It wasn’t the most propitious start to a family holiday.
It was Easter, we were going skiing and, well, there’s no getting round it; my wife has hated skiing both times I have taken her (and stupidly tried to be her instructor – let’s just say poles flew, quite often, and they were in my direction).
Added to that, our three children (girls aged two, five and 13) had never skied before, and our two-year-old had never been to a nursery by herself. But here we were: a week in an overwhelmingly French alpine resort where English was hardly spoken. The odds were stacked against us, but thankfully our experience of the beautiful French resort of Les Menuires and the family-friendly Belambra Neige et Ciel hotel was wonderful…
Les Menuires is something of a secret. It is part of the Trois Vallees – the largest skiing area in the world with more than 370 miles of ski slopes and 183 ski lifts, which can transport 260,000 skiers per hour. But Les Menuires is probably the least known of the Trois Vallees resorts. Brits (and, let’s face it, probably wealthier Brits) are more likely to have skied in Courchevel or Meribel alongside an increasing number of wealthy Russians. The brave, or fans of late season skiing, may have also scaled up to Val Thorens, the highest resort in the Alps where the snow is always good.
But Les Menuires? The French seem to want to keep this one to themselves, and hope the vast majority of people who stay here do too. If you do join the tiny sprinkling of Brits who come here you’ll find it a tidy resort, modern as so many French alpine stations are, middle-sized, and functional with lots of comfortable accommodation, excellent restaurants and shopping. It is also very child friendly, something also reflected in the approach of the large hotel complex Belambra Neige et Ciel.
Our accommodation was basic, but had its priorities right – a stay here is about fine food, fine wines and it’s not designed for people (such as my ski-hating wife) who have their hearts set on lounging around their room, taking baths or reading a book in the day. No, these are very rudimentary and designed for people who are likely to be outside all day – skiing in the winter or hiking in the summer. Still, the beds are comfortable enough, there is always hot water and while there wasn’t a shaving plug or hairdryer in the room (and just one bar of soap for our family of five), the communal areas made up for it. They were comfortable and spacious, with good soft play areas, pretty decent wi-fi, and stunning views of the mountains.
The priority here is on the important things, so let’s begin with the most important…
For us, childcare was the most important factor. The childcare accommodates even very young children and is something this place gets just right.
Les Poussins is for those aged three to 35 months while Les Renardeaux is for kids aged between three and five. After that, Les Pirates is for six to 10-year-olds and Les Juniors at Ados goes from 11 to 17. We took advantage of Les Renardeaux for our two-year-old Matilda who was too young for ski-school and found it excellent. The carers are all highly trained and while Matilda was only two and was the only non-French speaker in her group (her English is fairly basic too, let’s face it) she didn’t have a problem. In fact every day she kept asking to go to her “nursery” as she called it which is about a good an endorsement as you can get from a child, and a godsend for the piste-hungry parent.
Our other daughter Daisy skied in the mornings in Club PiouPiou, the bespoke ski centre for the absolute beginner. Again, she was the only non-French speaker in her group and enjoyed every minute. She went from beginner to confident skier capable of taking on any greens in one week, thanks in large part to her suave and charming Ecole Ski Francaise (ESF) instructor TJ who waved “’allo Daisy” every morning or whenever he saw her on the piste in the afternoon.
As for the adult skiing in the area, the whole of Trois Vallees is intermediate friendly, mainly red and blue runs with just a few do-able blacks thrown in. Meanwhile, those in the know claim the best powder skiing in the Trois Vallees is to be done in and around Les Menuires.
And what about my ski-hating missus? Well, she amazed herself (and me) with her enthusiasm. The gentle slopes at the bottom helped boost her confidence and there was a brilliantly thought-out tobogganing area where tentative skiers like her could snow-plough down and which our kids loved. It also gave Matilda a taste of the snow as well.
For the more experienced skier I would recommend a Trois Vallees pass which gives access to other resorts – Meribel, Courchevel and Val Thorens.
Courchevel and Meribel are beautiful resorts with wide skiing areas. Any Alpine aficionado knows that. Val Thorens, which at 2,000 plus feet is the highest resort in Europe, is a useful destination early or late in the season when good snow may be at a premium. It can be a bit nippy in December, January and February though.
All in all it’s hard to fault.
What started out as a real leap in the dark, with the odds stacked against us was one of our best family holidays. All the girls loved it and one of my favourite and lasting memories is of Daisy, aged just five and in her pink ski suit and sunglasses, skiing down a beautifully long green on our penultimate day with a smile on her face and not a worry in the world. The beginner of the start of the holiday had become a skier. I also got to go skiing with my wife and not have poles thrown at me. In fact I got to hear her utter words I never thought I’d hear: “Where do you think we should go skiing next year”.
Well I think we know the answer to that one…
Food and drink: The food. Yes the food. You get buffet-style breakfast and dinner included in a half-board package at very affordable prices, and the standards are high. There was plenty of variety at breakfast and the evening meal was done with thought and immaculate craft. In all my time in the country, it strikes me that it must be against the French religion to serve bad food. Themed nights each week mean you will never have the same thing twice if you don’t want it. The Belambra Neige et Ciel has good variety: US nights of burgers and hams and their Chinese night certainly got me salivating (if like me you have never sampled the joy of a decent Chinese in France then you’ll get one here).
Note: You have to time your visits to the restaurant very carefully, especially if you have hungry children in tow. Get there too late and you may experience a lack of seating space and be sitting outside in the bar for 20 minutes waiting for a table. The obvious solution, which many people realise a few days in to their stay, is to get there before the restaurant opens to guarantee a place.
Oh yes, and if you like your booze flowing you will be pleased. There is decent red and rose literally, well, on tap here. Yes. You need a bit of restraint.
Price: A seven night stay at Belambra’s Neige et Ciel club in Les Menuires start at £457 per person, half board.
Radio Times Travel rating: 9/10. Efficient and comfortable and friendly hotel which has something for people of all ages