Icediving, skiing and so much more in lovely Les Menuires

Speedsters, powder hunters or skiers who go to the mountains for fun: Les Menuires had something for everyone. “The variety you find here both off and on  the slopes is unique”, says our guide Sandra.

 

Les Menuires and Saint-Martin-de-Belleville. They are familiar names for ski lovers and have been among the most popular ski destinations in Europe. It was with great pleasure that we allowed ourselves a midweek in this gem of the French Alps. First, let’s situate ourselves geographically: Les Menuires and Saint-Martin-de-Belleville are part of Les Trois Vallées (France), which has 600 kilometers of slopes and may call itself the largest interconnected ski area in the world. To give you an idea of the size: more than 300 slopes are spread over 490 hectares of mountain landscape. That’s more than four times the area of Paris. Since 85 percent of the slopes are above 1,800 meters, snow security is also very good.

So much for the numbers, cause we are here to discover Les Menuires with our own eyes (and board). We do so with ESF monitor Sandra, a bundle of energy who talks with contagious enthusiasm about her “workfield”. We meet Sandra in La Croisette, the beating heart of Les Menuires. From here most of the skilifts depart and it buzzes with life. It is on this spot that in the 1960s the first mega-apartments rose from the ground. Not the most tasteful buildings, but functional and also very affordable, making Les Menuires very accessible even for skiers on a limited budget. “That’s what makes our station so great, the enormous variety of accommodation on offer,” Sandra explains.

Les Menuires has no less than 34,000 tourist beds on offer: from very fancy, over charming chalets to budget-friendly apartments. In total, the resort has five different districts: La Croisette, Preyerand, Les Fontanettes, Grand Reberty et Les Bruyères. The most central is in La Croisette, but those who prefer things quieter may be better off looking elsewhere for accommodation. Our favorite is Les Bruyeres, with less unsightly high-rises and a lot more charming. By the way, you don’t have to worry about getting stranded in the wrong area after the elevators close, because there is a free ski bus that runs until late at night.

Enough about the village itself, time to explore the slopes. Sandra is eager to take us up high. Rightly so, because the mountains welcome us with blue skies and a fresh layer of snow. Perfect conditions. When we look at the piste map, stress sets in. With 600 kilometers, we don’t know where to start. “Let’s choose my favorite blue slope: Le Grand Lac,” Sandra suggests. “That one starts at 2,700 meters altitude and takes you all the way back to the center of Les Menuires.” At the top, we are welcomed by breathtaking views, with the valley of Les Menuires on our right and neighboring Méribel on our left.

Not a word of Sandra’s promise has been lied: It’s great skiing on the wide slopes of Le Grand Lac. And this slope is no one hit wonder. Les Menuires excels in wide, accessible runs tailored to families. Prefer something a little more fast? No problem: often there is a more challenging red slope running parallel. Good news for less ambitious skiers who do not necessarily want to hit every corner of the domain. In addition to the ski pass for Trois Vallées, you can also opt for a cheaper alternative that only allows you to ski in Les Menuires. With about ninety slopes, you still have plenty of choice. Especially for those who ski with beginners or children worth considering.

 

That afternoon, we eat on top of the mountain, in the Roc Seven. An excellent restaurant that looked closely at what the hyperpopular La Folie Douce does in Val Thorens. Including DJ and live saxophonist where from early afternoon the legs are shaken loose. After a satisfying meal, we strap the skis back on and set sail for Les Trois Vallées’ best-kept secret: the village of Saint-Martin-de Belleville, which only joined Les Trois Vallées in 1982.

Unlike the rest of the stations in the valley, Saint-Martin-de-Belleville is an authentic, centuries-old French Alpine village that lived off agriculture until well into the 1980s. After joining Les Trois Vallées, tourism became the main source of income here, but the village has has managed to preserve its authenticity. High-rise buildings are still out of the question in 2023. Instead, guests will find charming chalets and hotels built of natural stone and wood. With “only” 3,400 tourist beds, Saint-Martin-de-Belleville is so much calmer than the rest of Les Trois Vallées. Ideal for those traveling with children or who prefer to take it a little easier. In the winding streets of the village, it is wonderful to get lost among what used to be authentic Alpine farmhouses. Curious about what the life of the locals used to be like? Then visit the free museum housed in the building next to Office du Tourisme. Highly recommended for those who want to learn more about the hard life in the Alps or how winter sports slowly but surely drove the farmers out of their own villages.

The centuries-old streets of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville give you a glimpse of life as it used to be in the Alpine villages.

