Thursday, November 17, 2016

Learning to ski? 8 things you should do before you book a ski lesson

With the new ski season just around the corner it's time to think about booking up ski school or a private instructor while there's still plenty of availability. 

Here' some expert advice from Nick Robinson, who runs a brilliant new web service enabling you to find easily the best choices in your chosen resort.

  1. Choose your resort
Different resorts are great for different levels of skier. Some resorts are built on less steep mountains, with lots of easy green and blue runs which  gives beginners more terrain to explore and more of the mountain restaurants to try out!. They also have the chance to progress at a much more gradual rate. On the other hand, some resorts are geared more towards expert skiers, such as  La Grave (France), with no pisted runs at all. But it's an off-piste wonderland for the backcountry lovers. Les Arcs is an example of a large ski resort which genuinely caters for skiers of all abilities.
  1. Decide on your dates

School holidays can be busy times...
The choice of your holiday dates can be restricted by a  school term dates, but if you don’t have children you can go skiing anytime during the season. The main  advantage of this is price, and what a difference it can make! If you holiday during early season (Les Arcs for example opens on 10th December), Mid-January, early March or the end of the season you can almost halve the price of your holiday, and sometimes even more.

  1. Book your accommodation and travel
Once you have chosen your  resort and selected the  dates the next step is to book your travel and accommodation . is great for checking the price of  flights, Many ski resorts are easily accesible by train, including the direct Eurostar service from London to Bourg St Maurice. I would recommend going for an independent chalet company such as, as  they take great pride in holidays they offer and always add a nice personal touch. 
  1. Ask yourself what you want to achieve, what do you want out of your lesson?
Adult beginners enjoy private lesson.
Once you have booked your ski holiday and you decide you want to book lessons you should ask yourself what you want to get out of these lessons. You might be a complete beginner  or you might be a nervous intermediate wanting to build confidence. It’s important you know what you want before you start looking for lessons, as this could have an impact on how many lessons an instructor suggests you have, as well as what time of day to have the lessons.

  1. When do you want lessons?

Once you have decided on point number 4 you can then decide what days you would like lessons. For example,  if you are a beginner you will probably  want to get started on the first morning of your holiday. Sometimes leaving gaps between lessons can allow for  more practice and to really help to  consolidate what you have learnt.

  1. How much do you want to spend?

Ski lessons can be  expensive and it's best to have a budget in mind. Group lessons are much cheaper and are therefore a tempting option. Inevitably with group lessons people progress at different speeds and you could find yourself in a group that is too advanced or too basic.  Also you might find yourself in quite a  large group not getting much individual attention.  However some people really enjoy the 'social' aspect of group lessons and find it a great way to find friends and people to ski with. On the other hand private lessons are relatively expensive and more intensive, but you might prefer to be learning all day (or for a few hours each day) which could be beyond your budget with a private instructor. In the end it all comes back to what you want to achieve and when you want lessons. Private lessons can often be quite a bit cheaper during 'low' season weeks.

  1. Check out the options from ski schools to specialist instructor 'marketplaces'

Lots of instructors to choose from!
Ski schools offer various types of lessons at a range of times and for different prices, which can be complicated if you are planning a holiday with people of different abilities, budgets and aspirations.  A good option is to  check out Maison Sport, a website giving  direct access to hundreds of independent instructors  in France. Booking through Maison Sport cuts out the ski school 'middleman' so the prices are generally lower and you can compare different options before you make your choice.

  1. Decide on what instructor you want, what language, male/female etc
Many ski schools don’t give you the option to choose your individual instructor, so it can be ‘luck of the draw’ as to who  you get. The most important decisions to make  are language  and the instructor’s key attributes, information which you should be able to request from most ski schools. 

Alternatively, Maison Sport allows you to choose your instructor and communicate directly with them  prior to booking to check they can fulfill your needs. You can also read previous customer’s reviews, which reduces the chance of any unpleasant surprises!

And finally: learning to ski is hard work but great fun. You can experience tremendous highs and devastating lows in a short space of time as a beginner. Even the most experienced skiers are still learning and improving, and there's never a time in ones skiing career when one couldn't benefit from being with an expert instructor. So don't overlook this important aspect of your holiday when budgeting, booking and planning - you'll get more out your time on the mountain and go further than you could ever hope to on your own!

Another season at Les Arcs...

