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The French Alps Family Holidays & Breaks

Children skiing, Alpe d'HuezChildren skiing, Alpe d'Huez© Laurent Salino, Alpe d'Huez Tourism
Flying Time 1.75hrs
Carbon Footprint 0.76 CO2
Timezone GMT +1
Currency Euro

Today

Overview

Perfect for family holidays, many of the resorts in the French Alpes (Rhône-Alpes) are purpose-built, high on the mountains, so you can ski almost from your door and the kids can safely wander down traffic-free streets. The French Alps is arguably the world’s greatest ski region, and certainly the place with the biggest connected ski areas on the planet, which means you can ski from one valley to the next, and often to the next, visiting a string of top resorts on a single day out. But while they might be big, they’re not daunting: huge areas at the base of the lifts fan out full of easy slopes to learn on, fun parks where the very youngest skiers take their first ski steps through brightly coloured fairy-tale constructions, and perfect pistes taking improving youngsters much further afield. 

Most of the major French ski resorts are in the Rhône-Alpes, mainly in the Savoie, Haute Savoie and Isère (note that the southern Alpes Maritimes are in the Provence–Alpes–Côte d'Azur region). The other départements that make up the Rhône-Alpes are the Ain, Rhône (home to the regional capital, Lyon), Loire (not to be confused with the more famous château-country further north), Ardèche and Drôme. None are on the tourist trail, making them good options for quiet, low-key, rural family holidays amidst stunning scenery. Fans of outdoor pursuits such as hiking, mountain-biking, horse-riding and canoeing are in their element here. And if you feel an urge for culture, the Rhône-Alpes does have some big cities, most notably Grenoble (Isère) and St-Etienne (Loire) in addition to Lyon.

Things to do with kids in The French Alps (Rhône-Alpes)

Discover the great outdoors in the Rhône département and, within it, the food and culture of the regional capital Lyon with its UNESCO-listed medieval alleys and monuments.

Ski in one of 200 resorts (with 2,500 lifts), concentrated in three départements -SavoieHaute Savoie and Isère. Many, such as Courchevel, Val d’Isère and Les Arcs, are recognisable under their own names, but many more are happy to bask in the glory of the names of areas that unite individual resorts. There’s the Trois Vallées (now, in fact, across four valleys), with 450km of skiing linking Meribel, Courchevel, Val Thorens and Les Menuires; the 650km Portes du Soleil featuring Les Gets, Morzine, Avoriaz and some resorts in Switzerland; the 300km Espace Killy, the area uniting Val d’Isère and Tignes; and the 425km Paradiski (Les Arcs/La Plagne/Peisey-Vallandy). Others are more than they might seem – Alpe d’Huez’s 249km area, for instance, also takes in four other quieter villages.

But be aware that a ‘family ski area’ might not be an exact fit for your particular family – if you’ve got kids who’ve skied regularly, they’ll soon get bored with small, easy resorts. Among the following alphabetical list, however, you’ll find something that fits the bill whatever your level:

Alpe d’Huez (Isère): A huge and underrated area with a massive easy-skiing area at the base.

Avoriaz (Haute Savoie, part of the Portes du Soleil area): A quirky traffic-free village with taxi-sleighs amidst a 650km intermediates’ paradise.

Chamonix (Haute Savoie): A large town with slopes on several bus-served mountains for serious skiers but also reasonable beginner areas.

Châtel (Haute Savoie, part of the Portes du Soleil area): A pretty, rustic village with good, quiet nursery areas.

Courchevel (Savoie, part of the Trois Vallées area): An upmarket resort in one of the world’s biggest ski areas, traffic-free and great for improvers.

Flaine (Haute Savoie): A purpose-built Grand Massif resort great for children but the subject of a stylish revamp that makes it more attractive to adults.

La Clusaz (Haute Savoie)A traditional village near Geneva, with pleasing all-round skiing.

La Plagne (Savoie, part of the Paradiski area): A fantastic ski area comprising many ‘villages’, such as Belle Plagne, with good easy slopes and connection to Les Arcs.

La Tania (Savoie, part of the Trois Vallées area)A quiet, family-friendly base near Courchevel.

Les Arcs (Savoie, part of the Paradiski area): An excellent resort taking in several on-mountain centres, with wide-open slopes and connection to La Plagne (see above).

Les Deux Alpes (Isère): A lively town but one with a mid-station ski-school area that can lead to morning queues.

Les Gets (Haute Savoie, part of the Portes du Soleil area): An unspoiled town with good beginner slopes and plenty of uncrowded intermediate pistes.

Les Menuires (Savoie, part of the Trois Vallées area): The least attractive resort in an enormous ski area, but one that’s central and safe with wide, easy slopes. It’s also relatively cheap.

Megève (Haute Savoie): Old-school ski chic: a town with a medieval heart but also great slopes for all the family.

Meribel (Savoie, part of the Trois Vallées area): A big, busy, spread-out chalet resort at the very heart of this gigantic ski area.

Morzine (Haute Savoie, part of the Portes du Soleil area): A colourful town at the ski region’s heart, with excellent slopes to progress on towards Les Gets.

Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise (Savoie): A small but pretty resort near Val d’Isère.

Samoens (Haute Savoie): A historic Grand Massif village connected to Flaine’s slopes, with the disadvantage that the lifts are a bus ride out of the centre.

