Drive to the French Alps
We are pretty keen on driving to the Alps in general. But we’re particularly keen on driving to the French Alps. The drive is a relatively short one, whereas many of the transfers to major French resorts from Geneva airport are relatively long.
Of course, the route from the Channel to the French Alps is through France rather than Germany, which for Francophiles like us means it’s a pleasant prospect rather than a vaguely off-putting one. Especially if you are using Eurotunnel or a short ferry crossing, rather than a ferry to one of the Normandy ports, the drive is pleasantly low-pressure. Not only because you don’t have to tangle with Paris but also because you don’t have to use the always-busy Paris-Lyon autoroute.
The French Alps are the number-one destination for British car-borne skiers. The journey time is surprisingly short, at least if you are starting from south-east England. From Calais, for example, you can comfortably cover the 900km/560 miles to Chamonix in about nine hours plus stops – with the exception of the final few miles, the whole journey is on motorways. And except on peak weekends when half the population of Paris is on the move, the traffic is relatively light, if you steer clear of Paris.
With some exceptions in the southern Alps, all the resorts of the French Alps are within a day’s driving range, provided you cross the Channel early in the day (or overnight). Saturday is still the main changeover day for resorts, and Saturday traffic into and out of many resorts can be heavy. This is especially true between Albertville and the Tarentaise resorts (from the Trois Vallées to Val d’Isère). Things are nothing like as bad as they were 25 years ago, before road improvements for the 1992 Olympics removed some of the main bottlenecks; but the resorts have expanded further in that time, and sadly the jams are back – on peak-season Saturdays you can encounter serious queues around Moûtiers. There are traffic lights placed well away from the town, to keep the queues and associated pollution away from Moûtiers.
DAY TRIP BASES
A car opens up different kinds of holiday for the adventurous holidaymaker – day tripping from a base resort, for example.
In the southern French Alps, Serre-Chevalier and Montgenèvre are ideal bases for day tripping. They are within easy reach of one another, and Montgenèvre is at one end of the Milky Way lift network, which includes Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere in Italy – you can drive on to these resorts, or reach them by lift and piste. On the French side of the border, a few miles south, Puy-St-Vincent is an underrated resort that is well worth a visit for a day – as is the Vars/Risoul area, a little further south. The major resorts of Alpe-d’Huez and Les Deux-Alpes are also within range, as is the cult off-piste resort of La Grave. Getting to them involves crossing the high Col du Lautaret, but it’s a major through-route and is not allowed to close for very long in normal winter conditions.
The Chamonix valley is an ideal destination for day tripping. The Mont Blanc Unlimited lift pass covers all the Chamonix areas, plus Courmayeur in Italy (easily reached through the Mont Blanc tunnel) and Verbier in Switzerland (a bit of a trek, even if the intervening passes are open). Megève and Les Contamines are close by, and Flaine and its satellites are fairly accessible. You could stay in a valley town such as Cluses, to escape resort prices – but Chamonix itself is not an expensive town.
In the Tarentaise region, Bourg-St-Maurice is an excellent base for visiting several resorts – Les Arcs is accessible by funicular, and La Plagne is of course linked to Les Arcs. La Rosière is only a short drive away, with a link to La Thuile. Ste-Foy is just up the valley. And at the end of the valley are Val d’Isère and Tignes. We had a great week skiing all of these from Bourg a couple of seasons ago.
An alternative approach in the Tarentaise region if you want to include the famous Trois Vallées area is to stay in a series of different resorts for a day or two each, moving on from one to the next in the early evening; this way, you could have the trip of a lifetime. Compagnie des Alpes, owner of the lift systems in many of the big-name resorts of this area, sells a Holiski pass that gets discounts on day passes at most of them.
There are three ‘gateways’ to the different regions of the French Alps. For the northern Alps – Chamonix valley, Portes du Soleil, Flaine and neighbours – you want to head for Geneva. If coming from Calais or another short-crossing port, you no longer have to tangle with the busy A6 from Paris via Beaune to Mâcon and Lyon. The relatively new A39 autoroute south from Dijon means you can head for Bourg-en-Bresse, well east of Mâcon. For the central Alps – the mega-resorts of the Tarentaise, from Valmorel to Val d’Isère, and the Maurienne valley – you want to head for Chambéry. For the southern Alps – Alpe-d’Huez, Les Deux-Alpes, Serre-Chevalier – you want to head for Grenoble. And for either of these gateways first head for Mâcon and turn left at Lyon.
If you are taking a short Channel crossing, there are plenty of characterful towns for an overnight stop between the Channel and Dijon – Arras, St-Quentin, Laon, Troyes, Reims. All have plenty of choice of budget chain hotels, some of them in central locations where you can easily enjoy the facilities of the town (ie the brasseries), others on bleak commercial estates on the outskirts, where at least you can hope to find the compensation of extremely low room rates.
From the more westerly Channel ports of Le Havre or Caen, your route to Geneva or Mâcon sounds dead simple: take the A13 to Paris then the A6 south. But you have to get through or around Paris in the process. The most direct way around the city is the notorious périphérique – a hectic, multi-lane urban motorway close to the centre, with exits every few hundred yards and traffic that is either worryingly fast-moving or jammed solid. If the périphérique is jammed, getting round it takes ages. The more reliable alternative is to take a series of motorways and dual carriageways through the south-west fringes of Greater Paris. The route is not well signed, so it’s a great help to have a competent navigator.