Col de La Chal yesterday morning
There are only 22 days to go before the opening of the winter season at Les Arcs. Already there is a good metre of snow on the mountain, with more predicted to fall this weekend. The snow has fallen at just the right time - it's unlikely to melt before December as the air and ground are cold, and the magnificent Les Arcs snow-making infrastructure can run full-on to build up that all-important base layer on the pistes.   Here's hoping we have a really good snowy start to the season to make up for the last few years!

Les Arcs 8th European Film Festival opens at the same time as the skiing this year, on the 10th December.  With the theme of 'Women in Film' there will be 120 showing of movies from a dozen or more countries. The LA film festival is getting an international reputation for new and innovative work, in an unusual environment (quite the opposite of Cannes!).

It's been an interesting time for chalet bookings - the Brexit result seemed to have a bad effect on british skiers, mainly because of the big fall in the value of the pound. But every cloud has a silver lining and the extraordinary election of Mr. Trump in the USA has seen the value of sterling climb sharply and bookings are now back to their normal levels. 

Possibly the Brexit process may turn out to be yet another nail in the coffin for british skiing (the numbers of regular UK skiers has virtually halved in the last 10 years) and this is putting some resorts under further economic pressure. Les Arcs has had a good look at it's lift pass pricing policy for this season and although it's more complicated with new options for 'Duo' and 'Tribu' (group) packs joining the existing 'Family' pack, everyone can expect to pay a bit less than last year. Also Les Arcs area passes now include a day in La Plagne, and Paradiski passes allow you to ski on the afternoon of arrival day for no extra charge.

With Christmas Day and New Year falling on Sundays this year the New Year week hasn't been as much in demand as usual (a lot of people go back to work or school on 2nd January). We still have availability for this period and it should be a lot quiter than usual! I'm offering a special 'Brexit Beater' offer for early season (10th - 24th December) based on £100 per night for catered chalet accommodation, lift pass and transfer. See the website for details and conditions.

Tah-I-Mah: 5* white elephant?
New things to look out for in Les Arcs include the new 'Tah-I-Mah' hotel at Arc 2000, which claims to be Les Arcs first  5-star establishment. You can't miss it as it annoyingly occupies a large part of the  'front de neige', a large open area intended originally to be place for meeting and linking the skier to the non-skiing infrastructure around it. I wonder if the time is right for such a development, given that the stunning 4-star Aiguille Grive hotel on the piste above Arc 1800 seems to have struggled a bit in the 4 years since it opened... 

Bonne Saison a tous, come and enjoy the snow here at Les Arcs as soon as you can!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

New summer mountain biking programme at Les Arcs

Bike parc map
Over the years I have realised that a lot our our chalet guests are also passionate about other sports and activities, and mountain biking often crops up as one the most popular summer pursuits. In the last 10 years Les Arcs has been making serious efforts to make the resort a real Mecca for all kinds of MTB enthusiasts, echoing the 'something for everyone' ethos of the winter programme. Now we have over 200km of trails, including some epic forest runs (the Malgovert forest beside our chalets has turned out to be ideal terrain in an otherwise largely un-visited environment), a couple of parcs and trails for families to enjoy.  Several of the main lifts are adapted for the uplift of riders and their bikes, including Cachette, Transarc and the Aguille Rouge cable car - fancy riding a bike on a glacier!?

Steep-sided single track at Arc 2000
This year we decided to set-up a mountain biking holiday programme for the 8 weeks period when the lifts run, based at our chalet L'Aguille Grive at Courbaton (Arc1600). This chalet seems ideally placed, as it's virtually on the 'mythical' No.8 forest trail (8.2 km and 810m vertical),  and only a few hundred metres from Cachette and the funicular, which is a vital cog in the MTB uplift network. The fabulous views across the massif de Beaufourtain, plenty of space for bikes and barbecues, the sunny hot-tub and comfortable en-suite rooms seem to be exactly what the biking fraternity need after a hard day in the saddle (or sometimes out of it!).

And so was born, and we are taking bookings for the 8 week period from Saturday 2nd July to Saturday 27th August 2016. There are also plenty of other things to do in Les Arcs during the summer season, ranging from the chamber music festival to golf and archery. This was all part of the original thinking behind Les Arcs, but now as there seems to be increasing interest in activity-based alpine holidays the prescience of its founders is paying off. Les Arcs was recently features as one the top 10 best resorts for mountain biking in the Alps.

