Sports & Outdoors

Skiing for Beginners in Val Cenis

Lucy Shrimpton and her family take to the slopes of Val Cenis in the French Alps for their first skiing holiday

Skiing for beginners in Val Cenis – Eurotunnel Le Shuttle

‘A guide to skiing for beginners in Val Cenis’ is not something I’d ever envisaged writing, having reached my 40s without venturing anywhere near a ski resort, and having always felt ever so slightly (completely) overwhelmed by the number of questions I’d need an answer to: “Which is the best ski resort for beginners?”, “What do you need to take on a skiing holiday?”, and the most serious of all, “Why would I be mad enough to throw myself down a slippy hill?”

What changed was a pandemic, a yearning for new experiences and a realisation that my three teens aren’t going to be children for ever. And though I clearly don’t know my Alps from my elbows, here we are, excited as can be to be embarking on a beginners’ ski holiday in Val Cenis, with expert and first-hand advice on tap from the specialist ski people at Peak Retreats.

Family pose in ski gear excited for the first day on the slopes on their beginners’ ski holiday in Val Cenis.

Where is Val Cenis?

If the 592 miles from Eurotunnel’s terminal in Calais to Val Cenis sounds like an onerous schlep, it’s worth remembering that French roads are an exceptionally efficient and quiet affair, that driving’s more environmentally friendly than flying, and that finding great places to lunch and sleep en route is also a sneaky way to sustain family excitement and extend your holiday. France is somewhere to savour, oui?

To break up the journey, we’ve booked a stopover hotel at the Ibis-Styles in Mâcon (a chain hotel with designer touches, eco-credentials, breakfast included…) leaving us with around 3.5 hours of driving on the day we’re arriving in resort: Val Cenis in the Alps’ Maurienne Valley – in France yet so close to Italy we’ve heard you can almost smell the pizza.  

Val Cenis - The resort

After Lyon, Chambéry, and our snowy ascent into the mountains – cooing at views as we go – we arrive in Val Cenis at 1,500m above sea level. Its ‘Flocon Vert’ certification means it’s a mountain resort operating according to a strict set of sustainability credentials, and it comprises several villages, ours Lanslevillard. The village feels small and neat, with everything we’re going to need (ski hire, ski school, gondola, supermarket, cafés, bakery…) all within an easy 250m2 of our accommodation – a luxury self-catering apartment at the 5-star Balcons-Platinium-Val-Cenis, unfeasibly convenient at the bottom of the ski slope. The only issue we foresee is a potential difficulty prising ourselves away from the sauna, jacuzzi, indoor pool and balcony (and to quit pressing all the mod-con gadgets we wish we had at home). 

After ski-school head to the luxury indoor pool at the 5-star Balcons Platinium apartments, with huge poolside windows overlooking the stunning mountains.Credit: ©Max Coquard - Bestjobers

Average skiing conditions

Now that we’re here, the ski lingo that previously meant diddly-squat to us is starting to make more sense: green slopes are for beginners (there are 16 of them in this ski area), rising up through blues (20), reds (22), and blacks (5), though we’re not anticipating our confidence, skills and daredevilry will surpass blue this week!

For ease of navigation, we pitch up at the tourist office to pick up a ski area map (showing us how the 80km of slopes and access points all weave together) and here we also learn that the highest lift is at 2,800m and that the resort’s average temperatures and snowfall allow a ski season from mid-December to mid-April, thanks to good snow conditions groomed nightly.

Surrounded by snowy peaks, the stunning lake of Mont Cenis is at the highest point of the ski resort of Val Cenis.
Credit: A Pernet

Ski hire and lift passes

If ever there was a case for booking a first skiing holiday through a ski holiday specialist (instead of trying to fathom everything out for yourself), it’s this: not only did Peak Retreats provide us with a comprehensive list of gear we’d need to bring, but they’ve also arranged lift passes (the cards we need to beep us through the gondola turnstiles), and ski hire. All we have to do after checking in is show up at the ski hire place to get sized up for skis, boots, helmets and poles. Top tip? Avoid family argy-bargy (ahem) by taking photos of all the kit for whose-is-whose purposes, before safely stowing away in the accommodation’s locker room. 

