Adventure Action France Skiing

Biggest Family Skiing on the Planet: Méribel & The 3 Valleys

Contemplating hundreds of miles of pistes in The Three Valleys
Written by Kirstie Pelling

We heard France’s Three Valleys was the largest ski area in the world, but had no idea what that really meant until we tested it out for ourselves. Around 600 km of runs became our playground for a week as we explored a handful of interlinked ski resorts and gloriously wide, snow covered mountains. But we loved the Three Valleys for other reasons too; the play parks, the super fast ski lifts and the winter sports activities. And the selfies – oh the selfies! A word of warning though; watch the time if you don’t want to get stuck on the mountain; getting home in one of the biggest and best family ski resorts on the planet can take a while. Check out how we got on staying in Méribel Mottaret and skiing the 3 Valleys in this partly sponsored post… 

Sculptures on the piste in The Three Valleys

Sculptures on the piste in The Three Valleys

Three Valleys, six amazing selfie spots

Do I look good on this mountain? How about on this chairlift? Over the last year or two the largest ski area on the planet has continued to invest in its lifts, reshape its runs and provide flexible lift passes. These all contribute to making it one of the best family ski resorts we’ve visited. But in my opinion it is unbeatable for one thing; snowy selfies. There’s an avalanche of choice, from high peak spots, to play park opportunities, to cozy bar pictures. You don’t even have to bother taking the shot yourself. At six different locations you can position yourself against the whitest of views and scan your phone to trigger a camera 200 metres away, which will send your best self into your in box. Check out the locations of these XXL selfie spots before you go. And remember to do your hair!

Other photo opps in one of the best family ski resorts in the world

If you have excellent ski or snowboard skills you can strap on your head cam and do the fear inducing Go Pro Couloir with a summit altitude of 2700m, a vertical drop of 455m and an average steepness of 33 degrees. Want a yeti or other furry creature in your picture? Say hello to yourself next to the big red monster, the bright blue gorilla and the giant red deer that make up the Orlinski sculptures on the Courchevel slopes. (Head for the top of Biollay chairlift.) There are also plenty of selfie love seats scattered around. Find one in the photogenic Inuit village, where you can also have the occasional pic with husky dogs. The new Legends chairlift with distinctive blue visors and insulated seats will take a selfie of the whole family towards the top of the lift and send to your inbox on request. Don’t forget to smile as you raise the bar.

Blue Gorilla on the way to Courchevel in The Three Valleys

Blue Gorilla on the way to Courchevel in The Three Valleys

Raising the bar for family skiing

Raising the bar for family skiing is something the 3 valleys has been working on since 1938 when it first dipped its toe into ski tourism. The ski region in the Tarentaise Valley is comprised of a series of world class resorts including Courchevel, La Tania, Val Torens, Les Menuires and Meribel. Set in the middle of the Three Valleys, the Méribel valley alone is split into four areas: Méribel, Méribel Village, Les Allues and Méribel-Mottaret, where we stayed. Are you keeping up? It’s a lot to take in. The Meribel ski area has 150 km of pistes, around 45 ski lifts and eight lifts free of charge for total beginners. You can buy the local Meribel Valley pass that covers the local area, but part of the fun is hopping around the wider valleys and discovering new things. Everywhere you look there seems to be a play park, a snowboard play zone, a magic carpet, beginner zone, slalom or mogul field. It really is one of the most extensive family ski resorts in the world.

Why ski with a family in the 3 valleys? Big is better…

The answer to the above question is simple. Size matters, especially if you have teens who want to see and do a lot. Anyone with a 3 Valleys ski pass has access to the aforementioned 600 km of pistes. We ski for a week, barely touching the advanced slopes and only one black run (Suisse – icy for most of the day but a good challenge for overconfident teens,) as half of our party are intermediate skiers. We zig zag above Courchevel, splitting up to tackle the easy blue of Aroindes and the higher run of Pyramides before heading into the 1650 and 1850 resorts for lunch on two consecutive days. We ski to Les Menuires, stopping for snacks and snowman making at 11am as the sun climbs high into the sky. Check the Three Valleys ski map for an idea of how extensive the skiing is. (If the snow stays away there are over 2000 snow canons to make it, which 70 groomers bash down every night.) Sadly we never get round to the beauty of skiing Mont Vallon -we hear the Combe de Vallon red run is snowy, sunny, well groomed and offers a view of the Méribel Valley as far as Les Allues. And the slopes of La Tania are still a mystery to us. We will have to return for those.