All the details are on 

and there's general information about summer in Les Arcs on

Finally, a video of a descent of the No.8 trail in the Malgovert Forest:

Monday, January 18, 2016

What's 'Mille 8'?

I've been asked the questions 'What's (a) Mille 8?' quite a few times since the season begun, and I realised I didn't really have an answer except  to recite a list of the new features incorporated into Les Arcs new, much-hyped offspring: toboggan run, swimming pool, some odd wooden huts, a short bump run, and so on....

So I decided it was time to take a proper look and talk to some of the people involved in Mille 8 to try and understand not only the concept but what it brings to Les Arcs and its visitors. Is it really the 'new space for novel experiences' claimed by ADS, or is it an over-hyped attempt to stimulate a stagnating market?

The origins of the Mille 8 stem from the '4 'till 7' problem that many major ski resorts have tried tackle in the light of decreasing revenues from lift pass sales and ever increasing costs. The idea is that from the end of skiing until dinner time people don't have much to do, especially families who aren't likely to sit in bars or be interested in noisy aprés-ski (not that Les Arcs has much of that!). So rather than retreating to their apartments, get them out with memorable things to do and, most importantly, get them to spend more money.  The increasing accommodation infrastructure at Arc 1800, including the massive Alpage de Chantel project (which will, when finished, increase the number of beds by 40%),  justifies substantial improvement in piste-side equipment and will provide a large captive market for innovative new attractions.

Perhaps the most tangible benefits of Mille 8 have been the three new replacement lifts - Villards, which really only services the Mille Huit activities. Dahu provide pedestrian uplift to the new Chantel development and the new Carreley chairlift eases theVagere  bottleneck with quick access to the Col de Frettes, once the destination of the old Arc 1600 'Arpette' lift. The old, slow Villards and Chantel chairlifts, which date back to the 1970s, have gone, and overall there has been a significant net increase in uplift.

Mille 8 occupies a formerly wooded area just above resort, which was deliberately left in tact when Arc 1800 was built in an attempt to integrate natural features of the mountain with the harsher 'urban' resort. This had been successfully achieved in Courchevel 1850 some years earlier (Roger Godino, co founder of Les Arcs, described the resort as the 'sister' of Courchevel). Some older pre-resort buildings have been pleasingly renovated and incorporated into the new infrastructure, mainly as golf schools (more about golf later..).

The main snow-accessed features are:

Le Luge - a 1 km tobbogan run
Le Cube - beginners area at the top with covered moving carpet lift
Les Bosses - a short bump run featuring and ingenious video system that allows you to receive a short film of your descent on your smartphone
Les Cabanes - various nicely built huts and terraces, for star-gazing, barbecues, sun-bathing, etc. There's a misnamed  musical instrument at the bottom called 'Le Xylophone' which is in fact a giant glockenspiel (metal not wood) which you can 'play' with your ski poles.
There is also apparently a pedestrian path, Les Sapins, but I couldn't see any signs for it and I'd no idea where is started.

However, the most impressive features are the 'Le Piscine' and 'Le Lodge', which could both be located anywhere and really have nothing to do with snow or snow-sports.

La Piscine
Access to Le Piscine is via a starkly impressive entrance tunnel and external lift tower. But, as with all of the Mille 8 attractions, it's necessary to trudge up the steep and icy slope in front of the Villards 'snow-front', and to cross a dangerously  fast-flowing piste to reach the entrance. I absolutely fail to see why the lift couldn't have just descended another 5 to 6 metres to the same level as the snow-front, giving safe and level access. I'm sure this in itself would increase the numbers of Mille 8 evening visitors, looking for something more interesting to do than mooching around Sherpa...

Le Piscine contains a nice, but rather small leisure pool (although actual swimming is not possible) with an impressive rock tunnel as its centrepiece. There are a couple of short water-slides (set apart from the pool itself), and various jets, fountains and waves in the pool.  Adjoining this is a suite of two saunas (one with a large window giving a great view of the setting sun),  two large steam-rooms and a pleasant 'chill-out' room with free ginger flavoured mineral water on tap. It's all very nicely done and well thought-out, despite all being on rather a small-scale. What a pity the Mille 8 planners didn't think to include the pre-existing outside swimming pool, such as you can find at Plagne Bellecote, Morzine, Les Deux Alpes, etc. Swimming in the open air in a warm pool while it's snowing is a truly wonderful experience!

