area), there is the “Canopée des Cimes” offering views over the Mont-Cenis mountain range, the Mont Cenis lake below and the French and Italian Alps in the distance.
Val Cenis is easy to reach too with a choice of five airports within a two- to three-hour drive.
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When’s the best time to go skiing for beginners?
Your ski aficionado mates have all been telling you to go skiing in February half term, right? There are many reasons you might want to do just that, but in our experience, the Easter school hols were a great time to head off to ski in Val Cenis ski resort.
- Skiing in the Easter school hols is less expensive than February/Christmas (quite dramatically so).
- Easter tends to be far quieter on the slopes (beginners need space!) and on the ski lift turnstiles (we never queued longer than 4 or 5 minutes).
- The longer school holiday gives you bags of time to slow-drive down to the French Alps (and back), on top of having a full week in resort.
- The fact that Easter teeters on another season gifts you longer daylight hours.
Die-hard skiers can be sniffy about wavering snow quality/quantity at Easter, but we had no issues at all – and we’ve been told that even when there’s a late/mild Easter, slopes are groomed nightly to optimise snow on the slopes.
How to book a ski holiday in Val Cenis for beginners
Go it alone? Or book with a ski specialist? That IS the question. You could of course book the Channel crossing, and the overnight stops, and the in-resort accommodation, and the ski passes, and the ski hire, and the ski school yourself, but (*catches breath*) it could be beneficial, as it was for us, to use a one-stop-shop.
We used and would recommend Peak Retreats, because as they can do everything for you, if that’s what you need, it’s a good way to centralise all aspects of your travel.
They’re a small and expert team specialising in French ski resorts, they’re good at coming up with affordable options, and they know their destinations inside out. Refreshingly, they actually pick up phones: “Oh yes, I think X has been there, just one moment and I’ll hand you over” is the kind of rare and reassuring customer service you can expect.
The French ski resort of Val Cenis – What to expect on arrival
If you’ve never been skiing before, arriving in ski resort as a family is *pretty darned exciting* and with a distinct lack of GB number plates in Val Cenis (we counted four in a week) you can also expect to experience a certain smugness that you’ve found a well-kept secret.
On arrival, we dropped our bags at our apartment, went immediately to the ski hire shop just over the road (for skis, poles, boots and helmets), safely stowed them all away in the apartments’ locker room, then focused on getting the lowdown on skiing in Val Cenis.
Here it is, in facts:
- We stayed at: Balcons-Platinium-Val-Cenis – luxury self-catering apartments with all mod cons and balcony overlooking the mountain. It’s a great place to unwind as well as to ski, with its on-site indoor pool, spa, sauna, jacuzzi, and gym.
- Location: The village we stayed in was ‘Lanslevillard’ in the Haute-Maurienne valley near the Italian border.
- Convenience factor: Everything we needed for the whole week (ski school, ski hire, ski lifts, shops etc.) was within 200m of the apartment. That’s a big plus for beginners, massively reducing logistical head scratching.
- Altitude: The village of Lanslevillard is at 1480m above sea level and the highest lift in the ski area is at 2,800m
- Slopes: There are 125km of pistes in Val Cenis: 16 green runs for beginners; 20 blue runs and 22 red runs for intermediate skiers; and 5 black runs for advanced skiers.
Ski school in Val Cenis
The next day, for our first morning of ski school (morning 1 of 6), we waddled suited and booted over to ESF Ski School to meet our English-speaking instructors. We were placed in a group• of around 15-20 other debutants (from all age groups and nations) and headed off to one of the nearby nursery slopes.
My children are teens, so we were all in the same group. If your children are younger, they’re likely to be in children-only sessions. Peak Retreats will be happy to talk you through how this works.
First of the instructors’ goals was to teach us how to snowplough down a gentle gradient (meaning you keep your skis close together at the front to control speed). Needless to say, shambolic attempts coloured the first hour but being as hopelessly horizontal as each other was all part of the fun.
Mornings 2 to 6 were no longer on nursery slopes but up in the mountains, via gondola ski lift. For these sessions we were in smaller groups (according to ability/confidence), each descent slowly improving our skills, before getting straight back on the ski lifts for another go.
