Méribel, France: Full Of Surprises!Nov 16, 2023 03:56PM ● By Story and Photography By Lisa Ballard
Sometimes a ski trip is full of surprises, like the one I took at the end of last winter in Méribel, France. The first surprise was how absolutely lovely the resort looked as my rental car rolled through this historic mountain town at sunset. All of the French Alps are alpine eye candy, but Méribel is among the most enchanting, an all-natural beauty that hides her modern amenities under a mantle of old-world mystique.
Therein lies the second surprise, the amount of skiable terrain that is accessible from little Méribel Village. Located in the heart of Les Trois Vallees (the Three Valleys), it’s part of the largest interconnected ski region in the world. For $300, the cost of a six-day lift ticket, a skier can make tracks at Courchevel, Val Thorens, Les Meniures, and several other interconnected ski areas for a total of 232 square miles of skiable terrain.
A British colonel named Peter Lindsay, with help from the 1936 Olympic champion and renowned French ski instructor Emile Allais, is credited with raising the money, finding the location, buying the land, and building Méribel. During that tense pre-World War II era, Lindsay wanted to create a ski resort as an alternative to the established Austrian ski resorts that had become increasingly overrun by German Nazis.
Lindsay constructed several buildings and a lift called a teletraineau—a mechanical sled that carried 30 skiers at a time up a slope along a fixed cable. The base of the teletraineau was in a pasture on the edge of Mussillon (pronounce MOO-see-yon), a small farming community above the larger town of Les Allues. Mussillon was difficult for English-speaking skiers to pronounce, so Lindsay renamed his ski area Méribel, which is derived from the Latin words mirare (wonderful) and bel (nice).
The teletraineau opened for the winter of 1938, but operated for only one year. The war in Europe broke out in 1939, then Germany invaded France in 1940. Germany occupied the region, and Méribel became a base for the Resistance.
Immediately after the war, Lindsay returned to Méribel to finish his ski area. He insisted that all of the hotels and homes had to be chalet-style and constructed from the local materials, specifically wood and stone with double-pitched slate rooves. The building code remains today, which is part Méribel’s aesthetic. Méribel exudes tradition, not glitz. It feels like a quaint mountain retreat, yet it’s a massive modern skiing mecca.
The Rich, Fast, and Famous
The actress Brigitte Bardot, who owned a home in Méribel, is credited with putting the resort on the proverbial map after she was photographed on its ski slopes during the 1960s. Since then, the resort has been a skiing and snowboarding destination for famous, discriminating vacationers like David Beckham, Emma Watson, George Clooney, and former French president Francois Mitterrand, whose brother also owned a chalet there. My third surprise was learning that, a decade ago, Formula One driving legend Michael Schumacher had a career-ending ski injury at Méribel. I planned to make it home in one piece.
Following my GPS, I puttered through town, watching for skiers crossing the road who had just come down an incredibly steep slope to my right—the Roc du Fer! Earlier in the winter, the 2023 Alpine Skiing World Championships had taken place on that very slope. It was a famous piste originally created for the women’s alpine events during the 1992 Winter Olympics in nearby Albertville. Americans Hilary Lindh and Diann Roffe both nabbed silver medals in that Olympics, in downhill and giant slalom respectively. Since then, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin have garnered golds on this famous race hill in World Cup competition. And last winter, Shiffrin took home a gold and two silvers at the World Championships. I needed to ski it!
Skiing the Roc de Fer
The windy mountain road disappeared into a tunnel, cutting off my view of the Roc de Fer. When I came out the other side, there were ski slopes but no village, another surprise. As it turned out, my hotel was not in Méribel Village, but a few kilometers higher up the road in Méribel-Mottaret. I didn’t realize Méribel was the name of three mountain enclaves at different elevations in the same valley. The third is Méribel Centre. Mottaret is the highest.
By then, the sky had darkened, revealing a series of sculptures shaped by hundreds of Christmas tree lights. One looked like a sparkling heart, another like a glimmering deer, and a third like a bejeweled eagle taking off from an unseen perch—yet another delightful surprise! They reminded me of the animal-shaped trees at Disney World, except these were made from hundreds of tiny sparkles.
The next morning, I wasn’t sure where to start with so much skiable terrain. Les Trois Vallees has over 335 trails! However, I knew I wanted to make at least one run down the Roc de Fer, so that was as good a place to begin as any. I wondered if I could ski there. My hotel was ski in, ski out, so I inquired at the bar, which also served as the breakfast buffet, front desk, and concierge.
“Oui,” replied the bartender, pouring me a strong espresso. “You just go down zee piste.” I took that to mean ski down on any trail from the hotel, and I would get there.
It was a long, easy run to from Mottaret to Méribel Village and a perfect warmup. I skied onto the Legends chairlift, then stared at the slope to my right as the chair rose higher and higher beside the famous trail. I imagined how many World Cup athletes had ridden this same chairlift over the years en route to glory or disappointment. I felt part of it by simply being there.
After getting off the Legends lift, I took another chair to the highest point at this part of the resort, also called the Roc de Fer. Roc de Fer is French for “iron rock.” Presumably the crags around the summit have iron in them, but World Cup racers must also have iron-like nerves to ski such a steep, undulating pitch at speeds over 85 miles per hour in downhill. I had no intention of skiing even half that speed.
The Roc was groomed and wide. I hardly noticed the handful of other skiers on it. My skis fell into an enjoyable rhythm, left, right, left, right. The run was a series of pitches punctuated by several swooping turns. It was long, over a mile and a half, and dropped over 2,100 feet from the top to the bottom, but it didn’t feel like such a long drop until the last section of trail.
The final pitch to the bottom is an unrelenting plunge. I paused at the top of it to take it in. All of the races—slalom, GS, super G, and downhill—ended at the bottom in the same spot in front of an enormous grandstand. I tried to imagine what it would be like accelerating down such a slope, with tired legs and on a much harder surface than the forgiving packed powder that my skis now gripped.
I pushed off, making short, slalom-like turns, trying to control my speed, but the slope begged for more. As my speed picked up, I sensed a crowd of 20,000 cheering from the empty stands, like ski racing spirits who had come alive when someone like me glides through the spot where the finish line had been. To my surprise, a man approached me.
“Nice turns,” he said in French. “You ski like a racer.”
I replied. In fact, I had ski raced most of my life, but I had never
skied the Roc de Fer. I looked up at it, and had yet another surprise, a
tear of happiness at the chance to come to Méribel. During my trip, I
skied numerous slopes throughout the Trois Vallees, but the Roc de Fer
was a run I will always remember.
Closest Airport: Geneva, Switzerland (two hours) or Lyon, France (two hours)
Lodging: There are many hotels and short-term rentals around Méribel. They are comparably priced to upmarket ski resort lodging in the USA. For budget travelers, stay in nearby Brides-les-Bains, which is connected by gondola to Méribel.
Language: Many locals speak English as the region still caters heavily to British skiers.
Elevation: The highest point is about 9,700 feet, much lower than many Rocky Mountain destinations, a plus if you’re prone to altitude sickness.
Backcountry: There’s lots of it, particularly in nearby Courchevel, which is part of the Trois Vallees. Bring your skins and avalanche gear, and hire a guide to learn where the best couloirs and powder stashes are.
Lift Tickets: Lift tickets are cheap, especially on Saturdays, the changeover day. Epic pass holders get seven days.
More Info: les3vallees.com