Brutal but Beautiful. Grand Massif and Skiing in Flaine Review
Why am I startled?
You can ski all you like in Flaine, but you only fully appreciate its unique qualities when fresh snow is falling and you head into town. In the silent whiteness, with brutalist buildings suddenly appearing out of the mist and snow, this pedestrianised resort is startling.
The kind of startling that sends a shiver down your spine.
The kind of startling you find in art-house films.
The kind of startling you don’t often find in a ski resort.
But this kind of startling is not accidental. It took a lot of work.
Why such a ‘brutal’ resort?
In the 1950’s two mountaineers had a lightbulb moment when they stumbled across a remote area tucked away in the Giffre mountains. What a place for a ski station! The men enlisted friends of friends to get the project off the ground and Eric Boissonnas asked Bauhaus founder Marcel Breuer to help him create a cultural centre and open-air museum.
They ditched the traditional Savoyard style in favour of Bauhaus principles of architecture, but they kept in mind the wild nature of the area, making designs work with the light, running wires underground, and separating the resorts so each couldn’t be seen by the other. The resort was designed to be ski in ski out, and runs follow the contours of the mountains.
The founders installed outdoor sculpture by serious artists; Le Boqueteau by Jean Dubuffet, Les Trois Hexagones by Victor Vasarely and La Tête de Femme by Picasso and later a concert hall followed.
The lift infrastructure was state of the art for its time, and some of it still exists today. We love the white square cubes of the circulating gondola called Telebenne. You literally have to take a run up to get onto it, which is interesting in ski boots! The ski runs were designed by Emile Allais, founder of Ecole du Ski Français.
The resort went wildly over schedule and budget.
It was without a doubt, a labour of love.
So does it stand the test of time?
Well, I’d say so.
Currently celebrating its half century, Flaine has preserved its Brutalist style and integrity. In a sea of traditional French alpine resorts Flaine does its own thing in its own way. Like a good ski, its edges are so sharp you can cut yourself. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you like brutalist architecture then you will enjoy its attitude.
Why choose Flaine?
And you won’t just enjoy its appearance. Its location is convenient too; Flaine is one of the closest resorts to Geneva airport. We touch down, pick up a car, and check into our apartment a couple of hours later, arriving in a flurry of snow. But as we drive up and around the hairpin bends, past the traditional wooden houses of Les Carroz, we wonder why the founders decided a bowl at the end of a dead end would make a good ski resort?
We find out a few hours later when we ascend in the cable car to the Grandes Platières summit at an altitude of 2,500 metres, where a 360 degree view takes in the Mont Blanc, Aravis, Belledonne and Jura mountain ranges. The view is awe-inspiring and the weather is as clear as the bell that strikes regularly in the Bauhaus style ecumenical church.
What’s the snow like in Flaine?
A blanket of powdery snow lies all around us. A cheeky Mont Blanc peeks out of the cloud beyond us. And over the course of a week, as we make our way around the resort, we begin to notice that cloud base is constantly there, and we are constantly above it. It’s like the mountains are floating in a sea of soft cotton wool. Flaine is part of one of the fifth largest interconnected ski areas in France; Le Grand Massif, which also encompasses Les Carroz, Morillon, Samoens and Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval. Slopes in the wide Flaine bowl are mostly north facing; which makes for great powder.
Rain is not Flaine?
Sebastian, who helps us get kitted out at Sport 2000, tells me favourable weather is characteristic of the resort; he and his colleagues ski most days of the season.
“Rain is not Flaine,” he says solemnly.
Later, the icy sunshine and powdery conditions are personified by the theatre performers who give me a hug and a selfie, after watching fireworks crack open the night sky.
What’s the winter like in Flaine?
In the summer, as we discovered when we spent a week doing outdoor sport activities in Flaine, the resort is green and colourful, with splashes of art adding to the vibrant palette of nature. In winter, it is painted in monochrome, with moving streaks of colour provided by the bright sledges of families that gather daily to surf the snow around Le Boqueteau, and the faraway pixels of skiers and boarders
What’s the skiing like in Flaine?
