With the birth of French mega-resort Paradiski, the iconic, modernist architecture of Les Arcs finds itself in the middle of renaissance. Eric Kendall checks in his designer luggage and busts a gut trying to ski 400km in a week.
The French architectural experiment, like the French rock song, isn't universally loved. When back in the late 1960s the French brought brutal modernism to the mountains, eyebrows were raised. There were obvious problems, mainly to do with the potential for the super-new to look super-dated even before anyone's peed in the lift lobby, vomited on the front steps, or scuffed the main landing with the ski boots they should have left in the boot room.
But that's Tignes for you. And we are talking about Les Arcs, which even the most grudging critics have acknowledged is probably the best example of a French purpose-built resort.
The Le Corbusier-inspired building shapes, the village layouts and the materials used were all designed to harmonise with the environment - if you can't cope with them not looking like old cow barns, that's your problem. Another advantage of purpose-built ski resorts is that virtually all of it as near to ski-in, ski-out as makes no difference.
The impact of the villages are titchy compared to, say, the number of converted cow barns you'd otherwise need, not to mention the motorways that get you nine tenths of the way there and the modern lifts which carry you up the final vertical metres. Still, almost four decades on it was undoubteddly time for a sring clean and re-vamp. Time waits for no mountain.
The most obvious sign of progress is the arrival of a much more traditional looking, high-spec Arc 1950 - a whole new resort within a resort - which has appeared within the last few years to add to the villages of Arcs 1600, 1800, and 2000. All this plus neighbouring La Plagne makes up what some marketing genius has christened Paradiski. Thanks to a monster 2km cable car, the Vanoise Express, across a valley, these two big intermediate paradises now make an even larger intermediate nirvana that’s impossible to traverse (and back) in a day, at least for intermediates.
But that ignores the point, which was apparently to make all kinds of connections possible, including improved access to the region’s most challenging descents, on the north face of the Bellecote. And if you’re staying in Les Arcs during a three-day storm and you like tree-skiing, there’s more to be had by whizzing over to La Plagne on the big lift than a forest-dwelling ski bum will score in a lifetime. Then when it clears, there are spectacular routes off the back and well-stocked powder bowls between all those red and blue runs for which La Plagne is rightly famous.
That’s not to say Les Arcs is short of terrain, no sir. Perhaps I should be gushing about the shiny new interiors of the refurbished apartments in Arc 1800 but that, surely, must come after the skiing. Where to start? We don’t need a French car manufacturer to tell us size matters. Everyone knows it, and Les Arcs has got it, including one of France’s longest runs from the top of the Aiguille Rouge down to Le Pré. While this distinction is usually the kiss of death, amounting to a winding path that takes every last meander to squeeze the extra metre into the statistics, this one’s for real, with thrilling steep sections and a vast range of terrain. Much of the rest of the skiing is gentler and more expansive – in sharp contrast to the ‘Flying Kilometre‘ speed track which splits Arc 2000.One false move there and you’re a goner.
The varied skiing sectors – corresponding to the village bases which make up the resort – have big height differentials which define the terrain you ski through, from high, craggy alpine terrain to forest, meaning that growing tired of your surroundings is a pretty remote possibility.
Happily that’s also the case back at base, if the newly renovated apartments in the Residence Le Belmont in Arc 1800 are anything to go by. Though still constrained by the space-saving dimensions of the original design, the transformation is extraordinary. That goes for the public areas of the building too, which are now cool, friendly spaces that match the functional flow of the building, which gets you from apartment to ski locker to piste in just a few steps. The challenge now is to get the rest of the village, with its car-free walkways and spectacular airy setting, into the same 21st Century shape. That’s not just possible but essential, with the reminder – smack in the middle of the domain – of the standard to aim for, up at Arc 1950
Eric Kendall traveled to Les Arcs with Erna Low Holidays (www.ernalow.co.uk).
LES ARCS, PARADISKI, France, www.lesarcs.com, www.paradiski.com
Getting there: Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) runs a direct rail service from St Pancras International, London to Bourg-St-Maurice. Bourg-St-Maurice station is connected by funicular railway to Arc 1600, and other Paradiski resorts are a short bus or taxi ride away. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), easyJet (www.easyjet.com) and bmi (www.flybmi.com) and British Airways (www.ba.com) operate routes from London airports to Lyon and/or Grenoble, three hours away by road.
High-end: Ski Collection www.skicollection.co.uk
Mid-range: Ski France www.skifrance.co.uk
Budget: Total Ski www.totalski.com
Season: early Dec to mid-Apr Vertical drop: 3,225m-1,200m Terrain: 425 km of runs, 158 km cross country, 1 speed skiing run. Snowmaking: 440 canons, 160 hectares Lift passes: £165 for six days Mountain munchies: Paradiski has four excellent on-slope restaurants Snowpark: 4 snowparks, 4 boarder courses, 2 half-pipes
Facilities: The Paradiski area comprises 20 villages offering everything from large hotels with pools and spas to rustic Savoyard gîtes Eating/drinking: Trust us, unless you hate food, you’ll be well catered for
Cheer up love, it might never happen: Garde le moral. Cela n’arrivera peut-être jamais
Highlight: the Vanoise Express Bummer: you can’t do it all in a week