Avoriaz is a car-free, purpose-built resort and a gateway to the vast Portes du Soleil ski area. The big draw, though, is the snowboarding – especially at The Stash, a forest snowpark for "shredders"
Avoriaz is a unique little ski village perched high on the mountain above its neighbour and older cousin, Morzine, in the Haute-Savoie Alps of eastern France. Accessible only by cable car or a 14km drive from the valley below, it is without doubt the best point of entry to the vast Portes du Soleil ski circuit. Encompassing 14 resorts between Mont Blanc (in France) and Lake Geneva (in Switzerland), the Portes du Soleil region offers 650km of linked terrain and ski runs for all abilities. Avoriaz is often declared the European capital of snowboarding. It was the first major resort to design and build a free-style snowpark in 1993, and continues to offer unsurpassed facilities for "shredders", including "The Stash" – Jake Burton's giant, eco-friendly park, set in the snow of the un-pisted Lindarêts forest.
No cars are allowed, so only horse-drawn sleighs, skidoos and skiers can be seen on the streets of the 1960s-vintage dark wood village. Its architecture is unique, departing from the Savoyard style of chalets and cabins in a manner described as "integrated" – blending into the mountains and cliff edges, and featuring angular apartments set at differing levels. It's a dramatic sight, and controversial in some quarters –but nowhere near as reviled as the other (heavily-criticised) purpose-built French resorts thrown up in a frenzy of concrete at about the same time. Because there are no cars, new arrivals can hire a baggage sleigh for about €1, or a horse-drawn sleigh for €5. Wherever you stay, it is ski-in/ski-out and buildings are connected by internal lifts. Once you are settled in, you are never further than five minutes from the main lifts.
Avoriaz links directly to neighbouring Morzine, plus the French resorts of Chatel, Les Gets, Abondance, La Chapelle d'Abondance and St Jean d'Aulps. The ski area immediately surrounding the resort was designed by Olympic gold medallist Jean Vuarnet, who, in the mid-1960s, was looking at ways of expanding the skiing terrain around Morzine. His plan initially opened up a new ski playground on the north side of the Hauts Fort mountain and the Fornet bowl; lift connections were then added to the east and south, in the end creating a vast linked ski area covering parts of both France and Switzerland.
Facing the village are the Arare-Hauts Forts slopes, offering long, steep runs down to Les Prodains. To the left, lifts take you to the Chavenette sector with the "Swiss Wall", just over the border at Champéry. At the bottom of the Wall is the open space of Planchaux, above Champéry. (If you don't want to ski down, lots of people take the lifts.) From Planchaux, there are further links to Les Crosets and Champoussin in Switzerland. The ridge behind the village is tree-lined with lots of nice runs around the Lindarêts-Brocheaux valley.
Avoriaz is a brilliant beginners' resort. After negotiating the nursery slopes on the wide and sunny Avoriaz plateau, conveniently close to the village, there are plenty of easy blues to progress to on Super Morzine. There is no lack of easy progressive runs, either, at Arare or the Lindarêts valley – and snow conditions are generally excellent due to the high altitude. Of the ski schools, ESF (0450 74 05 65) offers two-and-a-half-hour lessons over six days for €149.
Intermediate skiers are spoilt for choice, since Avoriaz provides the most central access to the enormous interlinked Portes Du Soleil system. There are more than 250km of pistes in the Avoriaz sector alone, before even contemplating the other valleys and resorts with their 650km of pistes. To do this requires an extended lift pass, and I highly recommend the daily "ski safaris" that take in the limitless runs of the wider area.
For intermediates who want to stay close to home, there is much to enjoy around the resort. There are quiet and relaxed blue runs and rapid reds, plus long scenic tree-lined runs around Linderets (which also has a clutch of great restaurants for lunch breaks) and relaxed cruises to Champoussin via Les Crosets and Pointe de l'Au.
For more advanced intermediates, there are challenging runs down to Pre-la-Joux and L'Essert on the way to Chatel, and around Morgins, with long runs down to Grand Paradis near Champéry. The black Coupe de Monde – the World Cup downhill run to the little hamlet of Les Prodains – is a good challenge. Les Prodains has some of the (very few) half-board hotels that are convenient for Avoriaz (see The Hotels below).
La Chavenette – aka the Swiss Wall. Some experts will come to Avoriaz (or Champéry) just for the challenge of this super steep slope, which gets the butterflies fluttering in the stomachs of even the most confident of advanced skiers. It is rightly ranked as one of the world's most daunting descents. If the run is covered in soft fresh powder, the fear factor will be somewhat diluted – but when heavily mogulled and icy, as it often is later in the day, the Swiss Wall must be treated with the utmost respect; just halting yourself after a tumble is a nightmare.