But the colours also come in the form of blue, green, red and black runs. The resort lies in a natural circle of peaks at an altitude of 1600-2500 metres and one of its most famous runs, Les Cascades, spans 14 kilometres off-piste, through the forest, to the village of Sixt Fer à Cheval. (Don’t panic about walking home; you can catch a bus back to the gondola at Samoëns.) La Combe de Gers, Les Lindars and Les Pentes de Veret offer signposted, ungroomed ski areas.
For our teens, who are a high intermediate level without off piste skills, we find it less varied than the gigantic playground of The Three Valleys, but there are easily enough red runs to keep us occupied over six or seven days. You can spot the 25 red runs by their devil names while the five black runs are named after mountain ranges.
Our best Grand Massif ski runs?
We tackle a selection of the resort’s 64 runs and 24 ski lifts and then move on to the other resorts of the Grand Massif. Our favourite slopes over the week are Sortilege, (a fast red one,) Faust, Mephisto, Marmotte, and Tourmaline, which can get busy and bumpy at the end of the day. Sometimes we split up, and reunite in one of the resorts. Sometimes we do easy runs like Serpentine just for fun.
What’s Flaine like for beginners?
Flaine offers the rare chance to get all the way around a ski area using only blue runs, and complete beginners don’t have to invest in an expensive lift pass – there are four free ski lifts in the resort, which include three magic carpets. And there are three dedicated and easily accessible beginner’s areas. (Plus lots of beginner slopes in surrounding resorts. ) Parents will love the resort being car free; you are allowed a 90 minute stop to unload and a free bus helps you get around.
How much fun can you have in Flaine?
There are fifteen fun zones you can play around in. Many are still closed when we visit as it is so early in the season but on the way back to our apartment each day we surf the Ze Balaken fun zone (accessed via the Gérats chairlift) and bash our skis under the legs of Balaken the octopus and his friends.
We also loved the devilishly fun installations on the Zizi Panpan run (near the Chariende Express chairlift.) To access them you have to pass the restaurant Luge à Téran, and frankly it would be rude not to stop for a hot chocolate next to its wood burning stove.
And at one point we find ourselves skiing under palm trees at an oasis; something of a novelty in a winter sport resort.
What else is there to do?
On an earlier visit to Flaine I took a leap off the mountain in Les Carroz with Parapente Planete, and this activity is available in ski season too. Three toboggan runs allow for sledging fun and you can go husky dog racing. Or if you want a bigger vehicle, try the ice driving school or a quad bike experience. And if your teens simply want to chase the best selfie spot then there’s plenty of opportunity for that.
What’s the food like?
There’s a reasonable mix of fast food and pizza joints in Flaine and the usual alpine range of mountain top restaurants. If you like a buffet then head down to the refurbished Terminal Neige Totem Hotel. They do an evening feast for a set price that won’t break the bank and their coffee bar is one of the best in town with plenty of comfy seats in front of a real fire.
Some of the resort apartment blocks have restaurants that do a reasonably priced raclette. We have a last night splurge at the Pierre & Vacances Les Terrasses d’Hélios restaurant. On a weekend, especially in peak time book in advance, we could only get a 6pm sitting in a couple of the restaurants.
For a wider choice, try the town of Les Carroz further down the mountain. And if you are driving back to Geneva airport, Samoens is worth a half day visit. If you are there over Christmas your kids will love the live crib in the centre.
We flew from Manchester to Geneva, hiring a car on the Swiss side. Don’t forget to ask for a ski rack and snow chains if you plan to drive to different resorts. Vehicles rented on the Swiss side usually come with winter tyres included.
We bought six day lift passes which enabled us to ski the whole of the Grand Massif area with 139 ski runs and 62 ski lifts. If you buy enough in advance you might get a free day. At the time of writing the six day passes cost €255.00 for an adult over 16, €191.40 for children and €242.40 for senior citizens over 65.
We hired our ski equipment from the excellent (and very patient) staff at Sport 2000 in Flaine Forum. (There is also a branch at Flaine Forêt.) The company has been renting out gear at the resort since 1982 and everyone speaks English. They can also provide coaching and mountain guides. Don’t forget to ask for a helmet for the kids.