La Clusaz Review – A French Mountain Resort with a Big Heart
At the centre of the French ski resort of La Clusaz is a mountain community and a village with a heart. While larger, higher altitude resorts efficiently process skiers and send them home with a suntan and a selfie, this Famille Plus resort invites you to stroll its picturesque centre, join in a community event or festival and ice skate or swim with the locals after a day on the slopes. Especially in spring, as villagers celebrates the changing seasons and new life in the valleys. We teamed up with France Montagnes to bring you this La Clusaz review with stories of spring sports and family fun in the French mountains.
Get your skates on
If you want to feel like a local in La Clusaz then you need to head down to the ice rink on a Thursday night. That’s when, in season, this mountain resort in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps hosts its weekly disco. We soon discover all nationalities speak the universal language of Bee Gee and everyone is John Travolta when there is a spotlight, dry ice, disco lights and a DJ on a mission. And as most people are wobbling around on the ice, we don’t feel out of place. Check out the grooves and moves in this video.
Swimming in the snow
It’s slightly different in the open air pool. The Espace Aquatique des Aravis sits up on the mountainside, overlooking the town. I feel bit of a pathetic Brit shivering in the shallows as the locals happily swim up and down, snowflakes falling on their noses and steam rising all around them. It’s the only place in the world I’ve ever seen lifeguards dressed in winter coats with fur collars. That didn’t even happen in Iceland. But still, we are welcomed. Come the summer the snowdeck will be a sundeck but for now I retreat to the sauna and hammam to stay warm.
Not just about the skiing
Skiing in La Clusaz in the spring isn’t just about the skiing. Not unless you want it to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an upmarket village with all the trappings of any French ski resort. There’s no end of bars cooking up a tartiflette made with the famous local Reblochon cheese. Mountain huts sell hot chocolate with chantilly peaks that match the Aravis mountain range yet with added sprinkles. Snowboarders weave in and out of the trees as you make your way in the sunshine down any one of 84 runs in five linked ski areas. There’s action everywhere from parapenters hovering above you to families tackling the kids run before stopping for an impromptu picnic.
But there is more to La Clusaz than all this. Because this is a real village, with history and a sense of place. And a real community where people live and work. It has little in common with the purpose built Alpine resorts where grey concrete buildings draw your eye from the snow. Thanks to strict planning regulations it has retained its traditional Alpine charm and character. It has the only five star hotel of the five local ski resorts but there are few high rise buildings; most houses and hotels are traditional wooden buildings and chalets neatly arranged on the valley floor or scattered around the hillsides. Early in the morning, locals in berets can be found propping up the bars with a coffee, or nodding at the ESF instructors who come in for a hit of caffeine before a day’s guiding.
I meet Stéphanie Pollet for a beer in La Barma, a lively bar near the village centre. Stéphanie is in charge of Tourism and Promotion for all five Lake Annecy ski resorts including La Clusaz and Le Grand Bornand, the two resorts we stay in for our spring break in the Alps. She is a local herself. “I like the mountains here. Its very green. You have the cows everywhere and all the chalets around,” she says. “It’s really lively but small enough for everyone local to know each other. It’s a charming village.”
While la Clusaz is a magnet for French families who like to ski, the summer months are also big here for those who like the outdoors. “La Clusaz is a traditional community but we are also all about the tourism,” Stéphanie smiles. When the snows have melted, people come for walking and cycling. Nearby Col des Aravis is a regular Tour de France cyclist’s challenge. “This year the Tour de France goes through here again. Le Grand Bornand has hosted it four times; once for the arrival stage, once for the departure and once mid-way where the cyclists had a rest.”
A place with a heart
People have been skiing at La Clusaz for 100 years although the first lift, a ‘sleigh lift’ was installed in 1936. “It’s not a factory resort like some in the Alps,” says Stéphanie. “La Clusaz has a heart.” The town with a heart is a phrase I hear echoed by the guides we meet, many of whom have been skiing here since they were children and taught their own kids to glide on the same slopes.
The heartbeat of the village
Au Coeur du Village, the five star hotel by the slopes literally translates as the ‘Heart of La Clusaz’ but it’s the busy square and iconic church, Eglise Sainte Foy, in the centre of the village that gives this place its beat and rhythm. La Clusaz has less than 2000 permanent residents but in peak season numbers can swell to 20,000, making for a lively scene. On the second night of our visit, we try some early evening family apres ski in Bar La Grolle as snow starts to fall outside. The fairy lights running from rooftops around the square illuminate the flakes and it feels like Christmas in a movie.
Community built on water
Next morning, I take coffee in the square and a festival is setting up outside the church. It’s a festival that’s more geared towards locals than tourists although several people invite us to join in. Du Flocon à la Vague is an organisation set up to educate and conserve water. In a village that relies on water for its livelihood, people are more aware than most of its place in the environment and activities. Over the last few weeks, famous champions and Olympic medallists have worked in classrooms with primary school kids teaching them about how to preserve and appreciate water and over the next few days twenty four of them are taking part in sports activities and helping create a buzz and make people think. “The lake and the snow, we need to keep it as we find it when we come here,” says Jean-Guillaume Charrier, the local festival organiser.
Village of champions
The village has an impressive array of former champions, because while I said it isn’t entirely about the skiing, it’s not exactly shy when it comes to showing off on one or two planks. Skiing facilities here are extensive. The Aravis Skipass allows you to ski at five interconnected resorts in the Massif Des Aravis, offering 220km of slopes to explore, including one of the longest runs in the Alps.
