Conrad Sutcliffe visits The Grand Massif.

AN hour from Geneva Airport is one of the largest ski areas in the French Alps – and most British skiers never consider going there.
The Grand Massif is what the French call a Moyen Montagne resort.  It’s not that high – the ski range is 1100 metres to 2480 at the top – and the five resorts that ring it know their place in the grand scheme of things.

French people go to the Grand Massif because it is easy to get to and less expensive than the high-altitude resorts such as Les Arcs or Val d’Isere. It doesn’t have the style of Cortina or Courmeyer - and it doesn’t have price tags to match either.

Swiss, German and French skiers go there for weekend breaks, staying in their own apartments or those booked privately through small ads and the Internet.

With one exception – which I will come to in a moment – the large hotels used by British tour companies aren’t part of the tourism landscape in Grand Massif resorts. 

The British awareness of the Grand Massif is largely limited to Flaine – and for all the wrong reasons.

Flaine gets a bad press from the British ski industry because, and I am trying to be delicate here, it isn’t a pretty village. I was once told it is the only resort in the Alps where hotel guests pay a supplement NOT to have a view.

True, the architecture resembles something from a Parisian high-rise estate, but if it’s pretty buildings you want to see then go to Venice instead. The skiing isn’t much cop around the lagoon this time of year though.

The Grand Massif is all about skiing and once you get on the lift out of town you can concentrate on the snowscape instead. That’s what you went for, isn’t it?

Les Carroz, the lowest of the resorts, is barely 10 minutes off the main road (A40) from Geneva to the Mont Blanc tunnel. That accessibility is a reason why the DIY British tourist might start to give the area a look.

Geneva remains the easiest airport to fly to by an economy carrier and is geared up to shuttle tourists to the nearby resorts. A party of eight, travelling by mini-bus, can expect to pay around £150 each way to get to the Massif.

Les Carroz makes a good base for exploring the 265 kilometres of pistes that snake through the Grand Massif.

The town is large enough to be interesting, but not so large that hotels and apartments are a long hike from the lifts. There is bus service to the main telecabin station, or a network of draglifts that will get you there after a couple of rides.

Although Les Carrroz is low, its proximity to Mont Blanc means the snow cover is pretty good for most of the season. When I visited it hadn’t snowed for three weeks, but a combination of good snow-making and careful grooming made it possible to ski right back into town every day.

A real bonus after a hard day on the slopes was to ski straight into a terrace bar at the bottom of the home slope for a welcome reviver.  The Hotel Belles Piste or its neighbour the Airelles will happily oblige with a litre glass of lager.

With 135 pisted runs to choose from – 54 blue and 50 red – there is every opportunity to work up a decent thirst most days by the time the lifts close.

Flaine is slap-bang in the centre of the lift map and the hub around which the Grand Massif operates. Les Carroz, Morillon, Samoens and Sixt are the smaller resorts on the rim.

For a good day’s skiing, head to the top of the Grandes Platieres, from where you can see the peak of Mont Blanc, and have a coffee before deciding where to ski to next. It’s worth the stop to take in the view towards Geneva, which is breathtaking.

Take your pick of the surrounding villages  the long blue down to Sixt is a beaut - or head for the hills on the south side of Flaine where there are some decent cruising runs.

That’s almost it for the skiing tips, other than a general reminder that the runs home can get a bit busy from mid-afternoon onwards. Carroz is the largest of the resorts, therefore it attracts the most traffic at going home time from the Flaine side. The slight gradient on the stretch halfway back isn’t helpful.

Although the big tour operators give Carroz, Morillon, Samoens and Sixt a wide berth, smaller firms such as Erna Low and Skilines offer self-catering packages, either with or without Eurotunnel tickets thrown in.

As for Flaine, almost all the big guns have a presence there.

The size of the Spar shop in Carroz is a guide to the extent of the self-catering market in the town.

There are plenty of bars and restaurants for the can’t-cook, won’t-cook brigade – and two child friendly pizza parlours in the main square.

Non-combatants won’t find much to do, shopping is limited, but for those who fancy a break from skiing check out the open-air ice rink or the cinema, which shows an English-language film one night a week.

Skiiers aren’t exempt from the credit crunch and those on a tight budget could do worse than give the Grand Massif the once over.

The Grand Massif fact file:

The Grand Massif ski area has 265km of pistes and two snow parks. It is serviced by 80 ski lifts and 229 snow cannons.

A six-day lift pass for the Massif area will cost E192 this winter. Children aged 5-15 pay E150.

There is a regular shuttle service from Geneva to Les Carroz with Aeroski. There and back is E78 (adult) and half price for children aged 2-10. Group fares (4+) are E54 per person. Click on www.alpski-bus.com. Alternatively, book a private mini-bus transfer with www.alps-direct.com. The advertised price is E340.

Self-drive specialists Erna Low have a selection of hotels, chalets and self-catering apartments in Les Carroz. Typical is the Residence Sunotel opposite the main square. An apartment sleeping two adults and two children for a week from January 3 will set you back £389 - and that includes a Eurotunnel crossing!

Les Carroz now offers a hook-up service for mobile home users. It’s E4.5 a day and available by obtaining a ticket from the municipal police office. Nearby Samoens has a three-star camping and mobile home park, Le Giffre. Go to www.camping-samoens.com for details.

Useful websites are www.lescaroz.com, www.grand-massif.com and www.flaine.com