Les Menuires has never been backwards in coming forwards – as I was told on my visit with refreshing candour “…you either love it or hate it.” And this year, the Marmite of the French Alps defiantly celebrates its 60th birthday.
A classic example of modernist French alpine architecture, Les Menuires was one of a series of ski resorts developed as part of the Plan Neige (Snow Plan), an innovative project launched in 1960 by the Pompidou government, which also gave birth to the likes of Les Arcs, La Plagne, Avoriaz and Flaine.
Architects chosen for the project were given free rein to convert the virgin high mountains above the Belleville Valley from a “snow desert” to a winter playground for the masses, creating novel, ski-in/ski-out accommodation to suit all budgets.
Les Menuires offered a new, less moneyed generation of skiers from France and beyond easy access not just to the slopes and ski lifts but to other fully integrated, services. The shops, ski schools, equipment hire, bars and restaurants were built into the ground floor of the accommodation blocks – in Les Menuires, you can get pretty much everywhere you want, from a red run to a bar, supermarket or ski shop, in your ski boots (if not actually on your skis).
For skiers who were unable to afford a traditional hotel or chalet ski holiday in the Alps’ biggest names, resorts such as Les Menuires provided a budget introduction to a sport that had previously been the preserve of the wealthy. I was one of them, and consequently, I have something of a soft spot for the resort that introduced me to a sport that became a lifelong passion.
At the start of the 2023/24 season, 32 years since my first visit, I was still able to access the slopes directly from my accommodation – the recently built four-star Higalik Hotel, a modern mix of traditional alpine chalet and cool Scandi style – and make my way to the resort’s upgraded La Masse cable car, now one of the fastest ski lifts in France. It zooms skywards at speeds of up to 25km an hour, disgorging skiers on the 2,804-metre summit of Pointe de la Masse, where there’s a choice of blue, red, black or off-piste runs back down to the valley.
Over the decades, Les Menuires has upgraded its lifts and opened avalanche-controlled freeride zones. As a result, big lift queues are not generally an issue out of peak periods such as half-term and the skiing compares favourably with the wider Trois Vallées area, whether you’re looking for easy groomed runs or extensive off-piste; many experienced skiers are surprised by what the underrated resort has to offer.
This variety is a trait Les Menuires shares with its neighbours across the world’s largest ski area. I spent the day flitting between the slopes in Les Menuires, Val Thorens and Méribel, spoilt for choice as to what sort of skiing to enjoy in the bright December sunshine. There was still plenty of untracked powder, but wide, snaking pistes – such as the red Campagnol plummeting down from Mont Vallon towards Méribel or the rolling blue Jerusalem down to St Martin de Belleville – were just as appealing.
Not everyone backed the plan to create Les Menuires. But after the Second World War, increasing numbers of young people had been leaving the area for easier and better-paid work in the local towns of Moutier, Albertville and beyond. Developing the region for winter sports was seen as a means of preventing this exodus.
The valley’s population in 1835 of around 3,000 permanent residents had declined to around 1,000 by the 1940s and didn’t exceed 3,000 again until the 1990s – a fact I discovered in the museum in Les Menuires’ neighbouring settlement of St Martin de Belleville.
The resort’s mid-century ultra-modern developments came as a shock to many of the valley’s historic residents, who, like their ancestors, had for centuries lived a traditional alpine lifestyle, dependent upon farming cattle, sheep and goats, working their way up and down the slopes with their animals as the seasons demanded.
The biggest accommodation block, Le Brelin, consists of 700 apartments with 2,500 beds and is known as the “snow liner” because of its huge size. It’s now a 20th-century heritage site, representing the very particular architectural style of the period.
However, at the time – and to some extent ever since – the developments were panned by critics, being likened by the left-wing newspaper Libération to the low-income housing complex of Sarcelles, a crime-troubled Parisian suburb. The Daily Mail was so affronted that it recommended that anyone skiing in Les Menuires should “…go through very quickly with your eyes closed.”
It’s probably true to say that many first-time visitors (myself included) initially take a dim view of the resort’s uncompromising architecture, but when you’ve experienced how much easily accessible fun you can have on the slopes and how convenient the resort’s layout is, it’s difficult not to warm to the place; not for nothing does it market itself as “Friendly Menuires”.
Here to stay
While the resort’s signature modernist architecture has seen the addition of more traditional chalets in recent years, the tower blocks are here to stay. Owners of apartments are encouraged to refurbish and update their properties in compliance with various criteria, including the use of sustainable and environmentally friendly materials, and can obtain grants to do so. I visited one and encountered a peculiar mix of ’70s-inspired orange and brown external décor with a contemporary wood, tile and steel interior – somehow it seemed to work.
Les Menuires is still popular with budget skiers, but the resort’s newer, more luxurious developments, such as the Higalik, mean more well-heeled visitors will find something to suit.
And if they don’t, well, Les Menuires really isn’t that bothered, safe in the knowledge that for 60 years plenty of skiers have felt quite at home here, and will continue to do so.
The Higalik Hotel offers a week’s stay from £1,527 per person, B&B, including flights from Gatwick and transfers, departing March 30. Free architectural tours of Les Menuires are available throughout December and February and over Easter. Visit lesmenuires.com for more, and read our expert guide to holidays in the resort here.