Fun in the snow in Meribel

Fun in the snow in Meribel

Family friendly pistes

We especially enjoy taking fast chair lifts and gondolas to the highest ski resort in Europe, Val Thorens, which sits at 2300m  at the head of the Belleville valley. We blast around its reassuringly white hills. While others pick their way down the mogul fields of Cime de Caron and La Masse we instead choose relaxing runs of Dalles, 2 Combes and the more challenging Ardoises red run. We love the Jerusalem run that runs from Meribel down to St Martin De Belleville; it is quiet and we get it to ourselves, maybe because there’s a lack of snow compared to the other resorts as we are visiting so early in the season.

Family snow parks

While the part of the fun of skiing the three valleys is the huge open slopes, there are some pretty, narrower runs like the nature trail that looks down from afar on the snowflaked Lake Tueda. There’s lots of easy skiing available when you are warming up or down for the red runs; in fact 49% of the Three Valleys is made up of blue and green runs. We particularly enjoy the green Truite run down from Méribel-Mottaret to the Chaudanne lift in the mornings and make a bee line each day for the fun Inuits Village complete with ski in and ski out whale and trees lined with dream catchers. This fun snow park is best suited to young children who can do lots of activities with the Inuit leaders and play on the playground facilities. Little ones will also enjoy the Western Ski Park with cowboys and Indians theme and magic carpet lifts; we give it a go but find it a bit too tame for our age group. At the end of each day we relax tired muscles by heading through the Yeti Park and down the easy Perdrix run back to Meribel-Mottaret. Françoise Daviet from Méribel Tourisme says the Yeti Park is highly popular with families, who come for the easy skiing and the chance to meet the character of Yooni. “The Yeti Park is a good place to have fun and start skiing. To  make a break, you can visit Yooni’s cave (one  in French and one in English): you can learn much about Yooni’s story – and even buy a book on it!” 

If you are more of an early bird than an end of the day yeti hunter, Francois suggests the First Track breakfast experience: departing by cable car -Pas du Lac.  “You can enjoy a continental breakfast and the early morning mountain sun. Then experience the privilege of laying first tracks on beautiful groomed open slopes.” 

Western Ski Park above Courchevelin Les 3 Vallees

Western Ski Park above Courchevel in Les 3 Vallees

Sport and recreation in the Three Valleys

For family time off the slopes, the Kenothèque recreation centre has free family entrance, and an entertainer. The Olympic Park has a family Sunday morning session at the swimming pool, family sessions with games at the ice rink, and a fitness center and Spa. There are chances to make an igloo, go bowling, and try biathlon at the Altiport. (If you have never done biathlon you have missed out; read about our Grand Bornand biathlon experience here.) If you fancy more adrenaline pumping sports here are a few ideas:.

Ski Joering in Méribel

Early on an icy, sunny morning, we pitch up to the Meribel equestrian centre La Coeur Equestre Des 3 Vallees for some ski joering. (Ski Jöring.)  If you haven’t come across the sport, it originated in Scandinavia where people used horses to help with logging. Then it became a racing discipline, particularly popular in Switzerland, where stallions were cheered on thundering around a stadium with skiers in tow. At the Meribel horse centre they use something slightly smaller. Or actually quite a lot smaller; ours are mere ponies, but for our limited skills they run quite fast enough. Our Eva Piccoz, our instructor for the session says they suit most learners. “The ponies are more mobile and subtle. It’s a tough job to do. The driving is technical. I will show you how to do it first and then you will try it for yourself.”