Besides the Swiss Wall, there are other very challenging runs from Haut Forts to Prodains (including the Coupe du Monde, see Intermediates above). The black runs at Mossettes and Pointe de l'Au on the Swiss side are also worth checking out.
Avoriaz is regarded as one of the top destinations anywhere for "shredders". Of its three parks, Chapelle in the village (accessed via Le Tour chair lift) is really great for novices; the Bleue du Lac in the Arare area is aimed at experts; and at the foot of the main slopes (accessed via Le Surf chair lift) is the Olympic-standard super-pipe. The Bleue du Lac has tabletops, spines and hips, and a variety of rails; the Chapelle has boarder-cross features and an air jump.
New in the 2008 season was The Stash, the awesome park designed by Jake Burton. Accessed via the Prolays chair lift, the course meanders in and out of the trees of the Lindarêts forest on un-pisted terrain and is ideal for practising sweeping turns and interspersed with eco-friendly wooden obstacles which are cunningly concealed. This means you have to snowboard through the various secret routed passages numerous times before you discover them all. This is a super new fun playground, and a major draw. (Download the map at www.tumbl.it/thestashmap)
Competitions are organised for 7pm every Wednesday, at the air jump. O'Neil also runs pro snowboard events there. A separate pass is available for those wanting to use only the snowparks and the super-pipe, which is accessed by its own dedicated lift.
AVORIAZ AT A GLANCE
Number of lifts 47
Cable cars Three
Chair and drag lifts 44
Lift capacity 62,825 per hour
Mountain restaurants Eight
Resort altitude 1,800m
(greens three, blues 24, reds 17, blacks five)
Beginner pistes 19 per cent
Intermediate pistes 68 per cent
Expert pistes 13 per cent
Pros and cons
Great for access to the Portes du Soleil ski circuit
Accommodation on the slopes
Excellent place for children
Gets crowded at weekends and during high season
Few hotels, mainly small apartments
Not much to do off the slopes
If dialling from the UK, prefix the numbers below with 00 33 and omit the first zero.
Avoriaz, like the other resorts in the Portes du Soleil area (see my guides on Les Gets and Morzine for more dining options), has a great reputation for its mountain restaurants. Because the village itself is ski-to-door, all the village restaurants are also viable lunchtime options, widening the scope even more. For the best choice of restaurants, head for Les Lindarêts, a small hamlet where there are several good rustic restaurants at which to make a piste stop.
Best in Les Lindarêts
La Crémallière (0450 74 11 68) This lovely atmospheric restaurant is my number-one choice, highly recommended for its truly excellent traditional French food and friendly service.
L'Abricotine (04 50 74 17 43) Sit down here for authentic and tasty Savoyard dishes, fabulous views and a sunny terrace.
Les Crêtes de Zorre (0450 79 24 73) Over on Super Morzine, this inexpensive restaurant serves delicious traditional Savoyard food.
Changabang (0450 74 06 39) This is a great place for tasty burgers – and the prices are good too.
La Tanière (0450 74 13 10) Typical French brasserie with good service and food.
Chez Coquoz (024 479 12 55) Located at Planachaux, over in Switzerland, this place has a cosy atmosphere, an open log fire and great food. (Remember to prefix the number with +41 and omit the first zero, if dialling from the UK or France.)
Best in and around Avoriaz
Hôtel Les Dromonts (0450 74 08 11) The hotel's La Table du Marché restaurant offers the best dining experience in Avoriaz. Christophe Leroy is the renowned celebrity chef, serving up exquisite and creative haute-cuisine dishes.
Chez Flo (0450 741 994) Just off the piste heading down from the top of Les Prodains lift, this place is highly recommended for everything from fine food in the restaurant to "haute" hot dogs on the terrace. Book ahead.
Les Treppeurs (0450 74 17 33) At the top of the gondola from Les Prodains, this friendly café has a nice outdoor terrace and serves regional food.
Le Crepy (0450 74 12 80) For something a bit different, try the Tunisian delights of Le Crepy which also has live jazz.
La Falaise (0450 74 10 48) This is the best place to go for a pizza.
Le Chalet D’Avoriaz (0450 74 01 30) Specialises in really appetising slow-cooked meats and sauces known as pierrades.
Les Fontaines Blanches (0450 74 12 73) This great all-round restaurant serves fab fish dishes and fantastic burgers.
Avoriaz has a good range of places to spend your evenings, whether your taste is dancing and live music or quieter, more relaxed bars. All are easy to find in the village centre; just ask.
Globe Trotters Café (0450 74 20 88) One of the best places to go straight after skiing, this is usually packed in the early evening.