Over the week skiing in Val Cenis we learnt how to:
- make slow turns in snowplough mode
- get our skis closer to parallel as we went across the slope
- increase speed
- try slow and controlled parallel turns
- control our weight distribution effectively
- progress from green slopes to an easy blue
- and side-slide into a stop.
There’s no pressure at all for perfection, but by the end of the week we’d all nailed the basics, with certificates to prove it. Air punching all round!
What else is there to do in Val Cenis after ski school?
Beginners’ ski holidays don’t all have to be about the skiing, and in fact the French Alps provide such a magical setting you’d be mad not to explore them in other ways too.
French food! After all, this is the country where even food traditions are UNESCO-listed! You could book a table at L’Estanco for its cosy and rustic Alpine ambiance and for its local specialities: Tartiflette, Fondue Savoyarde, and Génépi liqueur.
You can also hike to Mont Cenis (a lake at high altitude), explore the traditional village of Bonneval-sur-Arc, or head to the tourist office to book up family activities such as Via Ferrata (a physical and mental climbing challenge) and Snake Gliss (clipped-together sledges steered down the mountain at speed by a ‘pilot’!). Have a look at Peak Retreats’ Winter Challenge for kids too.
But most of all, GET BACK ON THE SLOPES after your mornings at ski school, making a beeline in particular for Val Cenis’ Escargot green slope. 12km of pure white bliss in one go? Not bad for first timers.
What to pack for a family skiing holiday
Rather than kit ourselves out with a ton of brand-new (pricey) kit, we opted to beg, steal and borrow – a win-win if you like, for pocket and planet. You can also rent or buy pre-owned clothing and accessories from Ecoski. We didn’t need to worry about skis, boots, helmets and poles because we opted for all that to be taken care of by Peak Retreats.
As far as the rest of the kit was concerned we already had the following items at home:
- Underlayers for warmth
- Woolly ski hats
And the following items we borrowed from friends and family:
- Ski jackets
- Ski tourers / salopettes
- Ski gloves
Which left us with only having to purchase:
- Ski socks
We didn’t take snow boots but only because we’d heard that in average Easter conditions, trainers would be fine for us to get about in, and they were.
Peak Retreats provided us with a handy packing list so that we could check everything off and we also received a confirmation document from them with some last-minute travel info (current conditions, any travel regulations, weather, traffic etc.). For more ideas on what you need to pack take a look at this cold weather packing list.
It’s also worth considering an eSIM card during your time in France to allow you to keep connecting without racking up a huge telephone bill!
How to get to Val Cenis
A 592-mile drive from Calais does sound like one hell of a trek, but if you’re conscious, like us, that it’s more environmentally friendly to drive instead of fly, and you’ve got no massive time pressure to get there in a flash, you can enjoy the drive rather than endure it.
Build in a stop or two for lunches and overnight accommodations, and you’ll find France’s motorway system – punctuated with aires (service stations/rest spots) and péages (tolls) – as efficient as can be.
We took the following route and used the ViaMichelin website to plan.
Our Route: Calais → Arras → St Quentin → Chalons-en-Champagne → Troyes → Dijon → Bourg-en-Bresse → Chambéry → Val Cenis
If you do want to fly then the closest airports are at Lyon (2 hrs 50 mins), Geneva (2 hrs 50 mins), Chambery (2 hrs 10 mins), Grenoble (2 hrs 55 mins) and Turin (2 hrs 25mins)
There are no direct trains to Val Cenis. The closest train station is in Modane from where daily buses run to the ski resort (50 minutes).
Lucy and her family stayed with Peak Retreats at Les Balcons Platinium in Val Cenis. 7 nights self-catering in a two-bedroom apartment from £197pp based on 5 sharing. Price includes return Eurotunnel crossing, with free FlexiPlus upgrade at most dates, with Peak Retreats. Val Cenis has been awarded ‘Flocon Vert’ status for its eco-credentials.
For tourist information on Val Cenis, click here.
Lucy is a Bristol-based translator and travel writer focusing her writing on short-radius destinations such as the UK, France and The Netherlands. Lucy also contributes to parenting magazine Juno.