She makes it look easy, pulling at the two reigns when she wants the horse to trot and then releasing them for a signal to slow down. “When you want to go to the right side, you, as a skier, go to the left side, so it’s the opposite of the way you want to go. And you need to have very nice hands, very soft because you have the mouth of the horse in your hand. Its a very interesting discipline to do. If you are a good rider and a good skier too, you can have one or two lessons and it will be enough. You don’t need to take care of your ski, you need to take care of the horse and follow the rhythm, and the movement.” That’s easier said than done of course. We master turning left and right, and but staying in charge of the reigns isn’t always easy.

Eva explains that we can also speak to the horse. “You can speak in English or German or whatever language you like, they understand only the intonation.When you want to go faster you go UP with your intonation, and it’s louder.” she sings. “And when you want to slow down you go ooooooohhhhhhhhhh,” At this point she drops the pitch and volume of her voice. And we’re off with our ponies, trying not to yank their teeth out with the reigns. Trotting is ok, until she introduces the slalom and some of us get into difficulties with traffic cones. Cantering is frankly terrifying and I don’t willingly shout UP very much! By the end of the session we master walking and trotting and cantering around a small paddock. We may need another lesson before anyone lets us loose on the mountain, small pony or not.

Getting a feel for Ski Joering at the Three Valleys Riding School in Meribel, Le Coeur Equestre Des 3 Vallees

Getting a feel for Ski Joering at the Three Valleys Riding School Le Coeur Equestre Des 3 Vallees

Paragliding

Tandem parapenting is available for both adults and kids in the 3 Valleys. Instructors like Jan, the world champion parapenting champ of 2010, who I meet on the ski lift on his way up to teach, will fly you from Plattieres over the Meribel Valley, or depending on the weather, take you high over Courchevel. He recommends the view from above as it is so open and wide without being obscured by trees, and air currents give a lot of opportunities for jumps over the winter season. He puts winning the 2010 championships in Turkey down to a mix of skill and luck; but you won’t need either on a tandem jump, “You just point your skis and you are off, although it is harder for snowboarders; they have to work on getting their balance right for paragliding,” he tells me.

Paragliding in Les 3 Vallees

Paragliding in Les 3 Vallees

Sledging

If you prefer to stay on the ground but off your skis you can try ‘Mission Black Forest’ -Meribel’s new sledging run of 3,6km. Or a green piste becomes a thrilling night ride with Meribel’s Little Himalaya night sledging experience (near the mid station of The Combes 1 chairlift) You can slide back on the 2 km toboggan run. Meanwhile Courchevel’s Moriond Racing run has three km of track, eight tunnels and a 450m vertical descent.

Slalom

There are loads of fun parks in the area with lumps and bumps and challenges for teens. If you have time, the Elements Park is great for family freestyle opportunities and the slalom world champion at the Altiport is for proving you are beyond any doubt, the best in the family at skiing. 

…and dancing

We keep hearing about La Folie Douce for a wild outing and ski down at lunch. Once we get past the bouncers, we find the terrace filled with the young and beautiful, who have clearly come directly from the selfie spots. After finding a spaghetti bolognese costs a whopping 28 Euro’s, we settle for a drink and watching the singers and dancers and acrobats do their stuff on the catwalk. As the sounds blast out over the valley and the sun beams down, a paraglider zooms towards us; possibly my new friend. On the way back, the Inuit run has husky dogs to pet, and yet another selfie sofa. Well it would be rude not to?

La Folie Douce in Les 3 Vallees

La Folie Douce in Les 3 Vallees

Families share their Three Valleys experience

To get an overview of the Three Valleys for families with different skills and family members we asked some other recent visitors to share their tips and highlights:

What’s the Three Valleys like for multi-generation skiing?

