31 Mar Les 3 Vallées: An essential guide to the world’s largest ski area
Les 3 Vallées ski area isn’t just the largest in the French Alps, it’s the largest in the world. Connecting the world-class resorts of Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens, it’s a paradise for skiers and boarders. Discover some of the best places to explore on and off the piste, and well as my favourite après and viewpoints, in my ski guide to the Three Valleys.
Courchevel. Meribel. Val Thorens. Three iconic ski resorts.
Whilst each is different and hugely desirable in their own way, there’s one thing that unites them and makes them extra-special. The three resorts are part of one huge ski area: Les 3 Vallées. 600km of outstanding piste and extraordinary mountainside, all on one lift pass.
Being able to traverse the world’s largest ski area from your doorstep never fails to make my heart sing. Add into the equation some breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, extensive high-altitude and snow-sure skiing and a pinch of French alpine charm and you might just find yourself falling in love with this remarkable area, like me.
I’ve skied the Three Valleys several times – both as a novice and as a more experienced skier with many more miles of piste under my feet. Most recently I’ve spent a week in La Tania, close to Courchevel, discovering new pistes and places. Whilst I usually love visiting new places, the Three Valleys is one of those exceptions to the rule. It’s a ski area you’ll never tire of, as
In this guide, I’m sharing my experience of this ski area and the three main resorts. Find out which are my favourite pistes, where to find the best après and which peaks offer the best views (Spoiler alert: there are some incredible spots in Les 3 Vallées). Shall we get started?
Planning a trip to the Alps this winter? Check out my essential ski packing list and kit recommendations here.
An introduction to Les 3 Vallées
Les 3 Vallées is located in the Savoie region of France. Better known to some by its English name – the Three Valleys – it has operated as a linked ski area since 1973. As the name suggests, geographically it covers three large alpine valleys and a major resort town calls each one home.
Courchevel, alongside the villages of La Tania and La Praz, can be found towards the north of the ski area in the Saint-Bon valley. With a reputation for decadence, it’s a glitzy town that attracts Europe’s rich and famous. You’ll find glamorous restaurants, clubs and boutiques clustered at the foot of the pistes here, but there’s also exceptional runs to explore and panoramic views of Mont Blanc.
In the middle of Les 3 Vallées, you’ll find Meribel – in the Allues valley. At a slightly lower altitude than most of the accommodation in this ski area, the twin resort towns of Meribel-Mottaret and Meribel-Centre have a traditional charm that’s a little different to their neighbours. The pine-clad architecture and wooded lower slopes, often frosted with snow, give the resort a cosy feel.
The most southerly part of the ski area is the Belleville valley. Here you’ll find two major resort towns – Val Thorens, and it’s little brother, Les Menuires. At 2,300m, Val Thorens has a formidable reputation as one of the most snow-sure resorts in the Alps, and one of the most fun (I’ll share why later).
The Three Valleys lift pass
There’s a few things to note if you’re skiing or boarding in Les 3 Vallées. The whole ski area is covered by one Three Valleys pass. But there are also local passes available separately for Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens. This is worth noting if you’re only heading here for a few days, have little ones skiing with you or you’re new to snowsports. Each of the local passes cover at least 150km of piste, so they’re pretty formidable in their own right.
If you’re not planning to cover the whole ski area, consider investing in local pass to save a pretty penny. But if you’re keen to explore – go right ahead and get the full pass. It’s incredible value for so many kilometers of piste.
Check out full details of Les 3 Vallées lift passes for the 2018/19 season here.
Top tip: Want to save money on your pass? Look for early-bird deals with tour operators that offer buy-one-get-one-free or buy-one-get-one-half-price deals when you book ahead. We were able to book two-for-one deals with Crystal Ski this winter (2018/19) that effectively saved us half the price of a full Three Valleys pass!
Of all the towns in the Three Valleys, Courchevel is probably the one whose reputation preceeds it most. But whilst it’s known as a playground for the well-to-do, there’s plenty here that challenges your expectations.
This valley alone is home to 150km of superb pistes, from the pretty tree-lined lower slopes of La Praz and La Tania to the fast and furious runs that streak down from the Saulire and Chanrossa. Courchevel has more than it’s fair share of high-altitude skiing, with the majority above 2,000m. Dismiss this resort as a destination for luxury-lovers and you’ll miss out on some fantastic skiing.
Much to my surprise, I’ve found there are plenty of ways to enjoy this part of the Three Valleys on a more modest budget. Stay in the lower altitude villages and you can benefit from the best of Courchevel’s ski area at a price comparable to resorts elsewhere in the French Alps. I loved our stay in La Tania in February of this year – and would head back in a flash.
Check out my ski guide to La Tania to find out more about why this small village in the Courchevel valley is a great base for your holiday.
When it comes to wide and cruisy blues, it’s hard to find many better than Creux and Lac Creux that sweep down from the magnificent Col de la Saulire. They might not be the most challenging runs, but the scenery is spectacular and you can cover a surprising distance without intersecting with any other pistes. This is a great spot to get your legs working and cover good ground without getting your piste map out.