Ski school for beginners

DAY 1: Suited and booted, we waddle over to ski school for the first of six consecutive mornings. Our family is joining a group of around 15 other people (all nations, all ages) and we’re met by three instructors who are going to teach us all for the week, providing tuition in French and English. Today, we’re just tackling the nursery slope and attempting a slow descent in ‘snowplough’ mode (meaning our skis are pointed together at the front to control speed). Then we repeat ad infinitum, limbs akimbo and belly laughing. 

Soft snow is an ideal landing pad for beginners on a family ski holiday in Val Cenis.

DAY 2: We’re split into three groups according to ability and confidence. I remain with two of my teens while the other splinters off, happy to be independent and at his own pace. We take the gondola up to the top of a green slope and feel mighty and giddy once we’ve snowploughed down. We also learn how to get up from a fall without getting in a tangle and we wind up with *a little* success at slowly turning in snowplough mode. 

DAY 3: Our aim today is to try to get our skis closer to parallel as we go across the slope, which basically means we’re going up a gear in speed. Gulp! 

DAYS 4 to 6: Continuing on green slopes, we aim to increase our speed a little and also attempt slow and controlled parallel turns. The fearless youth are now mastering the art of weight distribution and we all manage to progress to a blue slope where we work on how to stop by sliding into a stop. Before we know it, we’re all improving our technique and achieving tighter turns and on our last day we’re duly rewarded with a ‘Carnet de Capacités’ certificate rubber stamping our level of attainment. We’ve all achieved the objectives of a first timer, so there are self-congratulatory air punches all round. 

By the end of the skiing holiday for beginners in Val Cenis, this teenager is proud of his new ski skills, sliding into a graceful stop.

What else can you do on a first ski holiday? 

In-resort activities

After our daily sharing of ski-school stories over chocolats chauds, our afternoons and evenings are all about packing in as much fun and flexibility as possible. Depending on the time of year you come to Val Cenis you can: 

  • … go walking on a family hike to Mont Cenis, a stunning lake just a 30-minute walk from the top of the Ramasse chair lift.
  • … drive to the nearby alpine village of Bonneval-sur-Arc, clear to see why it’s officially one of France’s ‘Plus Beaux Villages’. 
  • … have a go at ‘Via Ferrata’ – a climbing challenge with iron grips embedded into the rock for intrepid hands and feet.
  • … sign up for ‘Snake Gliss’ where individual sledges are clipped together in snake formation before being steered by a ‘pilot’ at thrillseeker speed down the mountain. 
  • … eat at ‘L’Estanco’ with its classically Alpine cuisine and ambiance. Try the 3-cheese ‘Fondue Savoyarde’ and the local liquor ‘Génépi’.

Getting back on the slopes after ski school

Chances are though that, like us, you’ll be yearning to get straight back on the slopes in the afternoons. We’re all united in wanting to ski Val Cenis’ ‘Escargot’ slope together, the longest green slope in the world. It’s pure joy: quiet, treelined, and a chance to put what we’ve learned at ski school into practice (without anyone watching!). Maybe, like us, you’ll experience a pivotal moment when you stop fretting about your fancy footwork and start swooning instead at the mesmerising ski-scapes, maybe even eyeing up the red and blue slopes for next time. Wait, did I say ‘next time’?

The Escargot ski slope is a treelined green piste in Val Cenis, a chance for beginners and families to put their new ski skills to the test after ski-school.
Credit: Daniel Durand

Lucy and her family stayed with Peak Retreats at Les Balcons Platinium in Val Cenis. 7 nights self-catering in a two-bedroom apartment from £197pp based on 5 sharing. Price includes return Eurotunnel crossing, with free FlexiPlus upgrade at most dates, with Peak Retreats.

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About the Author

I guess you could say that France has been a big part of my life so far! Inspired by almond croissants, Joe le Taxi and my French teacher (merci Monsieur Goss!), I went on to study French, live in France and have a wow of a time in the French travel sector. So vast and so diverse, the charm of France’s landscapes, people, food, history and culture has me hopping over the Channel as frequently as possible.

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