Former Cumbrian head teacher Sue Woodburn recollects she has been skiing in the Three Valleys about 17 times, nine of which were on Cumbrian school ski trips. This year she will be taking 124 ten year olds to the region with a company called Ski Bound, staying in the Skilt hotel, on the slopes in Les Menuires. In the past she looked for a holiday suitable for her children and now also takes her grandchildren with her onto the slopes. She highly rates the Three Valleys for group and family holidays.

“It’s a fantastic ski area. We really enjoy going from one end to the other and back again, a challenge. From Les Menuires we can just about get to Courchevel 1650 if time for lunch. We also try and choose an area with access to high skiing just in case it’s a rubbish snow year, so Val Thorens fits the bill nicely. We have stayed there a couple of times, but it’s a nightmare in poor weather, like skiing in mushroom soup. I prefer lower skiing, in the tree line, when visibility is poor.”

When her children were younger  she stayed in more affordable accommodation to save costs. “We tended to stay down the hill from Méribel in either Le Raffort  or Les Allues. We could not afford ski in, ski out accommodation. We used the car to park in the underground car park directly under the main Meribel bubble; very handy when skiing with little ones. We’ve also stayed in Brides-les-Bains but I wouldn’t recommend that, the walk to the bubble is a long way from town and all up hill with very limited parking; it’s a twenty minute bubble ride to Méribel but then a yomp across the snow to the main lifts which isn’t ideal.”

This year and last she stayed down from Les Menuires in a catered chalet run by Ski Amis, in a village called le Bettex, which offered a short walk to the chair lift to get up to Les Menuires. She says one of the best things about the Three Valleys is the amount of choice for all age groups. “The boys have always enjoyed the off piste options and as I’ve got older I like the fact that there is usually an easy way for Granny! So we can all ski together most of the time but for example, the Black off Cime de Caron isn’t for me so I potter down the red and meet them halfway. Even when it’s peak holiday time it’s always possible to find quite runs, we often head over to the fourth valley Orelle, lovely and quiet over there, although I resisted the temptation to pay 50 euro to go on the zip wire, it looked terrifying! I do recommend speed mountain in Reberty though, great fun.”

Sue is a fan of the ESF ski school which she says always seems to be able to get the school children progressing rapidly; by the end of the week even the complete beginners are whizzing down to St Martin. “I think there is excellent progression for beginners.  They progress quickly from the magic carpet to a lovely green run all the way down to the Tortollet chair and then another green La Violette. So they very quickly feel like they are really skiing. The blues in that area are excellent too and they quickly access those. Les Menuires has a super magic carpet and play area for the tiddlers.”

Her tip for families is to take sandwiches for lunch to avoid needing a second mortgage to cover food bills. “We used to picnic when the boys were small and have the odd hot chocolate as a treat to thaw out!”

Skiing the Three Valleys - Heading to Val Thorens

Skiing the Three Valleys – Heading to Val Thorens

Is the Three Valleys good for beginners?

With the chance to descend more than 1500m on a blue/green run, (from Mont de la Chambre to la Chaudanne,) and loads of easy and nursery runs, the Trois Valleys is well set up for total beginners. We asked the West family, who recently stayed in Courchevel 1850 with Esprit, to tell us about their experience. Their kids age two and nine are intermediate skiers, but the seven year old had only done a week before. 

“We loved staying in the Three Valleys, it’s a beautiful area but best of all is the variety of runs meaning all of us, at different levels, could enjoy time out and then meet up in the afternoon for some food.” Nichola West tells me, adding she was delighted by how much the children’s skiing came on. “The youngest was basically a beginner when we went and he was confidently coming down blue runs by the end of the week which made me feel quite emotional to watch. The older two are getting more and more confident and skiing in Courchevel certainly helped. The oldest’s ski instructor took him and his small group of three all over the place, down to La Tania one day, off on black runs and off piste, I was so impressed. There are plenty of different and interesting runs for beginners and intermediates. The area is brilliant for gently moving them through the levels and helping them to gain confidence.” A firm family favourite beside skiing was the Courchevel Aventure which offered opportunities to go on a snow plough. “We also really loved Aquamotion, the huge pool complex below Courchevel 1650 which had a lovely option to swim outside in warm waters with the snow and mountains all around.”

