Review submitted by SkiTalk member @Cheizz
It is the biggest connected ski area in the world. In fact, it is just about all that the Alps have to offer in terms of skiing, in one ski area! Les Trois Vallées in France has it all: great cruising, dining and (rich) people-watching in Courchevel, great (family) skiing above and below the treeline in Méribel, and easy off-piste, couloirs, and rougher terrain in Val Thorens.
The ski area
Six hundred km of groomed runs, 105 square kilometres of skiable terrain (roughly ten times the acreage of Snowbird, Utah), 163 ski lifts - Les Trois Vallées truly is the biggest of them all. In fact, there are four valleys. In the south is Orelle (in the Maurienne valley), the top of which connects to Vallée de Belville (with the towns of Saint-Martin-de-Belville, Les Menuires and Val Thorens, the highest village in the Alps at 2,300 m above sea level).
Next (and connected) to that is the Méribel valley (Brides-Les-Bains, Les Allues, Méribel Village, Méribel Centre, and Méribel Mottaret), and on the other end is Courchevel (with the villages of La Tania, Courchevel-Le Praz, Courchevel Village, Courchevel-Moriond, and Courchevel 1850). From the lowest run (1,100 m above sea level) to the top of Les Trois Vallées (top of Le Bouchet chairlift on the Orelle side at 3,230 m above sea level), you will find every possible type of run, groomed or ungroomed.
Vallée de Belleville
This valley (including Orelle) holds half of the groomed runs in the entire ski area, 300 km in total. And some 90% of it is above treeline. This means the entire valley is open terrain, hardly ever steeper than 30 degrees. This is one big unofficial freeride zone. It is off-piste, officially, once you leave the marked runs. But almost every little bit of it can be scoped from the lifts and is easily accessible. That is all marvellous, but it also means it’s quickly skied out since everyone can see it and ski it.
The biggest hazard in this valley is white-out conditions. On snowy days, visibility can and will be very bad. Since it’s so open, winds can rage quite strongly, not only making it unpleasant to be outside but causing lift closures as well. On such days, hop over the top to the Méribel side and leave the fresh snow to fall and to ski on the next (blue bird) day.
Be aware that both Val Thorens and Les Menuires were purpose-built in the 60s and lack the traditional alpine charm. They are convenient for skiing, though. In terms of nightlife, Val Thorens has more to offer than Les Menuires, which is a family and budget option. Saint-Martin-de-Belleville is an authentic French village. It only has one run in and one lift out. That makes it cheap and not perfect for skiing the entire Three Valleys area.
Vallée de Méribel
The Méribel valley is the most central of the ‘three’ valleys. Therefore, it’s a great place to stay, either at Méribel Centre, with the charming vibe, some great facilities (swimming pool and spa), and more kid-friendly options, or go a bit higher to Méribel Mottaret, which directly connects to the Val Thorens bowl at the other side, the great terrain of Mont Vallon, and the couloirs of the Sauliere top. Mottaret is the more sporty, spartan resort: purpose-built, not much to it in terms of nightlife, functional.
In contrast to Vallée de Belleville, about half of the runs and terrain in this valley sits below treeline. Much less exposed to wind and whiteouts, and more sheltered, I suppose that’s what makes this place a bit more charming and kid-friendly too. The expert runs and terrain are all above treeline; all the easier, cruisier stuff is below. So these two groups of skiers don’t get in each other’s way but can easily meet up in one of the towns or at any of the authentic lunch restaurants that are dotted all over the valley - all of the three valleys, actually.
Vallée de Courchevel
The final valley is the richest and most expensive. The standard of living seems higher here. The type of skiing reflects this too: fur coat cruising grounds in the middle, surrounded by some very steep and thrilling couloirs and runs where rich Russians let their Lacroix and Stöckli skis rip (since more expensive equals ‘better’, of course).
All joking aside, the Courchevel valley is great, but it does attract a certain type of skier. Also, it’s quite a long commute to the Belleville Valley. So if you choose to stay in Courchevel, you most likely will be skiing 90% of the time in only half the terrain and runs of the Three Valleys. It’s beautiful skiing, but if you go to this ski area for the full range of skiing options, it’s not the most central place to stay. Méribel (Centre or Mottaret) would be the perfect place to stay in that sense.
One of the great things about this ski area is its accessibility. The town of Moûtiers just at the base of the Belleville Valley has a TGV station with direct service from Paris and Lyon (TGV = ‘Train de Grande Vitesse’ - high-speed intercity service). From here, bus services run hourly to all towns in Les Trois Vallées.
If you come by car, be aware that on the classic ‘transfer’ days (Saturdays), there can be some traffic jams. Just west of Moûtiers, there’s a traffic light regulating the amount of traffic into the mountains. This light starts working at 9 am and can be a real bottleneck. The roads themselves are well maintained and easy to drive: only a few hairpin turns along the way. If it snows, the local police - ‘Gendarmerie’ - may stop you and order you to put snow chains on your car. There are spaces alongside the road to do this safely. And if you need help - or rather, if they think it takes too long and you are holding up traffic - they may even assist you.
More information: www.les3vallees.com