This section of the French Alps begins south-east of Grenoble and juts against the Italian border, taking in the major towns of Gap and Briançon. It's an area of friendly villages, 300 days of sunshine and some of the highest peaks in the Alps. What you won't find, however, are the large queues that can take some of the fun out of a ski holiday.

Among its 31 resorts, there is plenty to captivate skiers of all levels. One of France's biggest ski domains is at Serre Chevalier Vallée, where the great variety of the skiing satisfies mixed-ability groups.

And expert skiers will already be familiar with La Grave-La Meije, which offers some of the most challenging pistes in the whole of the Alps.

But winter sports activities aren't limited to the slopes: you can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sleigh rides, ice climbing and the exhilarating sport of ski jöring, which involves being pulled on skis by a horse. If all that sounds too strenuous, then bask in the warmth of the thermal springs.

The département of Hautes-Alpes is within easy reach of three international airports: Grenoble, Marseille and Turin across the border in Italy. Shuttle buses, the navettes blanches, connect the airports with the resorts. Rail options involve taking the Eurostar to Paris and changing for trains to Briançon and Oulx in Italy.

 

Serre Chevalier Vallée
Thirteen villages and towns make up the huge domain of Serre Chevalier Vallée, known as "Serre Che". There are 250km of pistes spread out over 4,445 hectares in the Guisane valley, giving skiers and snowboarders of all levels plenty to enjoy. The 107 runs are almost evenly divided between very easy/easy and intermediate/advanced. Expert skiers will enjoy the backcountry runs that wind their way through the woods. Snowboarders certainly won't feel left out, either, as they have some great riding to enjoy in the snowparks and boardercross course. Intermediate skiers who want to venture off-piste can try their luck in the avalanche training park.

Its main base is Briançon, a Unesco heritage site and the highest town in Europe. You can base yourself here or you can stay in one of the rustic villages in the valley. Chantemerle is a charming place, popular with people who want a good selection of self-catering apartments. Its neighbour, Villeneuve, has a picturesque village centre as well as ski-in-ski-out accommodation. Monêtier-les-Bains is one of the prettiest villages in the region, and it has been attracting visitors to its thermal spa for decades.

If you want a break from the slopes, try some of the other winter activities on offer, including snowshoeing, carriage rides, ice climbing and ski jöring. www.serre-chevalier.com

 

Les Orres
Les Orres's panoramic vistas of the nearby Serre-Ponçon lake are what bring many skiers to this exceptionally friendly and sunny resort. Its 88km of pistes include many long runs through wooded
terrain, which will keep intermediates happy, and a snowpark and boardercross course to satisfy snowboarders. Even expert skiers aren't ignored, as one of the black runs is aptly named l'Horrible and the altitude stretches as high as 2,730m.

If you prefer to go in a straight line rather than up and down, Les Orres has 30km of cross-country ski trails, as well as an ice-skating rink. Other activities let someone else (or something else) do the work for you: fly through the woods on a snow scooter, or ride on a dog sled. www.lesorres.com

 

Dévoluy
Two resorts are better than one at Dévoluy, especially when they combine to cover 100km of pistes. SuperDévoluy and La Joue du Loup perch on a high plateau in the peaceful northwestern reaches of Hautes-Alpes.

Families love Dévoluy, where beginners get the best of the pistes and there is direct access to the slopes. But that doesn't mean more ambitious skiers are neglected. The two steepest trails are at the top of the mountain, with plenty of powder fields above the treeline. Snowboarders can make use of the snowpark in La Joue du Loup.

There are 35km of cross-country ski trails and 30km for snowshoeing through tranquil woods. If you want some virtual company, hire a Taïsson audioguide which will fill you in on the local flora and fauna. If you prefer a real live human, then a mountain guide can take you on a moonlit snowshoe walk towards a mountain restaurant for dinner. www.ledevoluy.com

 

Puy Saint-Vincent
Families return to Puy Saint-Vincent time and time again, enchanted by the friendliness of the resort and the convenience of doorstep skiing. There's also the natural beauty of the Ecrins National Park, one of France's biggest, which surrounds this two-part resort with its 75km of runs.

Both 1,400 and 1,600 stations have excellent nursery slopes for beginners. Novice snowboarders can make use of the new high-speed six-seat chairlift that links the two stations to practise their turns on the wide gentle terrain between the two bases. The more experienced can try out their jumps at
the boardercross park.

Puy Saint-Vincent hosts a renowned comedy festival every January, the Festival du Rire. The resort is also one of the few in France that offers snake-glisse, a new winter-sport activity that is fun for all ages. It's a toboggan that clicks on to another one to form a snake-like sledge that careers down the slope in a much more entertaining way than an ordinary toboggan. http://puy-saint-vincent.paysdesecrins.com

 

Vars - Risoul
These two resorts combine to form the Domaine de la Forêt Blanche, one of the most southerly of the Southern Alps. This means long days of provençal sunshine combined with northfacing slopes and high altitudes that give excellent snow cover over 185km of runs. Both Vars and Risoul offer ski-in, ski-out accommodation, with the nursery slopes barely a stone's throw from your hotel or residence. While beginners can practise on the many green and blue runs at Risoul, more
experienced skiers can make use of the tougher runs over at Vars, which is directly connected. There's also the speed-ski track where several world records have been set over the years. Snowboarders have really taken to Vars-Risoul, as the resort was a pioneer in terrain park design, making it one of the best snowparks in France.
If you want to spend a day away from the slopes, you can also hire a snowmobile or take the dogs out for a ride in a sledge through the woods, returning to the village for a relaxing afternoon in the wellness centre. For an experience out of the ordinary, take a helicopter flight over the
mountains of the Forêt Blanche. www.risoul1850.com; www.vars.com

 

Montgenèvre
A little bit of Italy rubs off on Montgenèvre, the only French resort within the huge 400km Milky Way domain that includes Sestriere and Sauze d'Oulx over the border. In fact, Montgenèvre even hosted some of the events during the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. It's a small, friendly and pleasant village with 100km of high-altitude runs practically on your hotel's doorstep, an enviable snow record and lots of sunshine.

Beginners are well catered for, but it's intermediates who really get spoilt at Montgenèvre, thanks to a large number of wide cruising red pistes that suddenly dip into the trees.

Come the evening, join the snowmobile procession that explores the mountain and can include dinner in a chalet.

January : 4th Edition of the Montgenèvre Poker Tour and 2nd Italian Cinema Arts Festival.

February : Fun and entertainment on the snow front. Fireworks andski demonstrations every Wednesday.

 

La Grave - La Meije
There really is no other place like La Grave-La Meije in Europe, and that's no exaggeration. One thing for certain is that it's not the place for beginners, intermediates or even someone who can just about manage a black run. It's for experts only - particularly those who feel comfortable on a mountain glacier where there are next to no pistes. It's freeride heaven, in other words, with a vertical drop of about 2,200m. A cable car takes you to the 3,200m peak, and after that you're on your own. No ski patrols, no pistes. Instead there are cliff drops, gullies and other forces of nature that make for an extraordinary ride down from the glacier at the top. It's best to hire one of the resort's guides, all of whom have intimate knowledge of every metre of this majestic mountain.

Every year in late March or early April, La Grave-La Meije gets into the carnival spirit when it hosts the Derby de la Meije.

During the three-day festival, more than 1,000 costumed skiers and snowboarders race down 2,150m - the longest vertical drop of any race on the planet - in between the many parties going on in the resort. www.lagrave-lameije.com