Serre Chevalier is one of the main ski areas, its southerly aspect countered by its altitude – the resort is at 1350m, with skiing up to an impressive 2830m. There are 250km of runs through beautiful tree-lined scenery, most of them good for intermediates. The resort is actually three villages and the city of Briançon (see below), linked by slope and bus; two of them – Villeneuve and Monetier – have excellent beginner areas. There are lots of chalets, hotels and apartments; the ones in the villages are generally on the slopes. It’s a good place for parents who like to ski long distances without anything to frighten them.
Montgenèvre, an attractive village with a slopeside market, is part of the 400km connected Milky Way area, and you only ski for a few minutes before you’re in Italy. The whole region is a delight of easy skiing – generally, you’ll be pottering through charming tree-lined scenery – so it’s perfect for family holidays. Children love skiing into another country, to places such as Sauze d’Oulx and Claviere in a region that upgraded many lifts for the 2006 Winter Olympics. There are lots of chalets here. The lift-pass also gives you a day in Serre Chevalier (see above), in Alpe d’Huez and Les Deux Alpes in Isère (day-trips are often organised by package companies) and Puy St Vincent (see below).
Montgenèvre also has a dedicated (and free!) mountain-biking park spread over an altitude of 1000m (from 2760m down to 1860m), with eight downhill trails of different levels (accessible by chairlift and gondola), fun areas and free-ride areas. Summer sees mountain-biking contests, and there’s a mountain-bike school offering biking tours as well as tuition.
Puy St Vincent is a small, modern resort ideal for young families – it's won awards for its family friendliness. The skiing is limited (75km) but there's reliable snow, good beginner areas and a long green back from 2,000m to progress to.
Risoul is another jolly family-friendly resort – not too ugly and based around modern but traditional slope-side chalet-style apartments. There’s a reasonable amount of skiing (180km), shared with its sister resort Vars. The slopes, up to almost 5500m, are generally snowsure, and there are great nursery slopes in the village and good runs to move onto. The rest of the skiing is mostly intermediate.
Les Orres is another modern resort, friendly and with intermediate terrain (62km of runs), but it's tucked away in the mountains, with longish transfers from Lyon.
The Hautes Alpes’ other big name is La Grave, a mecca for serious off-piste skiers – not really a family place unless with sporty older teenagers, who should be able to tackle some of the slopes. It has a couple of hotels and some apartments.
Briançon, Europe’s second highest city (at 1350m), is worth a wander – some of its old fortifications are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Beware, though – its picturesque narrow streets are steep. In school holidays the tourist office runs workshops for kids aged 6–12 while their parents take guided tours.
Near Briançon, the Parc National des Écrins – one of nine French national parks – covers nearly 1000km of high mountains, glacier fields, Alpine pastures, woodlands and lakes. It’s not the most accessible park to families because of its terrain, but the visitor centres run a whole range of interesting workshops and events, from making and playing instruments from natural materials to animal discovery walks (bats, butterflies, insects, birds of prey…).
Serre-Ponçon, one of the biggest artificial lakes in western Europe, has a Muséoscope with an interactive exhibition on the creation of the massive dam (including the drowning of entire villages) and views over it and the lake, plus the Maison de l'Eau et des Énergies visitor centre, where you can learn about the workings of the dam. You can also sail, canoe, jet-ski, swim and fish here. Nearby, the Parc Animalier Serre-Ponçon is a small zoo with marmots and other local animals, including wolves and vultures, plus a reconstruction of a prehistoric cave complete with stalagmites and cave paintings.