The accommodation options in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville are varied. You will find inexpensive chalets, but equally beautiful hotels. Standout is the Lodji (****) hotel, which only opened its doors in 2022 and is run by Belgian René Baudinet. Outside, a giant bull awaits you, but it is the inside that will blow you away. Natural wood everywhere, a beautiful pool and ditto wellness, a lively bar, delicious restaurant, beautiful, spacious rooms and friendly staff make the Lodji the place for a successful vacation in Les Trois Vallées. The icing on the cake are the jacuzzis outside on the terrace, where guests can sip champagne under the stars with the snow-capped mountain peaks as a canvas in the background. “It took blood, sweat and tears, but after twenty years of slogging we were finally able to open our own hotel,” René says with infectious enthusiasm. The Belgian has a long history in the world of real estate and tourism, but the Lodji is without a doubt his pièce de resistance. Rightly so, and it shows in the bookings. Although the Lodji can sleep as many as two hundred people, the hotel is already completely full for the 2023 winter season. So be there early if you want to be sure of a room in the high season. Extra nice are the Belgian touches, such as the menu (shrimp croquettes, real fries,…) as well as Belgian Spa water in the bar and rooms. “We are the only hotel in France that serves Spa,” René explains not without pride. “Normally Spa doesn’t supply French hotels, but an exception was made for us. Once or twice a year a truck packed with bottles arrives here.”

Hotel Lodji (****) ins Saint-Martin-de-Belleville is run by Belgian René Baudinet.

Because the Lodji is “, we stay at Hotel Higalki that evening, in Les Menuires. Brand new, and just like the Lodji, blessed with four stars, spacious rooms and a beautiful swimming pool. Thanks to ski-in and ski-out, you slide right from your room onto the slopes. We sleep wonderfully. Thank god, because the next morning the alarm goes off at 7 a.m. for an exclusive first track experience. Every Wednesday the gondola at La Masse opens an hour earlier than usual. Those who pay 23 euros may go up as early as 8 a.m. for a descent on a perfectly groomed, virgin slope. A unique experience. The number of skiers is limited to 35, so you almost have the place to yourself. Little tip: The majority of people choose the red slope, where you have to ski behind an instructor. On the blue slope you are all alone and it is great carving over the freshly pulled ridges. The package also includes breakfast at 2,804 meters, after the first run. Highly recommended!

In the afternoon we leave the skis in the stable and go for a walk towards the “Lac du Lou” in Les Menuires, a small lake far away from the slopes that freezes over during the winter months. Ideal, because we are here for…ice diving. “No bottles, just hold your breath and swim from ice hole to ice hole,” explains Dan Arbogast, founder of ‘50 shades of blue,’ the only diving club in Europe to offer this experience.

Dan is very passionate and immediately reassures us when he sees our hesitant look. “I’ve helped thousands of people dive. Everyone has survived. It’s an unforgettable experience.” No doubt, with a  water temperature of barely 1 degree. Fortunately, our instructor has provided thick diving suits that should give warmth for a few hours in the freezing cold water. After we squeeze into our diving suits, Dan takes us out to the lake and promptly brings out an ice saw to reopen the frozen holes. “Get started,” he laughs. It takes a bit of effort, but eventually we get all three holes open.

There are three distances to cover under the ice: 6, 10 and 20 meters. And that’s without scuba tanks. Gulp. Fortunately, Dan is there to reassure us. “We count to ten and then lower ourselves under the ice at the edge of the hole,” he explains with the calmness of a Buddhist Zen master. “Above all, relax, admire the ice.” We take a last breath of air and dive down. There we are treated to a unique spectacle. The sun’s rays pierce through the snow cover and make the ice sparkle.

After a few practices, it’s time for the real deal: diving from one ice hole to another. As a warm-up, we start with the shortest distance of 6 meters. “Just follow the rope and before you know it you’ll be on the other side,” assures Dan, who swims right next us in case things go wrong. We count to ten, breathe deeply and dive down. With our backs to the bottom, we pull ourselves from one hole to the other while marveling at the ice beauty. “Excellent job,” says Dan as we surface on the other side. Time for the next challenge: ten meters under the ice. “Just hold your breath a time and a half longer.” This time Dan only swims halfway with us because the ice hole on the other side is too small for two people. If something goes wrong now, we are really on our own. Dan counts down. Ten, nine, eight,…a breath of fresh air and we dive down and grab the rope, facing the other ice hole, ten meters away.

Half a minute later, we surface again. Mission accomplished for the second time. Unfortunately there was no time for the twenty meters that afternoon, but we did receive an official diving certificate. Goes right above our bed! A diving afternoon costs 140 euro per person.. Not cheap, but it is an experience that you never let go and for everyone without a doubt the icing on the cake of a ski vacation in this great area.

Les Menuires practical:

– Les Menuires is part of ski domain Les Trois Vallées, which has 600 km of slopes: green (17%), blue (39%), red (33%), black (11%).

– A 6-day ski pass costs 360 euros for adults. Children (288 euros) and seniors (324 euros) pay less. For slightly less ambitious skiers, there is a cheaper pass that lets you ski only in Les Menuires.

– To stay, you can choose between the five districts in Les Menuires or Saint-Martin-de-Bellive. The selection is incredibly wide and varied. In Les Menuires you are centrally located, but Saint-Martin-de-Belleville is the coziest place in the entire Trois Vallées.

– Official websites of Les Menuires and Saint-Martin-de-Belleville

Les Trois Vallées counts 600 km of slopes, making it the largest connected ski domain in the world

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