Le Lodge, in true Arcadien style
Putting the icing on the cakes....
For me, the jewel in the crown of Mille 8 has to be Le Lodge, a stunning, curvaceous building truly in the 'Arcadien' style, with sloping roof, timber abutments, laminated cladding, and brilliant asymetrical windows - Bernard Taillefer would definitely be proud of this modern interpretation of his innovative style. Within Le Lodge there is a large (up to 600 places) rather up-scale restaurant, including a beautiful relaxation area with rather wacky sofas and cushions. A patissier openly makes deserts to order, and there is in encyclopaedic wine list from a stroll-through cellar. The menu is fairly typical of many higher-end establishments in Les Arcs, and there are menus from €37 for three courses. It's worth it for the views alone, those almost entirely glass walls giving stunning views in all directions.  The restaurant also has private dining rooms, with less enjoyable views across to the muddled and ugly buildings of the Chantel development. Below there is a large conference room and further dining space where concerts and entertainments take place several times a week.
€13 burger savoyard, no cutlery...
But Le Lodge contains more than its eponymous restaurant: at the other end of the gastronomic scale is the annoyingly cutlery-and-crockery-free 'Le Snack' (also referred to as 'Le Café') where everything is plastic and disposable (probably even the weird plastic stools which are the only seating available) but the 'Burger Savoyard' I ate was surprisingly good (just as well at  €13!). It seems such a shame that the attention to environmental and aesthetic detail evident elsewhere in Mille 8 is seriously lacking in this rather grim spot.

Enticing hats hide the golf simulator...
Upstairs there is an attractive showroom full of pretty hats - enticing it is, but just around the corner is a clue to another aspect of the rationale behind Mille 8. Golf is certainly not my game, but I couldn't fail to be impressed by  the life-size golf simulator, enabling virtual play on any of the world's leading courses (not, sadly including the one all around us here at Arc 1800) whilst analysing and improving your stroke. It was explained to me by the charming and US-English fluent manager that in the summer this part of Le Lodge will be the golf  'clubhouse' and the restaurant will provide for the summer golfers' needs.  This emphasis on golf makes the location of Le Lodge (and some of the other non-snow features of Mille 8) seem more logical: encouraging the summer market is obviously as important an aim as filling the '4 'till 7' gap.

However, I am interested in Mille 8 for what it brings to our world of snow and skiing. Will it really create  those 'unmissable moments' claimed in the flyer to tired families prepared to fork out €6 euros per child for a three-minute fairly slow toboggan  run, a further €8 per adult to visit the Le Piscine (sauna and steam room are extra) and a couple of hundred euros on a gastronomic meal in awesome surroundings? I certainly think more, if not all, of the attractions should be included in the lift pass: the extra expense is bound to put a lot of people off, along with the difficulty of access referred to earlier.

Mille 8 as a concept perhaps reveals  something of the hidden agenda of ADS (the company that operates Les Arcs and has made most of this investment). The many millions of euros spent on Mille 8 could equally have been used to add or further improve the  traditional skiing infrastructure (queuing for 45 minutes to get on the Arcabulle lift at Arc 2000 is certainly not an 'unmissable moment'!) and to encourage more and better skiing, and a wider appreciation of the unique environment we are in.

Mille 8 is something of the opposite, a kind of  microcosmic theme-park-on-the-snow, with artificial features, impressive though many of them are, at its heart rather than any sense of harmony with the mountain it sits upon. The original publicity for Mille 8 described the project as something like the 'distillation of the spriit of Les Arcs'. I fear in fact the opposite my be true, but perhaps we have to accept the world had moved on from the guiding inspiration of Robert Blanc and Roger Godino all those years ago.

The friendly hat and golf simulator manager summed it up nicely, 'Mille 8  is all about leisure', she said. Leisure rather than adventure, perhaps.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Happy Artificial New Year!

NY fireworks at Arc 1600
I've made my New Year resolutions, and one of them is to re-start my blog after a rather patchy last two years. Spurred on by the 50,000 or so visits my scribblings have attracted I'm ready to start getting behind the scenes again here in our magnificent skiing factory called Les Arcs!

No one could have failed to notice that the start of the season has been less than perfect in terms of snow cover. Nowhere near as bad as last Christmas (2014) but still definitely a snow-drought and all that implies, especially for the lower alpine resorts.  However I can safely say that all the guests we have had so far (including my own children) have been pleasantly surprised by the extent and quality of the terrain available. Much credit for this must go to the pisteurs for their hard and ingenious work spreading what snow there was into decent pistes and the ADS for managing the resort in a way that kept everyone happy.

