Situated on the border between France and Switzerland, the Portes du Soleil (‘Doors to the Sun’) ski resort chain claims to have 650km of pistes for people of all abilities.
Though it is low-lying relative to other skiing areas (much of it at around 1500m), the topography of the area still allows eight metres of snow a year to fall.
It is possible to ski from France, into Switzerland and back to France in a circuit.
Could you hit six towns on a day’s skiing?
While not extremely challenging (all the time) there is a route to take in three French resorts and three Swiss.
Let’s put our skis on and go for a blast around the pistes.
Before we go we’ll just say that bar the Swiss Wall there are a wide choice of actual routes to take between all of these towns and villages according to your needs.
An intermediate skier will be tested to the max on this route if you took in the Swiss Wall but there is the option of the ski lift across the Franco-Swiss border at that stage!
Morzine and Avoriaz in France
The major French resorts of Morzine and Avoriaz are the first two towns you can do in France. There are different runs you can do between each so we’ll just look at the resorts and what you may find.
Morzine is the biggest town in the Portes du Soleil area.
It is reachable in about 10 hours by car from Calais so may well be a good place to base your holiday thanks to a range of different priced places to stay.
It is the big market town that has accepted skiing and snowboarding to its heart, but functions year round thanks to its economy.
Though French, the chalets are seen as ‘typically Swiss’ with their wooden cladding and steep roofs.
There are a wide range of pistes and wild skiing opportunities to be had just outside of Morzine, and with the Portes du Soleil ski pass you can spend all day exploring – right into Switzerland should you choose!
From Morzine, take a cable car up to and ski on to Avoriaz.
Avoriaz is a purpose built ski resort that was developed in the 1960s by world champion skier Jean Vuarnet.
Sitting atop 500ft cliffs, its tall, angular buildings make the town a sight to behold in its own right.
Much of the skiing is actually at a similar height to the town and you will often end up taking a ski lift into the town at the end of the day.
One eccentricity it has is that cars are banned and if you’re really tired and emotional after some hard apres-skiing you may end up in a horse drawn sleigh back to the hotel – just be sure to take photos so you know you actually did that!
As would be expected from a purpose-built resort, Avoriaz has a range of great skiing with the harder pistes high up and the easier ones lower down.
The Swiss Wall
The most challenging route from Avoriaz into Switzerland is via the Swiss Wall – a piste given an Orange code, one step up from the Black.
It is a mogul run with car-sized moguls and often vertical drops.
To fortify yourself do drop by the O’Padcha restaurant at the top, while listening to the hard techno music it plays to psyche yourself out before looking over the edge to… decide whether life is too short or long to do the run!
With a certain mortality rate from skiers and snowboarders who have overcooked it, there is no shame in refusing.
Locals advise that the best time to do the Swiss Wall is in the morning after a snowfall. Ice is a big problem on the run and even side-slipping on a dicy bit can lead to problems.
For many years the Wall was considered ‘off piste’ thanks to its mortality rate.
If you do want to cross the border and don’t have the skiing ability then you can just take the Chavanette ski lift down the slope, watching those who have taken the plunge as you do.
Les Crosets, Champoussin and Morgins – the Swiss phase
The first Swiss resort on your circuit is Les Crosets, a small village with a variety of different pistes that as part of a day’s skiing will be enjoyable – especially after the high blood pressure run of the Swiss Wall.
One of the greatest views in the whole of Les Portes du Soleil is the Dentes du Midi high Alps to the north of the town. Have a beer or two to enjoy the view!
Champoussin is a family oriented ski resort that hardly wakes up at any time of the year except for a yawn during ski season.
The skiing won’t exactly get your pulse racing except if you’ve had too long a lunch and need to hit the next two towns to get back to Morzine before the pistes shut.
Morgins is an agricultural town that joined the Portes du Soleil in the 1970s.
Many of its cowsheds and barns are now hotels, and you can enjoy a coffee and a feed in a quiet cafe or restaurant while preparing for your next dash across the border to Chatel down a choice of blue or red runs and the network of ski lifts and cable cars.
Chatel and via Avoriaz onto Morzine
Chatel is another natural French town with an economy that lives throughout the year with summer tourism at least as important to the town as winter sports.
As with most of the Portes du Soleil it is part of a country ignored by the colonial map makers (Haute Savoie) and as such is a blend of French and Swiss of its own style.
The chalets sit on steep slopes and many a local/holiday home owner has been known to off-piste it straight back to their home after a day on the slopes!
From a skiing point of view you have a choice of two sets of runs.
Super Chatel is accessible by cable car for its intermediate and harder runs while the lower slopes are more suited to beginners.
A quick hop across town (or well judged skiing to the right cable car from the Morgins runs) and from there you can piste-hop it to Avoriaz to close the circuit.
The relaxed runs down into Morzine after what might be a pressurised, adrenaline fuelled day will be a nice warm-down for legs that may have seen 15 or more pistes in 12 hours.
If you want to ski at the beginning or end of the season, the area’s relatively low ski slopes will often have artificial snow and the adventure we describe above may just not be possible.
A hardcore Christmas skiing week is definitely the time to do the circuit.
Apres ski (the hedonism and fun when not snowboarding/skiing) varies from town to town. Avoriaz, Chatel and Morzine have bars and clubs suited to all groups from families to those who are old enough to imbibe yet young enough to ski all day and party all night.
It may pay to check things with your holiday provider before you put your family in a wilder area. You could also be a bunch of lads/ladettes ending up in a hotel where you’re told to STFU at 10pm before you’re ready to really party unless careful.
Every town and village has something to do other than pure skiing/snowboarding and of course eating and drinking!
Avoriaz has an Olympic sized snowboard half pipe for those who want to explore their limits. There are seven freestyle parks throughout the area and these can be fun just to watch during downtime or when you’ve temporarily incapacitated yourself on the slopes one day.
For those who find the pistes are a little too busy there are guides who will take you onto virgin powder without needing to slog too much in your ski-boots between slopes.
If you go as a group then you may find a day’s powder skiing won’t break the bank, and you could have something really new to show off in a social media selfie.
Accessing Les Portes du Soleil
One of the reasons that the skiing chain is so popular is that it is one of the most convenient ski areas to those from Northern Europe.
Morzine is around 10 hours by car from Calais including rest breaks, so in theory you could have an early start in the morning of your run to France and still hit the slopes the next day.
Flying to the Portes du Soleil is no great bother either. Geneva Airport is around 90 minutes away by public transport.
This could mean that with waiting about in airports/on the runway you could be in Morzine by late lunchtime with an early start the same day.