From piste to pub to pillow: an insider ski holiday guide to Serre Chevalier – The Telegraph
France’s friendly intermediate playground
Serre Chevalier is unlike any other French ski resort. It is based on a string of old villages strung out along a valley floor, with a sizeable ski area of mainly wooded and north-facing slopes rising above the southern side of the road. The rustic old villages have narrow cobbled streets and the main ones are lined with small shops, bars and restaurants. The whole area has a rural and unpretentious feel.
Each of the main villages has modern extensions built from the 1960s onwards, which contrast sharply in style with the ancient parts. One of the ‘villages’ is really a town – Briançon. It combines modern buildings in the valley with an ancient walled city high above that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Inside the resort . . .
If approaching from the nearest airport – Turin – Briançon (set at 1,200m) is the first resort base along the valley, with a big gondola up into the eastern end of the ski area. Then come Chantemerle (at 1,35om) and Villeneuve (1,400m) with gondolas, fast chairlifts and a cable car into the central section of the ski area. Finally there is Le Monêtier-les-Bains (1,495m) with a fast chairlift into the western end of the ski area. Of these, Le Monêtier is the smallest, quietest and most unspoilt.
Après-ski is relatively quiet, but each of the main villages has a few bars to explore. Another attraction is the wide variety of extra-curricular activities available.
Among the usual activities like dog sledding and tobogganing, there’s fat-tyre bike riding, mountain karting (driving downhill in a specially designed go-kart), and ice driving or go-karting on the circuit used for the Trophée Andros ice racing championships every January.
Les Grand Bains des Monêtier is a huge complex of naturally heated indoor and outdoor pools, plus hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms. There’s also an adults only area and a long menu of treatments, plus a restaurant with views over glacier and mountains. For a different take on après there’s plenty of choice, including the Blue Bird cocktail bar opened in Monêtier, with its own Cuban cigar cellar.
The ancient walled city of Briançon is well worth a visit if not staying there, and guided tours are available, there’s also a multi-screen cinema.
The resort’s ski area spreads from Briançon to Le Monêtier (around 15km by road), and travelling from one end to the other is possible without going down to the valley villages.
It’s split up into four distinct sectors and makes a delightful playground for intermediates of all standards, giving a real feeling of travelling around. The resort used to claim 250km of pistes but now says 410 hectares of pistes instead, including the uphill areas used for lifts. Whichever, it is a big ski area with more than enough terrain for a week’s holiday.
On the slopes . . .
Navigate Serre Chevalier’s ski area with our insider’s knowledge of the local slopes and beyond, on and off piste, ski schools and terrain parks.
Serre Chevalier’s extensive ski area runs right along the valley above the four main villages of Briançon, Chantemerle, Villeneuve and Le Monêtier. It is interestingly varied, and big enough to give a real sense of travelling around between the different sectors.
Snow reliability is good. Most of the runs are north or north-east facing and 80 per cent of them are above 2,000m, so the snow stays in good condition. A third of the pistes are also equipped with snowmaking.
Another real plus point for the area is that, unusually for a big French resort, almost two-thirds of the pistes are tree lined. This makes it a great place to be when it’s snowing since there will be powder and good visibility in the trees in a blizzard, when it would be white-out conditions in tree-less resorts.
While there are still some slow old drags and chairlifts on the upper mountain, these are steadily being replaced by fast chairlifts. Last winter a high-speed chairlifts replaced the older Eychauda and Cibouita lifts high above the resort. The Eychauda lift helps speed up the journey towards Villeneuve.
All the main villages have good beginner areas and easy runs to progress to, but it is intermediates who will love the area most. They can buzz around all over the area on the blue and red runs – reds outnumber blues but many are at the easy end of the scale. There are some lovely long runs too – such as Cucumelle above Villeneuve and the run from the top of the Prorel gondola back down to Briançon. This has stunning views of the town on the way down.
Both experts and adventurous intermediates will love two classic black runs down to the valley when they are groomed – which is most of the time. The Luc Alphand piste (named after the local downhill World Cup hero of the 1990s) descends to Chantemerle, and the Casse de Boeuf to Villeneuve.
The Tabuc black down to Le Monêtier is a lovely and usually delightfully uncrowded run away from all the lifts. Although an enjoyable cruise most of the way, it has a couple of seriously steep pitches that are often heavily mogulled. Several of the other black runs in the ski area are left ungroomed and marked as ‘Brut de Neige’. Avalanche protected and controlled, the ski patrol can give more detail about them.
Experts can also enjoy excellent off-piste terrain with a mountain guide, both in the top bowls and lower down in the trees.
The Snowpark terrain park is impressive, with four separate zones suiting abilities from beginner to expert freerider. There’s also the MélèZone area in the forest at Chantemerle, with fun freestyle features, a boardercross course with big banked turns above Chantemerle, and a more family-friendly version – the FunnyCross – above Briançon.
As well as the ESF, there are lots of other schools to choose from and most have very good reputations. One of the best is British-run New Generation, headed up by BASI-qualified Gavin Crosby, who has been teaching and guiding here since 2001.
Who should go?
Intermediates will love Serre Chevalier the most - red runs outnumber blues here but many are at the easy end of the scale. Experts can also enjoy excellent off-piste terrain with a mountain guide and beginners will find good areas to learn in. The resort is one of the easiest in the Alps to reach by train and while après-ski is relatively quiet there is plenty to do off the slopes.
Know before you go . . .
Ambulance (samu): dial 15
Police: dial 17
Fire (pompiers): dial 18
Emergency services from mobile phone: dial 112
Tourist office: See serre-chevalier.com, the website for Serre Chevalier Tourist Board, for weather reports, lift status, webcams, traffic details and local event listings. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from the offices. There are tourist information centres in the major villages with the main office at the Centre Commercial Pré-Long.
Telephone code: from abroad, dial 00 33, then leave off the zero at the start of the 10-figure number.
Time difference: +1 hour
Local laws & etiquette
- When greeting people, formal titles (Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle) are used much more in French than in English.
- The laws of vouvoiement (which version of “you” to use) take years to master. If in doubt – except when talking to children or animals – always use the formal vous form (second person plural) rather than the more casual tu.
- When driving, it’s compulsory to keep fluorescent bibs and a hazard triangle in the car in case of breakdown.