Tignes (Savoie, Espace Killy): The less fashionable (and cheaper) sister resort of Val d’Isère (see below), with better children’s slopes.

Val d’Isère (Savoie, Espace Killy): A glamorous town with central nursery slopes, although finding slopes to progress on to can be tricky.

Valmorel (Savoie): A modern, car-free village built in a charming historic style, with plenty of easy slopes.

Val Thorens (Savoie, part of the Trois Vallées area): The highest resort in the Alps (which means it can be chilly), with good cruising connections to other resorts.

Skiing aside, go rural in the Ain, best known for its chickens and its blue cheese (Bresse bleu). Though this département in the north of the region is easily accessible from both Lyon and Geneva airports and from TGV terminals, it doesn’t have any major tourist attractions, drawing those who enjoy hiking, paragliding, bird-watching, cycling, horse-riding, fishing, canoeing and so on. Among the many ponds and small lakes are Lake Genin, at the base of the Bugey valleys, where you can swim and even ice-skate in winter. Kids particularly enjoy visiting the Grottes du Cerdon, a network of caves with weird formations where an underground river once ran, plus a waterfall, a little train, a play area and picnic spots. Another natural curiosity is the Dunes de Sermoyer, an unexpected accumulation of sand far from the seaside (it was actually blown to the spot from Lake Bressan in prehistoric times).

Venture to the Loire département (not to be confused with the world-famous valley), which offers more charming little villages and rural delights for nature-lovers, walkers, cyclists and horse-riders, plus stunning views because of its dramatic shifts in altitude. At Marcilly-le-Châtel, the Volerie du Forez has free-flying birds of prey plus a farm with dwarf animals, while close to the major city of St-Etienne the Espace Zoologique de Saint-Martin-la-Plaine has 100 species, from Siberian tigers to wolves. On a more cultural note, St-Etienne’s Musée d'Art Moderne is considered one of the world’s foremost collections of modern art. To the south of here, the Parc du Pilat is a protected nature park attracting walkers, mountain-bikers and other outdoors enthusiasts with its wonderful mountain scenery, and its Maison or museum has an observation garden, a slideshow and a children’s space. At Saint-Julien-Molin-Molette, an arts and crafts village, don’t miss the tours and tastings at the Bonbons de Saint-Julien sweet factory.

Head south of the Loire, to the Ardèche, a prime spot for family activity holidays.

Last comes the Drôme, another département strong on ‘green tourism’ – walking and mountain-biking in summer, and skiing (including cross-country) and snow-shoeing in winter. Good places to take kids are the Ferme aux Crocodiles, with crocodiles, giant tortoises and tropical plants; the Jardin des Oiseaux bird park; the extraordinary national monument of Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval, a childhood fantasy castle built by a postman from stones; and the quirky Musée International de la Chaussure or International Shoe Museum at Romans, with everything from mummified Egyptian feet and tiny boots worn by Chinese women with bound feet to musketeers’ boots. Weirder still is the Monde Merveilleux des Lutins, a forest theme-park full of imps, gnomes and other sprites to hunt out. And don’t leave without sampling some traditional nougat in Montélimar.

Eat

Fast-food pizzas and pasta abound in the French Alps, especially in the resorts, but if you take a little care, you can find cosy, moderately priced traditional restaurants serving the best in French mountain food alongside the sort of crispy, gooey delight that gives pizza a good name. Local fondues, whether meat cooked in oil or chunks of bread dunked in molten cheese, are best avoided – much more appetising (and fun for family holidays) is raclette, a half-wheel of cheese placed under a heater, from which you scrape sticky strings on to a collection of cured meats and boiled potatoes. Children also enjoy tartiflette – potatoes and bacon baked with creamy Reblochon cheese – and cheesy potato gratins (dauphinois and Savoyard).

Don’t miss a trip to Lyon during family holidays in the area – it’s France’s gastronomic capital.

When to go to The French Alps (Rhône-Alpes)

The French Alps is generally a snowy paradise from late November to late April, but some resorts open even earlier – the Grand Motte glacier in Tignes generally opens at the end of September and will have skiing into May.

Outside the ski resorts, summer is the best time to come if you want to include lots of outdoor pursuits in your family holidays, especially given that many of the smaller attractions close for the winter months.

How to get to The French Alps (Rhône-Alpes)

There are international airports at Grenoble (Isère) and St-Etienne (Loire), and in winter there are flights from the UK to Chambéry airport (Savoie). At the time of writing there were flights from more than 20 UK airports to the four airports.

As well as Lyon (three termini, including one at the airport), there are TGV stations at St-Etienne, Chambéry, Annecy (Haute-Savoie), Grenoble (Isère), and Valence and Montélimar (Drôme). You can buy combined Eurostar and TGV tickets with Eurostar; for advice and practical info see The Man in Seat 61. In the ski season there are Eurostars from London to Bourg-St-Maurice (Savoie/Paradiski), taking 9/11hrs day or night (no couchettes, just reclining seats), with bus transfers to ski resorts.

If you drive, it’s a 7hr journey by motorway to Lyon from the Channel ferry/Eurotunnel port of Calais.

Cost

Some resorts in the French Alps can be fiendishly expensive, but the huge choice means that much better-value family holidays and breaks are possible. Choose a low-key resort and self-catering accommodation, and travel outside peak periods such as February half-term and you'll save yourself a lot of money. 

By Nick Dalton

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