Last week it seemed everybody wanted to be in Les Arcs, with our last few beds going to guests fleeing other resorts (such as Chamonix, Morzine, Chatel, etc) in search of a true taste of winter. However one thing was different this New Year - hardly a word of Russian to be heard anywhere, not even in Arc 1950. It seems the collapse of the rouble following  the Great Bear's foreign policy and domestic woes has made us prohibitively expensive, and of course new and better winter sports offerings are coming on-stream all the time in Russia itself after the success of Sochi.

Cachette tunnel
The big news in Arc 1600 at the start of the season has been the redevelopment of the Cachette to make it Les Arcs only world-class competition piste. A key feature has been the building of 50 metre concrete tunnel under the piste to allow the passage of ski-school groups and beginners using the Combette lift without interupting the flow of slalom skiers training and competing on the Cachette piste.

The idea of upgrading Cachette to full FIS-homolgation (slalom and giant-slalom) has been around for at least 20 years. It was a key feature of the bungled 'CSNHN' scheme that would have seen a prestigious national ski academy based in Bourg, had it not been lost to Albertville because of political dithering ( click here for the full story). There were originally going to be two tunnels, the other would have  allowed the 'Arpette' blue piste to pass beneath Cachette: now that piste will be closed or diverted on competition days.

Monster snow cannon
A further aspect of the Cachette scheme is plainly visible in the photo above - snowmaking. It was already the best equipped piste in Les Arcs, with something like 40,000 cubic metres of the man-made white stuff being applied each season.  The snow-making capacity has now been virtually doubled, and the equipment re-spaced to reduce the amount of piste-bashing necessary to spread it evenly. A small concession to the environmental impact of all this energy-guzzling eneigement, perhaps. Les Arcs, like most large ski resorts now uses as much energy on snow-making as it does for powering the lifts.

The lift company ADS proudly showed of its new TechnoAlpin TL6 snow cannons, the 1000th produced being among those deployed. These monsters are capable of making 20 cubic metres an hour (a double-decker bus?), and other 'lower pressure' jets can double that in the right conditions -   it has to be between -2.5 and -5c.

There's no doubt that Les Arcs massive investment in snow-making has really paid of this season. Not only did it allow the resort to open more skiing than most of its rivals, but the deep, compacted layer will be an excellent base for the natural snow now falling in abundance. This will also be beneficial at the other end of the season as the spring temperatures begin to rise.

Cachette piste before the tunnel
But there are plenty of elephants in the corner of Cachette, as it were. Is this the reality of global warming; are we going to have to accept that most of the snow under-ski will be artificially made in the future? Are we going to see the 'core-lift policy' (take out two lifts, build one more-efficient one, such as Arpette) turn into a core-piste policy? (put all the energy into creating one or two good main pistes with less diversity of terrain).

 If energy prices were to rise substantially some resorts might well struggle to pay their electricity bills without adding to the vicious circle of decline created by ever-increasing lift pass prices.  But At least a higher oil price would make the Russians able to afford Les Arcs again!

See also my post on the history of the Cachette piste and lift

Coming next: Mille8 - skiing dumbed-down or is this the future?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ski Republic is no more, but the revolution lives on

I'm sitting here waiting for the long-promised snow storm to hit us; we have been promised 50cm in the next 24  hours and the possibility of a 'semaine de blanc' after that. The last time we have a really big downfall was the 27th December (although there's been a fair amount of snow but in small quantities), and the chaos that ensued was well documented by the British and French press. Perhaps it's only going to snow seriously on the 27th of the month this season! In any case, we could really do with it to get Les Arcs up tip-top condition for the school holiday, which in France start in two weeks time.

In today's Dauphiné I read that the beleaguered 'low-cost' ski hire business Ski Republic has finally be sold off to Danisports (already owners of the  Precision Ski franchises and brands). Ski Republic was a brilliant idea, stared by Lionel Favre in 2006. Impressed by business approach of Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of EasyJet, Favre realised that the complacent, overpriced and frequently monopolistic hire shops to be found in every european ski resort could produce even more profit if their costs were carefully controlled and they were more 'marketing driven'.