There are slopes for all levels from the gentle green and blue runs at Beauregard to more challenging reds and blacks at La Croix Fry, Manigod, L’Etale and Balme. There’s lots for the kids too including a family only mogul studded cartoon run of Opoualand. And if you don’t want to explore the whole region (or your skills aren’t up to it yet) you can save money by buying a lift pass for just one of the areas like Manigod.
Finding our feet
We begin, on our first morning, at Beauregard, a sunshine plateau with lovely, easy blue and green slopes. It’s good to get our ski legs as our parallel turns are either rusty or non existent. We then progress to Le Meridien, a long blue run into the village. By the time we meet instructor Thierry we are happy to tackle more challenging runs. And he takes us on a whirlwind orientation tour of the different ski domains. We improve significantly although we aren’t quite ready for the Massif De Balme, the area sought out by the free riders and free stylers.
The joys of spring skiing
“Listen,” says Thierry on the first day of our trip as we stand at the top of the hill. “Can you hear the silence?”
I can. It’s so quiet you could hear the snow melt if you concentrated hard. Of course it’s not always like this, this is the French Alps after all. But we are skiing at the end of the season, midweek. It’s a lovely time to come. In fact Thierry says the end of March and beginning of April are his favourite part of the whole season.
And we see what he means. There are hardly any lift queues, you can park outside the slopes and it’s easy to get a table in a restaurant. We enjoy a raclette in Le Bistro; an atmospheric little restaurant that I suspect you’d find it hard to get a table in at peak season or half-term. Our raclette is a truly community activity involving an almost indecent amount of cheese.
The weather is warmer too and prices are cheaper, with good end of season deals to be had. “Christmas time it’s really famous and really full but in January it’s quieter.” Stephanie tells me. “We’re often busy at the weekend with people coming from Annecy and Geneva so the best time to come for a good deal is during the week.”
Everything for the family
If you are a total beginner and you go in April then the resort offers ski school and lift pass for free and discounts on equipment rental. The downside of skiing in the spring is that not all activities are available. We had hoped to go ski joering (skiing with horses) but conditions weren’t right, and in winter we could also have enjoyed dog sledding and spending the night in an igloo.
But in spring you do get a huge choice of family accommodation. The interconnected resorts differ a little in their accommodation options. Manigod and Le Grand Bornand are mostly a mix of chalets and apartments. La Clusaz is slightly more upmarket with its five star hotel. We stay at Residences Les Grand Alpes in La Clusaz. It’s a warm and welcoming four star apartment with an atmospheric pool (indoor this time), games room with pool table, BBC on the telly and wifi. We have two bedrooms and a balcony that looks straight down onto the church. What more could a family want apart from a pizza shop downstairs? Oh and guess what? There’s one of those too!
We pretty much get the ski hire shop to ourselves. Intersport has a huge range of skis and boards and you can change them at any time in your rental period. Although Intersport is a walk from our apartment, it is fairly near to the slopes, which of course are in the ‘heart’ of the village. That word again. You really can’t escape it here.
Getting there and around
La Clusaz is very accessible, about an hour’s drive (50km) from Geneva, and 40 minutes (30km) from beautiful Annecy. In winter there are bus transfers available from Geneva airport direct to La Clusaz and local shuttle buses run around the town and between resorts so there is no need to take your own car or rent one. If you do rent a car and want to use it to carry your ski equipment and get around the resorts don’t forget you may need winter tyres, snow chains and ski racks. If arriving at Geneva airport check out the rental prices on both French and Swiss sides of the airport as there can be significant differences in pricing and packages. Swiss rentals typically appear more expensive but may include snow chains, winter tyres, ski racks and a Swiss motorway vignette. The French deals can be cheaper but you may need to budget for all the extras. Do your homework to make sure you get the best deal.
There are lots of ski rental businesses around La Clusaz. We used skis, boots and helmets from Intersport who have a huge range of skis to hire, from the award-winning Rossignol Savory and Soul 7s and Black Crows Freeride skis to the Firefly Rocket twin-tipped park skis, and the Head, Volkl and Salomon piste carvers. They offer skis which are fully gender specific and have a great range for kids too, some featuring cartoon characters. Their rental policy is very flexible and customers are free to swap and change equipment as many times as they like during the hire period, to take advantage of changing snow conditions or to swap between different snow-sports like snowboarding and skiing. Prices vary but average around €8 per day, with further promos and bi-weekly Intersport discount codes being released via facebook.com/intersportskifrance. You can also hire from a shop close to the lifts and leave your skis/boots etc there every day if you find it easier to walk in shoes around the resort.
We stayed in Residences Les Grand Alpes, organised through Ski Independence, ski specialists who offer tailor made holidays and a huge range of apartments throughout the world. All apartments have a living area and cooking facilities which can save you money on eating out and give you flexibility for your family that a hotel can’t. La Clusaz is Famille Plus ski resort; a label only awarded to ski resorts that can demonstrate a wide variety of quality services specifically geared to parents and children.
Lift Passes and Instruction
You can learn to ski together or separately as a family in La Clusaz. Children and beginners can attend ski school at their level or you can book a family lesson with one of the 200 instructors at ESF in the village. Our instructors were very skilled at identifying where we each needed to improve and helping us move on. If you book one on your first day you can also find out tips for the best slopes. Prices vary depending on time of year, time of week and family group so get in touch in advance of your visit to arrange your session and find out what it might cost. This season lift passes cost €33 a day or €175 for six days of skiing. And don’t forget if you are absolute beginners there’s that great April deal offering free lift pass and instruction.
Disclosure Note: We travelled to Lake Annecy Ski Resorts in a collaboration with Atout France, France Montagnes, Ski Independence, Intersport and the Tourist Offices of La Clusaz and Le Grand Bornand. The skiing, swimming, skating, falling over and getting back up again was all our own. As is the story, opinions, photography and videography here.