How the world's biggest ski area is still fun when there's no snow

Inside the world’s biggest ski domain – which includes Kate and Wills’ beloved Courchevel – and discovering it’s still a thrill-seeker’s dream when there’s NO SNOW

  • Carlton Reid travelled to Les 3 Vallees in the French Alps and discovered it’s a paradise for hikers and cyclists
  • He hared down a lofty cart track and cycled along an incredible mountainside ‘motorway for cyclists’
  • READ MORE: I’m an adventure photographer and these are some of the amazing photos I’ve taken 

‘You’re allowed to overtake, aren’t you?’ I remarked with an evil laugh as I skimmed past my companion on a gravity-powered mountain cart, a fat-tyre three-wheel go-cart. We were high above the resort of Les Menuires in the Les 3 Vallees ski/bike domain in the French Alps, and I was in no mood to go slow.

With gravel kicking up behind me, I dove down the mountainside, a big-kid grin on my face.

Five of us had rented these mountain-specific go-carts at £25 per person per descent. We were given almost no rules except for the instruction to wear tres chic hair nets beneath rental full-face helmets.

We’d arrived at the 2,300-metre-high (7,545ft) starting grid on a gondola, swooping over some of the 20 or so bends we’d soon be barrelling around.

The switchbacks form part of a four-kilometre (2.5-mile) downhill course, a dirt track cut from the mountainside that in winter becomes the Roc N Bob toboggan run. Mountain-cart riders negotiate berms, a few tame jumps and enjoy plenty of opportunities to cut in front of their slowpoke companions as they drop 500 metres (1,640ft) in elevation.

A cyclist on an electric mountain bike enjoying the panoramic views over to the Vanoise glaciers and Mont Blanc on the new Via 3 Vallees cycle trail, a veritable motorway for cyclists through the mountains of Les 3 Vallees

Courchevel has an astounding 20 five-star hotels — more than most world capitals — with the crème de la crème, known as ‘palace level’ hotels, spread through Courchevel 1850 (above), the highest of the four villages that comprise the multi-level resort

It’s easy to let rip on straights, with the mountain cart’s wide wheelbase and low centre of gravity inspiring confidence even on the steeps.

At times, the rock-strewn course flattened out, requiring feet-down pushes, Flintstone-style, to cross asphalt trails.

Later, we rode on this newly-asphalted trail, but in the opposite direction. Instead of pointing downhill, we were on electric mountain bikes heading uphill. We pedalled — with motor assistance — from Les Menuires to lifts above the higher ski resort of Méribel on the new Via 3 Vallées, a veritable motorway for cyclists through the mountains with panoramic views over to the Vanoise glaciers and Mont Blanc.

The 34-kilometre-long (21-mile) track goes from Courchevel to Val Thorens through both Méribel and Les Menuires, the Belleville valley part of the 3 Vallées, a playground in the summer.

The new Via 3 Vallees route goes from Courchevel to Val Thorens through both Meribel (above) and Les Menuires 

Carlton enjoys a thrilling mountain-cart experience on a four-kilometre (2.5-mile) course in Les Menuires. Above is the start point

Carlton stayed in the four-star Hotel Lodj in Saint Martin De Belleville, where rooms start at £130 B&B in summer. Highlight? ‘There’s an outdoor hot tub with killer views over to the peaks,’ he says

A chairlift ride is required on one high section for now, but by 2024 the entire asphalt trail should be fully open.

There are no hikers on the Via 3 Vallées. It’s a bike-specific two-way route, with road-style painted lines separating ascending and descending cyclists.

Some cyclists on lightweight road bikes tackled the climb without batteries, but most riders were motor-assisted.

There’s a cafe bar at the Col de la Loze at 2,304m (7,559ft), but we continued to the heights above Méribel, where we caught our breath before the swooping return to Les Menuires, crossing the mountain-cart course several times.

Les 3 Vallées is a gravity-junky’s dream. You can drop on two or three wheels or throw yourself off the peaks strapped to a parapente but with waterfalls, wildflower meadows, and a wealth of walking trails, it’s also a hiker’s paradise.

Mouthwatering food – and views: Outdoor seating at Chez Pepe Nicolas restaurant outside Les Menuires

The amazing scenery at Les Menuires, which is part of the world’s largest connected ski area with 600km (372 miles) of runs

One of Carlton’s stays was at Manali Lodge in Courchevel Moriond (above – an amazing view from it) 

After a fabulous lunch in the famous, family-owned Chez Pépé Nicolas we shuttled to the turquoise-coloured Lac de la Rosière, where we started a four-hour hike beside the fast-flowing Torrent de la Rosière beneath La Dent du Villard, a peak above Courchevel.