 The main idea was stunningly simple: instead of holding large stocks of equipment in expensive resort retail premises the skis, board and boots etc. were warehoused in a cheap industrial unit in the valley (in fact just outside Bourg St Maurice). Servicing and preparation of the equipment was thus done centrally, making the best use of expensive machines and technicians, and the materiel delivered to tiny retail shops (hardly more than kiosks) by garishly-coloured eye-catching vans. In addition all the marketing and order-taking was done via a well-designed website. Unlike 'traditional' ski hire shops with their extortionate mark-ups, incomprehensible and randomly-applied tarifs you knew how much you were going to pay as you paid it 'up-front'. This was good for Ski Republic's cashflow, enabling them to keep their prices low and to offer their famous 'hire one get one free' deal.

Many traditional ski shops were owned by local families whose community standing pre-dated the coming of industrialised skiing in the 1960s and 70s, and they were incensed with the threat to their perceived right to exploit and abuse tourists to the full. Consequently several Ski Republic shops were set alight, vandalised or had their door locks super-glued, tyres were slashed and SR staff threatened and abused.  But the newcomer really did cause a revolution in ski hire - eventually prices were forced down generally, price lists simplified and large discounts promised to skiers who pre-booked their equipment on the shops (often hastily and badly designed) websites. Transparency and competition led to a better and cheaper service for everyone, but also led to the domination of a few large franchises such as InterSport, Precision Ski and SkiSet. Sadly, some quality independent operations like Twinner Sports disappeared  completely.

But it all went badly wrong for Ski Republic a couple of years later. Despite quickly capturing an impressive share of the market with 150,000 pairs of skis and a turnover of nearly 5 million euros it didn't make a profit in its first two years of operation. With the 2008 'credit-crunch' banks panicked over backing even slightly unconventional businesses, and SR suddenly found its line of credit broken and unable to pay its bills. The french commercial legal processes of 'cessation des paiments' and 'redressment judiciare' ensued (designed to give a struggling business protection from its creditors while it tries to pull itself together) and M. Favre was forced to liquidate all his other assets (which included the Precison Ski brand) to keep the business going.  Since then it's struggled on, with various owners and backers invloved. Finally the Tribunal de Commerce at Chambéry pulled the plug, forcing the sale and/or closure of the remanents of Ski Republic.

Saulire with La Grand Casse (3855m)
A personal ski-hire anecdote: I remember how, as a relatively inexperienced skier, I had hired a pair of skis at Courchevel 1650. After a day or so I realised that the bindings were wrongly adjusted for my weight and ability (the skis kept coming off) and the braking mechanism on one of them was faulty and never descended to stop the ski sliding away when the binding was open.   
Predictably, as I was tackling the difficult, bumpy 'M' black piste below La Saulire, the ski came of on a bump and slid away, under the netting at the side of piste and fell 100m or so into the ravine below. I had to complete the remainder of  'M' on one ski and my backside, and take a series of lifts in the wrong direction to get back to the ski hire shop (closed of course, at 12). When it finally opened at 4.30pm  I explained my predicament, tired and annoyed at having lost half a day on the mountain.  The response: 'You lost ze ski? So you have to go and find it!' After pointing out the impossibility of this  I was told 'OK, so you 've to pay for a new PAIR of skis'. 
Too exhausted to argue I returned the next day to be told by the manager, 'Oh it's no problem, we give you another pair. I expect the pisteurs will find it in the Spring...'  I was relieved, but also confused.

I'm pretty sure the new owner Danisports will soon abandon the Ski Republic brand and the business model in order to build its other interests and improve its margins. Although the name may soon be forgotten, Ski Republic was responsible for revolutionising and important facet of the modern ski industry, formerly famed for its inefficiency, lack of customer service and ludicrous over-pricing.  I wonder what they's do with all those pink and yellow caravans?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cyprus - a threat to Les Arcs?

Everything's gearing up nicely for the winter season at Les Arcs: 40cm of snow above 1600m, and a fair amount of excitement about the Mille 8 project at Arc 1800. It includes a new fun piste in the trees, toboggan run,  obstacle courses and the most important part, the new Centre Aqualudique, with several pools, water features and relaxation/spa facilities. Les Arcs, like other large ski resorts is trying hard to cash in on the '4 - 7' period after skiing at the end of the afternoon and to enhance overall the tourists' experience in the hope they'll keep coming back! More about all this once it's all open after the beginning of the season on 13th December.