Improvers will love the wide, quiet slopes of Chapelets on the very far side of Courchevel 1650. A little off the beaten path, we had the slopes to ourselves when we headed here. It’s an easy red, and without any crowds you can take time to enjoy the spectacular views beyond the ski area.
Courchevel’s best viewpoints
The 3 Vallées is blessed with some excepional panoramas, and Courchevel is home to more than it’s fair share.
I’m especially fond of Col de la Loze that crowns the La Tania ski area. What this peak lacks in altitude, it more that makes up for with views thanks to it’s location at the crossing point between two valleys. Look to the north and you’ll see imposing Mont Blanc with the the peaks of nearby La Plagne and Les Arcs in the foreground. Spin round 180 degrees and you’ll find inviting views of the tree-lined pistes leading into Meribel. Whichever way you turn here, you won’t be disappointed.
If it’s high-altitude thrills you’re after, head to the top of the Col de la Saulire. This is the highest of the Cols between the Courchevel and Meribel valleys and, perhaps not suprisingly, it’s breathtaking on a clear day. Once you’ve had your fill of panoramas, you’ll find an enticing selection of pistes heading in every direction.
Beyond the piste
Staying in Courchevel comes with formidable price tag. Rustic alpine cooking is replaced by refined dining, and chic galleries and boutiques fill the streets of Courchevel 1850 in place of the usual purveyors of cold beers and vin chauds.
But throw any preconceptions aside. One of the best things to do in Courchevel is free. For the past ten years, the resort has supported an initiative called Art on the Slopes. Quite literally, they’ve been taking contemporary pieces of art and placing them on the piste for everyone to enjoy. It’s unique, exciting and a great excuse to get around the mountain – whether you’re on skis, a board or two feet.
This winter (2018/19) the slopes have been scattered with spectacular works from sculpter Richard Orlinski, like this imposing stag we stumbled across at the top of the Biollay.
Courchevel is also home to Aquamotion, the largest spa and leisure complex in the 3 Vallées. With everything from luxurious wellbeing experiences to family-friendly fun pools and flumes, it’s a great option for white-out days and when you want a little post-ski TLC. There’s even an indoor climbing wall if you want to try something a little different.
If charming chalets and a more traditional alpine feel is your cup of tea, Meribel might be for you. The twin villages of Meribel-Motarret and Meribel Centre are tucked away amongst the tree-lined lower slopes of the valley, and offer a peaceful escape between the hustle and bustle of Val Thorens and flashiness of Courchevel.
That said, there’s much more to Meribel than just it’s good looks. It’s an unrivalled location. Right at the heart of the 3 Vallées area, the pistes of Courchevel and Val Thorens are just one lift away. This makes it an exceptional base for keen skiers and boarders who want to take maximum advantage of everything this ski area can offer.
Exploring Meribel’s ski area
Meribel has some of the most diverse pistes in the three valleys. The lower slopes of the valley are criss-crossed with cruisy blues and greens that weave amongst snow-tipped pine trees. Higher up, you’ll find wide, inviting reds and demanding blacks – and ungroomed pistes for those who want a challenge.
The steep valley slopes mean that it’s at its best during the late morning and at noon when the sun reaches down to the villages. Later in the afternoon the lower slopes can become a little shady – but offer great shelter on heavier snow days.
Favourite pistes in Meribel
Mauduit is an inviting red that features enough distance and variety to really get your teeth into. Starting at the top of the Col de la Saulire, you can follow it all the way back into Meribel Centre. On a bluebird February morning last month this wide, rolling piste was drenched in sunshine and almost completely empty. It’s heaven.
If you’re keen to tackle some more difficult pistes, consider trying the Ecureuil. This black run is accessed from the top of the Tougnete 2 lift, and you can helpfully take a good look at the piste as you travel high above it on the lift. Ungroomed, it got rave reviews from my boarding friend Amy who loved having some decent powder to tackle. I loved the uncomplicated route of this more challenging run, giving me more time to enjoy the skiing and spectacular views.
Meribel’s best views
You’ve got to try the Tougnete. You’ll love the views far more than trying to get your tongue around the pronounciation of this peak.
It doesn’t look remarkable on the piste map. But sometimes the most unassuming places are the best. Besides which, if you’re travelling across the 3 Vallées from Courchevel or Meribel to Val Thorens, you’ll likely take the Tougnete 1 and Tougnete 2 lifts up to this Col where the Allues and Belleville valleys intersect. As you hop off at the top, a breathtaking vista opens up in
Off the piste in Meribel
Hop off at the mid-station of the Saulire Express, and head down to the chalet just below. Here you’ll find the most extraordinary lunch-spots in the Alps – and an après venue with a fiercesome reputation.