We were lucky enough to be in the region during a good spell of weather, but should it have been inclement we could have decamped to the Courchevel ice rink or the new-for-2023 Le Board sports centre in Val Thorens. This vast complex has a distinctive snowboard-shaped roof covering a spa, a water park, basketball and volleyball courts, and fitness areas.

Fun is pretty much guaranteed in Les 3 Vallées, whatever the weather.

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Trois Vallées — now marketed as Les 3 Vallées — has been the world’s largest connected ski area, linked solely by ski lifts and slopes, since it was created, partly by British skiers, since the 1950s. In the summer, most of the same ski lifts are open to hikers, bikers, and other thrill seekers.

The three valleys, which offer 600km (372 miles) of runs, are those of Saint-Bon, Les Allues, and Bellevilles. The ski/bike resorts are Courchevel, Meribel, Val Thorens, Les Menuires, La Tania and Saint Martin De Belleville.

Courchevel, conceived in the 1940s, was the first resort in France to be constructed on a virgin mountain site rather than as an extension of an existing village. Architect and town planner Laurent Chappis and fellow skier Maurice Michaud planned the ‘People’s Resort’ — socialism on skis — during five years of incarceration in an Austrian prisoner of war camp during the Second World War.

The first ski lift was built in 1946, thanks to government funding.

Courchevel is no longer the People’s Resort – much of it is now upscale and exclusive. Later, it expanded up and down the hill, and the upper level is much beloved by billionaires. It used to attract wealthy Russians, but many of these high-net-worth individuals are now confined by sanctions to Russia, a loss for the upscale shops and restaurants that once lavishly serviced them.

Courchevel Moriond sits at an altitude of 1,650m. Carlton says of former ‘people’s resort’ Courchevel: ‘Much of it is now upscale and exclusive’

There are seven Michelin-starred restaurants in Courchevel and 14 in the rest of Les 3 Vallées. Chef Yannick Alléno’s five-table Le 1947 à Hotel Cheval Blanc has the ultimate three stars (but this particular Cheval Blanc hotel is winter only).

If Michelin gave stars for wondrous views and the amount of produce plucked from a restaurant’s garden, Chez Pépé Nicolas outside of Les Menuires would also have three stars. It actually has none, but it’s nevertheless a wonderful place to eat, with gorgeous outdoor views of Vallon du Lou and the surrounding glaciers. The restaurant is a former shepherd’s chalet surrounded by a large and impressive Alpine permaculture garden. You can wander these plots and ponds before or after your meal. Naturally, much of the menu features produce grown here. Food miles? Food metres more like.

The grandchildren of Pépé Nicolas still run the restaurant.

Courchevel has an astounding 20 five-star hotels — more than most world capitals — with the crème de la crème, known as ‘palace level’ hotels, spread through Courchevel 1850, the highest of the four villages that comprise the multi-level resort.

In the winter, expect to bump into David and Victoria Beckham, George Clooney, or Leonardo DiCaprio. Or perhaps you’d rub shoulders with the Aga Khan, who recently built two new chalets for his ski-from-the-door convenience. Prince William and Kate, the Princess of Wales, also ski from upper Courchevel.

There are fewer celebs in the summer, and fewer visitors in total, so room rates are far more reasonable, even for some of the luxe properties.

We stayed in a five-room suite in the five-star Manali Lodge in Courchevel Moriond, which sits at 1,650m. Built in 2007 as Hotel Manali, the interior of this chalet-style hotel was inspired by the Himalayas. There’s an Indian melange of temple and monastery graphics plus a large elephant statue in reception. A five-room suite costs £1,600 per night.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with their children, Princess Charlotte and Princess George, during a short private break skiing in Courchevel in 2016

We also stayed in the four-star Hotel Lodj in Saint Martin De Belleville, where rooms start at £130 B&B in summer. Highlight? There’s an outdoor hot tub with killer views over to the peaks.

I got to Courchevel by train, travelling from Newcastle on LNER to London and then Eurostar to Paris before taking the high-speed train to Lyon and then shuttling to the resort. I benefitted from reduced-cost train travel with an Interrail pass. Launched in March 1972, the Interrail pass was originally for young travellers only, enabling those of up to 21 years of age to explore 21 countries by train with just one rail pass. Since 1998 the Interrail pass has been available for travellers of all ages.

There’s a rail terminus in nearby Bourg-Saint-Maurice, with TGV services that run to and from Lyon and Paris.

Oligarchs, royalty, and Hollywood’s finest get to Courchevel by helicopter or private jet. The resort has an ‘altiport’ or mountain airport, with pilots needing a special qualification to take off and land here. The runway is at 2,000 metres (6,561ft) and is one of the steepest in the world, with a jaw-dropping gradient of 18.5 per cent. Aircraft land uphill and take off downhill — directly above a precipice. Does that ring a bell or two? The Courchevel altiport was used for the James Bond movies Tomorrow Never Dies and Goldeneye.

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