Plan of Mille 8
However, I do think there's a small cloud over Les Arcs dazzling plans. Lift pass prices are up again, by about 5% as far as I can work out. Last year saw a drop in lift pass sales, accommodation occupancy and 'skier days' of around 2% - that doesn't sound like much when you remember that in previous years that figure has been closer to a 4% drop and multiply that over 10 years you're basically looking into a financial abyss.... Why not freeze lift pass prices (at least) to build some client fidelity rather than grandiose investments, I wonder. To top it all, entry to the new Centre Aqualudique or the piste de luge is NOT included in the lift pass, you have to pay between €5 and €15 euros per visit depending on which facilities you use. Mille 8 had better be good!

After my visit to Kazakhstan earlier this summer and the impressive Shymbulak ski area (perhaps one day it will become an alternative to Europe's crowded and increasingly expensive resorts?) I was intrigued to discover that you don't have to go that far to find cheap, family friendly skiing.

FFS piste et Troodos
Experienced snow-boarder and travel writer Holly Mantle has been telling me about skiing in Cyprus.  It  isn’t  yet famous as a skiing hotspot, and  doesn't  feature on any top 'ten list' of skiing locations in Europe. But, because it's still relatively unknown you can expect to find deserted slopes, untouched snow and no skittle-run pistes crowded with snakes of ski school learners. At Troodos, the main resort, prices are much lower than big european ski factories,  and it  retains some of  the atmosphere and elegance of the Swiss Alps of yesteryear; they’ve still got cosy cafes whipping up hot chocolates and refined skiers in salopettes gracing the slopes in style.

There is a good range of skiing, especially for those looking to progress. The different runs are all named after Greek gods which makes the experience more fun - telling people you’ve tamed Zeus (the big one) for example, will be sure to impress back at home. Holly points out that there aren’t too many flat sections that will force boarders to hop across the snow as you attempt to make it towards the next drop.

Troodos piste map
Skiing at Troodos, which is located in the northern slopes of Mt. Olympus (1951m), dates back to some portable lift installations set up by the British Army in the 1960s, presumably to keep the largely idle 'green line' soldiers and their families occupied. Steady development of the facilities and a new breed of local skiers led to Cyprus' participation in the 1980 Winter Olympics, and they're still going strong in several events.  Troodos has 4 main lifts and dozen or so slopes of  for all levels. The longest piste is nearly 1km long, and most of the skiing is above 1800m. The season runs from December to March, but expect the best snow in January and February. It gets pretty warm in March!

You can rent ski and board gear from the Cyprus Ski Club – they have a mixed range of equipment from the latest models to the ancient. Snowboards are a little harder to get hold of than skis, so if this is the main reason you’re travelling to Cyprus then it’s better to bring your own gear (especially if you’re a snowboarder or skier who likes to look good on the slopes). There are three main schools offering lessons and guiding.

Larnaca airport is the closest to Mt Olympus and its slopes. Flights from London take around 4 hours 40 minutes. Cyprus Airways fly into Larnaca, or Easyjet will speed you over to Paphos. In order to get up to the mountain, a 4x4 with snow chains would be the recommended option.  

Paphos Archaeologial Park
Consider combining your ski trip to Cyprus with further exploration of this fascinating island: The Paphos Archaeological Site is easy to get lost in for a day and has lots of ancient relics, mosaics and monuments dating back from prehistoric, Roman and medieval times. It’s just 4.5 euros to get in, and the mosaics in particular have been receiving rave reviews from tourists since the area became listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

There’s no need to stay at resorts close to the ski slopes, which can be expensive. The island is very small, so you can easily travel between hotels in other areas of the island by bus or car. For a taste of the ancient civilisation of Cyprus  go to the tiny village of Agros (which only has four hotels) and is famous for its rose festival and sweets cured in syrup. There are some great nature trails around that area through the mountains.

If you’d prefer more modern ciivilization, then Paphos is the best place in terms of things to do. Bars, restaurants and cafés there cater to a year-round tourist influx so you won’t be left cold and hungry, even if you’re heading out in the midst of winter.

Lift Pass Prices
Ski Lift Pass: Afternoon 12,00 euros , Full day 20,00 euros
Ski Equipment Rental: Adults Daily 12,00 euros, afternoon 9,00 euros
Cross Country Skis – Boots: Daily 8,00
Snowboards – Boots: Daily 18,00

All a bit cheaper than Les Arcs, but perhaps you really do pay for what you get when if comes to skiing.

Many thanks to Holly Mantle who supplied most of the information about Cyprus and some of the text.

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