This is La Folie Douce, a bar and restaurant that’s been setting the standard for outrageous on-piste experiences since 1969. Whilst the owners have opened several further bars in other French resorts, there’s nothing quite like the original. At the far end of the
You might be wondering just what’s so special about this venue. The party starts here before noon and continues – growing in size – until the pistes have closed. Arrive at lunchtime and you’ll already find DJ’s playing on the terrace, live music and cabaret shows taking place. The entertainment grows to a crescendo throughout the afternoon, and it’s quite frankly like nothing else you’ve ever seen. The wealthy and well to-do come to party here, but everyone’s welcome. The drinks might not be cheap, but it’s worth being part of a spectacle you won’t forget.
Set in a bowl-shaped valley, Val Thorens is distinctly different to the other three valleys. High above the tree line, it’s set in a lunar-like landscape that offers some of the best snow-sure skiing in the Alps. The season starts early here and runs until early May.
The towns of Val Thorens, and Les Menuires a little further down the valley, are purpose-built resorts designed with just one thing in mind. Getting you onto the piste as quickly as possible. A huge number of the hotels and apartment complexes here are ski-in, ski-out, and what they lack in alpine charm is more than made up for with convenience.
Val Thorens mostly attracts a younger crowd that Courchevel and Meribel, in part because there are many budget-friendly accommodation options here. Les Menuires is popular with families, as this more compact resort has a village-feel and friendly facilities for smaller skiers.
Val Thorens ski area
I’m hugely fond of Val Thorens. This was the first area I skied in the 3 Vallées, and it was the first the resort that really gave me the confidence to stretch myself on snow. It’s a fantastic place to find your feet in as it’s packed with confidence-boosting wide, cruisy blue runs and plenty of piste for less experienced skiers to get their teeth into. You won’t be stuck on the same nursery slopes here.
But don’t let me lure you into thinking that Val Tho is just for beginners. There’s a huge range of pistes to suit even the most advanced skiiers and boarders, with challenging reds and blacks, moguls and ungroomed pistes to be found. Getting across to Meribel for more ski miles is easy, plus there’s great glacier skiing high up.
Favourite pistes in Val Thorens
Now I’m more than a little fond of some of Val Thoren’s easier pistes. Whilst I love challenging myself on skis, there are some fantastic confidence-boosting runs in this resort that beginners and more experienced skiers can both enjoy.
The sunny, south-facing slopes of Mont de la Chambre are amongst my favourite in the whole ski area. I spent a lot of time on these pistes on my first trip to Val Thorens. The wide, sweeping runs offered plenty of space to perfect my turns and learn to tackle new slopes with confidence. Pluviometre remains my firm favourite – it’s a joy to blast down this blue. Challenging enough to feel like you’ve earner the awe-inspiring views, comfortable enough for everyone in your group to enjoy.
For fun, fast and not at all challenging in a good way, head to the top of the Moraine lift and take the Moraine or Gentianes pistes back into the valley. They’re a great warm up as there’s enough gradient to get your legs moving, but they’re also friendly enough that you can enjoy as a newbie or with little ones.
Finding the best viewpoints in Val Thorens
Viewpoints don’t get much better than the Cime Caron. The second highest peak in the 3 Vallées offers one of the best panoramas in the French Alps. To the north, Meribel and Courchevel stretch out in front of you, with the peaks of Les Arcs and ultimately Mont Blanc beyond. The rest of the Alps opens up to the south, where you can pick out more well-known ski areas receeding into the distance.
For views straight down into Val Thorens, take the Funitel up the Peclet. Whilst you can’t head all the way to the top of this peak (that stands at a staggering 3,561m above the town), it’s worth stopping on the chalet terrace close to the top so you can drink in the views. As with the Cime Caron, the skiing is pretty fabulous down from the top here – meandering reds slice back into the valley. But there’s also a gentler blue option (new for winter 2018/19, and I’m yet to try it), so everyone can enjoy an adventure up here.
Off the piste – unrivalled apres in Val Thorens
You can’t come to Val Thoren’s without experiencing the Folie Douce here at least once. There’s nowhere else quite like it.
Yes, there’s also a Folie Douce in Meribel. And it’s great. I’m not repeating myself. But the Folie Douce in Val Thorens is an entirely different beast.
Think of it as the cooler, wilder, younger brother – where the party starts early and spills onto the piste. Arrive mid-afternoon at the top of the Plein Sud lift and you’ll find après in full swing, not just on the terrace of the chalet (where you’ll find the DJ and live artists) but on the slopes all around. It starts out mellow, then as the sun starts to sink the DJs crank out the club tunes. Eventually it’s time for the singalong party classics (yes, you’ll be in the mood for it by this time!) that have the crowd going until it’s time to call it a day. The entertainment draws to a close as the lifts do, so you’ll have to ski back down into VT – which is all part of the experience (expect comedic carnage).
Whether you want to grab a few beers and party, or simply people-watch at one of the more unusual après experiences you’ll find in the Alps, I can’t recommend it enough.
Don’t be fooled into thinking Val Thorens is a just a one trick party town though, as it has much more to offer. Aside from a
Back to the Three Valleys
So that’s it, everything you need to know about Les 3 Vallées.
Whether you’re considering heading here for the first time, or are another huge fan like myself, I hope I’ve offered some fresh ideas. And if you’ve more of your own, let me know in the comments. I’ve no doubt I’ll back.