Located on both sides of the French-Swiss border south of Lake Geneva, Portes du Soleil lists more than 370 miles (600 km) of ski runs. In previous years, I spent several vacations exploring the slopes around Châtel, and this year we decided to explore skiing at the other end of the Portes du Soleil.
Avoriaz, unlike many European ski resorts, was created ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” in the 1960s and 1970s under the guidance of ski champion Jean Vuarnet, a downhill gold medal winner at Squaw Valley, 1960. Don’t expect the picturesque chalets and the old, quaint villages of other alpine ski resorts, as you will see large, modern buildings covered with wood. Despite its contemporary look, the resort blends harmoniously with the schist cliffs that surround it.
The town of Avoriaz is car-free during the ski season. Tourists walk or take sleighs pulled by little, sturdy Jura horses. Animal lovers, don’t worry, the horses only work a few hours per day during the winter, and spend their summer resting in the alpine meadows. Snow covers the streets and skiers and riders can get to the slopes directly from their building. This easy access prevents having to drag heavy and bulky equipment to the slopes. You are already there! After a day on the slopes, just ski or ride back to your own building door.
The number of slopes at Portes du Soleil ensures that skiers will never get bored. Explore a new mountainsides every day. There is a choice of two ski passes. First, the Avoriaz 1800 is limited to the ski town of Avoriaz and its immediate surroundings. The fee of 40 euros for one day with discounts for the more days purchased is a great value. Second, the huge Portes du Soleil ski pass offers access to 600 km of slopes. The cost of 52 euros for one day can be discounted depending on the number of days purchased. If you choose the smaller “Avoriaz 1800” ski pass, be sure to read the signs at the top of “border” lifts to make sure you don’t ski down a slope that isn’t included in your pass.
Skier’s Note: “Double black” slopes in the US are called “Black” in Europe, while US “Black” slopes are “Red” here; Blues and Greens have the same name.
The “Mur Suisse,” or “Pas de Chavanette,” is called “The Wall” and is the most difficult slope in the entire Portes du Soleil area. You will need the Portes du Soleil ski pass to be able to come back to Avoriaz if you choose to plunge the 40 degree slope. At that point you are in France at the top. Somewhere down the mountain, you will cross an invisible border into Switzerland. The slope is about 340 meters long, with moguls from top to bottom. Some moguls are as big as small cars, especially at the beginning. Beware, the top of the slope can be icy. Nevertheless, this is lots of fun for experienced skiers and riders.
Champéry – Les Crosets (Switzerland) offer a very long (about 6 miles or 10 km) and windy slope, Ripaille-Grand Paradis. It is well-groomed and offers changing landscapes and terrains, including breathtaking views of the Dents du Midi soaring above. It will wind you through snowy meadows and a quiet larch forest. Don’t hesitate to practice your “tuck,” otherwise a bit of pushing might be required. Here again, from Avoriaz, the Portes du Soleil ski pass is needed.
Avoriaz itself offers a few “natural slopes,”,a concept first developed by Jake Burton at North Star (California). Avoriaz is snowboard-friendly, so Burton agreed to create a couple of slopes with wooden modules where skiers and riders can have fun and experiment freestyle in a safe environment. The Stash (for advanced riders) is located in the Prolays area, while the Lil’ Stash (great for children and families) is in the Proclou area.
Aprés Ski Activities
The new attraction Fantasticable isn’t for the faint-of-heart: a 3 km-long zipline (divided in two sections) will take you from a mountaintop, laying on your stomach, head first and reaching 50-60 miles per hour. You can get to Fantasticable from the top of the “Chaux fleurie” chairlift (it is located in the Châtel ski area, so you need the Portes du Soleil ski lift to reach it). I’ll be honest: I didn’t try it.
In the town of Avoriaz, children and adults can relax at Aquariaz, an aquatic park that includes several pools with different themes and activities, water slides, climbing walls, massage benches, etc. in a lush tropical environment. Note to boys and men: as in most French swimming pools, no swim shorts are allowed.
Food and Drink Recommendations
Cheese lovers, you’re in luck! Traditional Savoie food mostly consists of variations on local cheeses, and cured meats. Local AOP, Protected Mark of Origin, cheeses include Abondance (originally from the nearby Abondance Valley), Beaufort, Emmental, Raclette, Reblochon, and Tomme.
Every restaurant offers delicious raclettes. Goat cheese raclette is a variation in some restaurants. Other dishes include cheese fondues, tartiflettes and the croziflette, which is a version of the tartiflette. The croziflette is made with Savoie “crozets” pasta instead of the more traditional potatoes. You can also sample the different types of “croûtes” (casseroles), and omelettes. A perfect pairing with this cuisine are the Savoie red and white wines made from a variety of the locally-grown grapes like Chasselas, Roussanne, Mondeuse, and Pinot Noir. In the past few years, cheeseburgers garnished with local cheeses have arrived in the French mountain restaurants, in addition to everywhere else in France. For dessert, try the biscuit savoyard pictured here with blueberry jam and crème anglaise. Of course, even a full day of skiing won’t eliminate all these calories!
The quaint Village of the Goats (“Village des chèvres”) in the Lindarets section of Avoriaz is well worth a stop. In the winter, you can only get there on skis. The picturesque old chalets have been transformed into restaurants and shops. We tried “Les Rhodos” and had a great experience, enjoying our meal on the sunny terrasse. On the Plateau d’Avoriaz, we ate several times at “Le Fangle,” both inside and on the terrasse. The food was delectable and the service very pleasant and efficient. If you want to eat dinner at any restaurant in Avoriaz, do make reservations: restaurants are full every evening. Eating lunch in a mountain restaurant on the slopes is much easier, since there are many places to choose from. Our big group of nine skiers was able to get a table almost immediately, without reservation, at 1:30 pm at “Les Rhodos.”
For a unique ski adventure, the Portes du Soleil offers a variety of activities, vistas, and the possibility to hop from one resort to the next in two different countries.
Where to Stay
The Amara residence is part of the Pierre & Vacances network. This premium residence offers several types and sizes of apartments, all with gorgeous views of the valley below. The residence includes an indoor pool with hammam and sauna, a bar, a restaurant, and a nightclub. It is located on the edge of Avoriaz and guests can park their car into the private garage of the building.
Hotel Le Petit Dru is the 4 star hotel that houses Le Fangle restaurant and offers local charm with several room accommodation choices.