Set in the heart of the picturesque Oisans valley, Alpe d’Huez is a vast ski area: More than 250km of pistes link the main town to four surrounding villages – Auris, Villard Reculas, Oz-en-Oisans and Vaujany. As you might expect from such a huge zone, there’s a similarly wide variety of terrain on offer, meaning there’s something for everyone.
The resort’s altitude ranges from 1,100m all the way to 3,330m – the pinnacle of the majestic Pic Blanc. This means you can ride wide open, glacial powder fields in the morning before dropping down into the trees for the afternoon.
While it’s not got much of a reputation as a freestyle resort, Alpe d’Huez is something of a freeriders’ paradise. The terrain is truly epic, and because it tends to attract a lot of families who stick to the pistes, the powder can stay untracked for days after a dump.
Additionally, because its mostly south facing slopes catch a lot of sun (its French nickname translates as ‘island in the sun’ ) it’s a great place to go if you’re looking for a late season shred. This, combined with its lively bar scene, explains its popularity with student groups.
“There are so many great runs, it’s hard to choose,” says Jamie Purkhardt of Ski Peaks, an independent chalet operation that’s been based in Alpe d’Huez for 25 years. He does however recommend the descent from the Pic Blanc, which is “the longest continuous pisted vertical descent you can do in the world – 3,300m to 1,100m.”
“We refer to it as the ‘champagne run’ because that is exactly what you deserve if you can do it without stopping (which is nearly impossible). But it’s a wonderful way to spend 40 minutes of your life and a real achievement.”
It’s the longest pisted vertical descent in the world.
Obviously long, leg-burning descents like that aren’t for beginners. The first bit of that descent, a black called “le Tunnel” can get pretty mogul-heavy, making it “scary for intermediates or beginners,” according to Jamie.
Thankfully though there are plenty of other places learners can go. In fact, if you’re just starting to link your first turns, Alpe d’Huez is a great place to head, with wide open, gently-sloping nursery slopes right above the resort.
For those who want to do a bit of jibbing on their way down, the blue couloir piste which snakes down from the top of the Troncons lift has plenty of little drops you can hit on the right-hand side, although it can get crowded – so look before you launch blind into your backside 180.
If you’re looking for something a bit different, reader James Turner recommends star gazing while riding. “I gave night skiing ago last season and it was wicked! Cruising beneath the stars was an unforgettable experience.”
The powers that be in Alpe d’Huez have never really pursued the freestyle path with much conviction. But according to the locals, the parks have improved in recent years. Jamie Purkhardt says: “It may not rival Les Arcs or Mayrhofen, but every year Alpe d’Huez gets better and better. I’ve seen a snowboarders nail double corks in there.”
There are two parks – a small one above Auris-en-Oisans and a bigger one that sits in the centre of the main bowl. This has a handful of blue jumps and rails and then a larger line with red and black take-offs.
While the kickers aren’t always the best shaped (“the black ones tend to spit you out too much,” according to Jamie) there are novel features like the ability to scan your liftpass at the bottom and watch your run back on the big screen.
In the same main park there’s also a well-maintained snowboardcross course which regularly hosts fairly major events.
The off-piste on offer in Alpe d’Huez is truly epic. If you get to it before the crowds do the valley off the right of the Pic Blanc cable car (marked on the map as the black ‘Sarenne’ run) offers some incredible lines a short traverse away from the main piste.
But the locals’ top tip is the Grandes Rousses domain. “Peel off left at the top of the cable car at 2800m,” says Jamie “and the whole mountain range is your playground. There are over 15 backcountry routes at your finger tips. Notably the Perrin Sud, Perrin Nord, Couloir Fleure, Coulouir P10 – the list goes on and on.”
The locals’ top tip is the Grandes Rousses domain.
If you’re feeling truly adventurous, hire a guide and ask him to take you up “le Pyramide,” which Jamie describes as “a terrifying off piste run which takes around 40 minutes to scale up to the starting point from Pic Blanc.”
Elsewhere there’s a run in Montfrais called Roche Malon that’s festooned with drops, windlips and pillow lines, making it a playground when there’s fresh.
If you find yourself riding when the white stuff is actually coming down, your best bet is to head for the tree runs around Oz-en-Oisans or Montfrais, where there’s some decent lines to be had amongst the pines.
On the mountain the best places for a pitstop are Plage de Neige (located on the easy slopes down by the town) and La Combe Haute. The latter, according to Jamie, boasts “the tastiest and largest Tartiflette on the mountain” and if you’ve just tackled the long, winding Sarenne, it’s perfect for a celebratory pint.
Tucked away off a cross country track (you have to approach from a path down the Chamois piste) is the excellent Chalet du Lac Besson. It’s off the beaten track but both the food and the atmosphere are worth the journey.
If you’re looking to eat in town, head to the alti-port where the incredible view is augmented by the occasional sight of a helicopter taking off or landing. “For some amazing montagnarde style “tapas”, go to Lounge 21. My favourite is the baked Camembert,” says reader Tamara Raoufi.
For cheap eats, the awesomely-named Captain Sandwich takeaway is a good option, or if it’s late at night, Smithys. Jamie’s top tip? “Their fajitas are badass.”
Smithy’s is also a great place if you just want a pint. With live music every night it attracts a good crowd of seasonnaires. Also don’t miss out on La Bodega. “The food is unbelievable. It’s a Cuban restaurant that does great burgers and mojitos,” says seasonaire Ed Howell-Jones.
If you’re staying down in Vaujany, Stief’s is the place to go – run by snowboarders, it serves excellent Belgian beer and stays open til 2am.
Up in the main town Etalon and the Sphere Bar both do cheap shots (try “the pharmaceutical” at Sphere, it’s powerful!) but if you really want to turbo-charge your night then you should start early by hitting up the Folie Douce on the slopes.
Try a shot called “the pharmaceutical” at Sphere bar, it’s powerful!
An off-shoot of the legendary Val d’Isere bar of the same name, La Folie can be counted on to get its clientele dancing on the table by about 3pm thanks to its pumping house soundtrack and live sax shows (we said sax!)
As the night wears on, head to Underground, where there’s a weekly reggae night and decent DJs most evenings. Or if you’re a ‘last man standing’ sort, then Igloo keeps pumping out the tunes ‘til 4am.
PLACES TO STAY
There are plenty of places to stay in Alpe d’Huez for all price ranges. If you’re looking for luxury, VIP Ski also have a collection of chalets near the bottom of the main drag lifts.
However if it’s personalised service and genuine local expertise you’re after then have a look at the chalets run by Ski Peak in Vaujany.
The village combines excellent access to the slopes with a quieter, more authentically French feel, and the company prides itself on its personal touch. As well as their catered chalets, they offer a number of self-catered apartments.
If you want self-catered in Alpe d’Huez proper, Pierre & Vacances are a good place to start as they own the bulk of the apartment blocks in town, and always offer competitive prices.
Alpe d’Huez is just 75 minutes drive from Grenoble Airport. British Airways flies to Grenoble twice a week from London Gatwick, with fares starting from just £45 pp each way, based on a return fare.