From the blustery summit of Les Arcs' Aiguille Rouge, the view is nothing but Alps, cresting and white, sprawling to all horizons. "Allez," says Vincent, my guide. Let's go. We slip away from the crowds on the piste, wrapping around the mountain to the top of a broad, steep pitch of virgin powder that drops away like the inrun to an Olympic ski jump. On the other side of Aiguille Rouge, some 20,000 skiers and snowboarders cruise the rolling groomers that stripe Les Arcs' vast basins. They toss back espressos on decks packed with hundreds of lounge chairs and eat slices of pizza in the alpine equivalent of frayed, aging strip malls.
Skiing France's Savoy Alps might sound glamorous, but-the amazing off-piste terrain notwithstanding-its resorts are far from the intimate Savoyard villages of our imaginations. Built primarily during the French ski craze of the 1960s, '70s and early '80s with the aim of providing beds for as many bodies as possible, they tend to resemble giant cruise ships, sans luxury suites or cushy amenities, beached amid a high Sahara of snow. Nowhere is this more true than at Les Arcs-which comprises one half of Paradiski, the new megaresort formed in 2004 when a new cable car linked Les Arcs with nearby La Plagne. (At 34,000 skiable acres, Paradiski is as large as all of Colorado's slopes combined.) But change is coming-from an unlikely direction. Intrawest Corp., the Canadian developer that has revolutionized (and, some argue, homogenized) North American skiing with its villages in Copper, Tremblant, Stratton and elsewhere, is importing a touch of European style and class to a European nation that prides itself on style and class. Intrawest is at the halfway point of a four-star village-style development with 800 condos, a spa and 50,000 square feet of restaurants, shops and bars. Cynics may scoff at the notion of a North American company bringing faux Europe to the real thing, but so far the village is a hit.
"This village is lovely," says Neil Rasburn, a doctor from Manchester, England, as he orders a pint at the smoky Café Hemingway. "The other French resorts are bloody awful. None of them compare in the slightest."
Like other French resorts, Les Arcs possesses numerous centers-including Arc 1600, Arc 1800 and Arc 2000-each named for its elevation. The new village, Arc 1950, is not so much a cobbled pedestrian village at the base of the mountain, like those at Whistler or Copper, as it is an intimate ski-through enclave in the middle of the slopes. Though there are only three characteristically Intrawest condo hotels up and running-with a fourth scheduled for later this season-there's already a palpable vibe. Emerging from my hotel's underground parking into a richly hued, pine-paneled lobby, I watch revelers spill out of the adjacent Café Hemingway and settle into big armchairs, laughing and murmuring in French and English. Outside, lights twinkle and thick flakes fall, clinging to stone facings, copper trim and balconies flanking a narrow pedestrian boulevard caked thickly with snow.
Upstairs, a one-bedroom apartment features a large foyer with heated tiles and a massive closet. Doors open into a living room with a small yet fully equipped kitchen. Heavy wooden doors slide together to shutter the bedroom at night, and a private deck overlooks a steep mountain face. Hand-carved pine trim cases the suite in the style of the old Alpen chalets. But unlike the chalets, there's a deep soaker tub, an American-size bed and dozens of TV channels (including several in English), along with a fitness center downstairs.
Not that you'll need it. On my first day, my guide and I ski Les Arcs' legendary vertical drop, descending the 7,015 feet from the wild white summit of Aiguille Rouge to the apple trees above Villaroger. On Day 2, we travel Paradiski's breadth, lunching on a sun-drenched patio overlooking Courchevel and the famed Trois Vallées. The trip takes an entire day of high-speeed cruising and would not have been possible without the new double-decker Vanoise Express-the world's largest cable car, spanning a 1.2-mile-wide valley. Yet I sample only a bit of what Paradiski-now the world's third-largest ski resort-has to offer. Advanced skiers game for exploring off-piste with a guide could play for weeks without fighting for first tracks.
Back at Arc 1950, my new French and British friends are waiting in the Hemingway with wine and typical Savoyard platters of dried meat. Horses pull squealing skiers through the village as part of the daily après entertainment, then out past the cranes marking the development's next phase. The French were skeptical at first, but now they too are buying in. "C'est jolie," they say with a kind of delighted surprise. "It's pretty," I hear again and again. And in the world of French resorts, that's rare praise, indeed.