Her top tip for families travelling to the area is to try to plan the week so you can have days where you go out, really making use of the linked Three Valleys area and then days which are more local and taking advantage of all the other activities on offer in Courchevel. There’s so much to do that it’s easy to lose track of time so planning is everything.”

Read Nichola’s latest post about her family skiing in Courchevel.

Is Meribel Mottaret and Three Valleys challenging enough for adventurous teens?

Jenny Fenhalls has been travelling to Méribel for two decades with her family. She says one of the best things has been the modernisation of the lift system into a high speed network which can get you anywhere in the Three Valleys incredibly quickly. “It used to be that getting from Mottaret to Maurienne and back would be an all day outing but these days a fast skier can get there in an hour. Lift queue time has been significantly reduced as a result too.”

She advises families to try and get accommodation as high in the resort possible for the best chances of ski in ski out.”Les Cimes in Mottaret is at  1850m so the snow lasts much later than in lower altitude Meribel and you won’t find yourself squelching through sludge to get home after a day’s skiing.” If you have intermediate skiers she recommends making use of the ESF French ski school. “The kids have loved the increase in Moon Park facilities over the years and we‘ve found the quality of ski guides and ski instructors at ESF to be very high. They run great, reasonably priced advanced courses for teens including race training, all mountain exploration and freestyle/tricks classes.” There are 3000 ESF instructors across Les Trois Vallées.

Jenny’s tip for keeping costs down in a resort that ranks among the most expensive in Europe is to stock up on supplies on the way from the airport. “If you are driving, stock up on food supplies at the big SuperU hypermarket in Moutiers at the bottom of the valley for more choice and lower prices.” But when you are in situ, you can ditch the car and relax. “Use the free Meribus to make the most of the facilities in Méribel – swimming, ice skating, bowling and rock climbing are all under one roof.”

Skiing to suit all abilities in Les 3 Vallees

Skiing to suit all abilities in Les 3 Vallees

Practical Information

Hiring skis

We are big fans of Intersport and always seek them out in the French Alps for ski hire. Intersport in Mottaret is a large friendly shop in the small shopping area where we met Valentine and his friendly and efficient team. The equipment is modern and plentiful and there are comfy sofas to help with the arduous task of trying on the stiff boots. You can ski pretty much straight from the shop down into Méribel and pick up lifts into other parts of the 3 Valleys.

All fitted out and ready to ski, thanks to Intersport

All fitted out and ready to ski, thanks to Intersport

Buying lift passes

There are many different options for buying Three Valleys lift passes. Check out the Méribel ski pass page for combinations, prices and offers. You can buy a cheaper pass for the local area or a 3 valleys whole area pass or do a combination of both depending on where and how much you want to ski each day. You can buy your passes online before you go or in the resort.

Where to stay

The resort of Mottaret lies about 4 kms from the centre of town. This is a ski in ski out resort. We stayed in Apartment Les Cimes 1 which was compact and well equipped with two bedrooms and a sofa bed if you have a family of five. It has a modern kitchen for cooking your own food and a balcony with views of the peaks.

How to get there

We flew by Easyjet to Geneva. Alternatively Chambery is only 109 kilometres away. You can also fly to Grenoble and Lyon. If you have a private plane you can fly right into Méribel itself, and believe me we witnessed a few people doing this – Meribel is a playground for the super rich. And having visited I now know why.

Taking a break to take in the views en route to Val Thorens

Taking a break to take in the views en route to Val Thorens

Disclosure Note: To help us review this enormous ski area, Méribel tourism provided two complimentary ski passes, Intersport provided complimentary ski hire and the equestrian centre invited us to spend an hour with their ponies. We covered the costs of our transport, accommodation and children’s ski lift passes. All views, opinions, pictures, copy published, dodgy knees and wipe outs on slopes we really shouldn’t be falling over on, are entirely our own.   

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.

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