The After-ride Bar (no telephone) This small bar usually gets busy with boarders spinning tales of half-pipe pitfalls and comparing bruises.
Le Tavaillon (0450 74 14 18) This is where the Brits go for good pub grub and a pint of Guinness.
Yeti (0450 74 12 78) A lively place early in the evening (it usually gets busy at 4pm), Yeti is right on the slopes and a good place to go straight after skiing.
Le Fantastique (0450 74 09 15) A good venue for a cocktail or two in a relaxed atmosphere.
Best late-night bar
Shooters (0450 74 07 22) next to the Globe Trotters Café. With its low lighting and live music, this venue attracts a cosmopolitan crowd drinking cocktails until late. It has popular theme nights on a weekly basis.
Le Choucas (0450 74 06 79) The biggest and most popular club in Avoriaz, Le Choucas is frequented by locals and visitors. It has good live bands and DJs – but the same band and the same songs next time you go!
Festival (0450 74 13 13) DJs provide the music, lively club busy on weekends with locals and tourists. Usually quiet during the week.
Opéra (0450 79 16 65) Located near the Pleney cable car, this is one of two clubs in Morzine rather than Azoriaz. It attracts a lot of young locals, as well as British tourists.
In Avoriaz, the accommodation is mainly self-catering apartments. The only notable hotel (and restaurant) in Avoriaz is the Hôtel Les Dromonts (see below). I have included a couple of really nice traditional-style hotels just down the road from Avoriaz, at Les Prodains – easily accessible via the cable car.
Best in Avoriaz
Hotel Les Dromonts 3* Located in place des Dromonts, in the centre, this building paved the way for the design of the whole resort in the 1960s. Owned by renowned chef and hotelier Christophe Leroy, it is a smart, quirky boutique hotel with a really superb restaurant and a stylish bar. It also has a spa and children's playroom.
Club Med Avoriaz 3* As with all accommodation in Avoriaz, this six-storey hotel is ski-to-door and close to the main lifts. It does all-inclusive packages, and the restaurant and the service are decent.
Best in Les Prodains
Hôtel Neige-Roc 3* at 2953 route des Ardoisières. This charming, chalet-style hotel was originally a farm, built in 1905. Located between Morzine and Avoriaz at an altitude of 1,270m, it is at the foot of the World Cup downhill ski slope and offers easy access to the Les Prodains cable car. Selling points include wonderful rooms and an indoor pool. The Neige-Roc is a good choice for both Morzine and Avoriaz.
Hotel Les Lans 3* at 2394 route des Ardoisières. Another lovely chalet-style hotel in the small hamlet of Les Prodains, this one has a cosy pine interior and good food. Thompson, Crystal and Iglu all feature it.
Book your stay through the various agencies listed below. Expect quite small, minimal apartments without maid service.
Immobilière des Hauts-Forts (0450 74 16 08, www.avoriaz-holidays.com) offers studios for four or five people, and chalets for eight to 14 people
Pierre & Vacances (0450 74 35 35, www.tumbl.it/avoriazpierrevacances) Several properties are available in the resort, including Les Balcons du Soleil, La Falaise and the four-star Epicéa. All three feature in the brochures of major UK ski operators (see list below).
Immobilière des Dromonts (0450 74 00 03, www.avoriaz-immobilier.com) has studios for four or five people, plus chalets.
British ski companies that go to Avoriaz include: Alpine Answers, Crystal Ski, Direct-ski, First Choice Ski, Interactive Resorts, Mountain Tracks, Neilsons, Rude Chalets, Ski Activity, Ski Collection, Ski France4less, Ski Independence, Ski Leisure Direction, Ski McNeil, Thomson Ski and White Roc.
NB There are many hotels for all purposes and budgets in nearby Morzine, with good access to the Avoriaz slopes and the Portes du Soleil ski circuit.
The nearest airport is Geneva (80km from the resort, or a one-hour car journey).
Eurostar, departing from Waterloo, connects to both the French and Swiss rail services to Thonon-les-Bains, Cluses and Geneva. There are also direct overnight Eurostar services to Bourge St Maurice and Aime La Plange on Fridays and Saturdays.
Take the Geneva/Mont Blanc autoroute (A40), follow signs for Chamonix and take exit 18 to Les Gets/Morzine/Avoriaz. Remember that Avoriaz is car-free, so you must leave your car in a designated car park.
For private taxis, try Hubert Buttet (0450 79 64 54); Momo Cheralet (0450 79 03 40); Richard Gourvil (0450 75 97 12); Laurys France Taxi (0450 79 06 10); and Sarl Evason (0450 26 29 29). For private mini-bus transfers, see www.skitransfers.com.
Tourist office (0450 74 02 11, www.avoriaz.com). Open 8.30am-7pm daily.