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Fed up with spending ludicrous amounts on liftpasses? So was Colin Nicholson, until he turned his back on famous resorts, in favour of something more recherché.

Photo: iStock_Francois Roux

We Brits pride ourselves on our modesty. Which is great until we get to the conundrum of how to insinuate what amazing skiers we are without saying as much. The solution, for many, seems to be to visit famous resorts, like Val d’Isère or Verbier. Never mind that you side-slipped down the Face de Bellevarde or downloaded in the cable car after one glance at the moguls on Mont Fort—you can still look down, slightly pityingly, at your friends who tell you they visited a less-challenging destination.

Well, I’m done with this charade. This January I went to Manigod, a little resort in the French Alps, not far from Geneva that you’ve probably never heard of. Contrary to what my friends may think, I’d argue this was the more expert choice—one which makes me, if not a better skier, then at least a more sensible one. Admittedly, for this trip, I was travelling with my three-year-old niece and her equally apprehensive mother, so hard-core skiing was never on the cards. But, it made me think about how often we tailor our trips to our aspirations, rather than our actual ability level. I regularly ski with friends who demand to go to the biggest ski areas, only to bail every lunchtime, complaining of aching muscles. Wherever we go, we always leave three quarters of the pistes unexplored.

My friends are far from unusual in this. In fact, according to those in the know, they represent the typical skier. The head of Austria’s giant Ski Amadé area told me recently that the average skier there takes just 11 lifts a day, doing 4,800 to 5,000 vertical metres and spending only four hours on the slopes. That means it would take the average skier a month to cover the whole area—and that’s if they never took the same lift twice. I’ve even had beginners ask me whether they should go to the Trois Vallées. Get a grip, I say! Why would you pay double for lessons if you’re only going to cover a few kilometres?

In Manigod, my sister-in-law’s confidence was boosted by an excellent individual lesson with her instructor Eric at €42 an hour (compared to €85 an hour in Courchevel) which set her on the path to tackling her first blue run. Like many beginners, she achieved this feat with slightly trembling legs, and then assured me that she really didn’t need to explore any further. Doubtless the same would have been true in a massive resort, but she would have paid far more for the pleasure of skiing that one, solitary run. Of course, lack of snow can be a problem in smaller resorts, and we weren’t spared the warm spell that hit the northwestern Alps just after Christmas. But snowmaking is a wonderful thing, especially at lower altitudes, because it only takes 20-30cm of snow to create a piste over a meadow—whereas covering rocky mountainsides requires a whole lot more.

For those of us in our holiday group who were more experienced, Manigod still offered plenty. We could get a €47 day pass for the whole area (compared to €72 in the Trois Vallées) which also covered La Clusaz. Here, we could ski at 2,400 metres, well above the real snow line, then snake down strips of white piste to what the French call the front de neige, or ‘snowfront’. In smaller French villages this is arranged like a seafront, with cafés and restaurants in a semicircle around the end of the pistes. Over a café crème, we could keep an eye on my niece doing circuits in the Club Piou-Piou—a snowy obstacle course for infants—and contentedly watch the world go by. That kind of quiet bliss is much harder to come by in larger, more popular ski destinations.

Apparently I’m not alone in searching for a smaller, more authentically-French resorts these days. In its annual survey last year, the Ski Club of Great Britain found that two of the biggest changes in what skiers were looking for were cheaper holidays, and more traditional resorts. So, by all means go to the giant ski areas, if you’re actually up for doing most of the runs. By all means, explore hard-core resorts, if you’re going to tackle the gnarliest descents. But if not, then please spare us the false modesty of name-dropping Zermatt or Zillertal to insinuate your ability level. You’ll save yourself a lot of money if you just say it straight, look: “Despite my penchant for smaller resorts, I just wanted to let you know that I’m a jolly good skier.” There, I just saved myself £1,000.

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