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Learning to snowboard — in France

The resort of Les Arcs in the French Alps is renowned for having 125 miles of runs, a lift system that can take you all the way up to 10,500 feet, and a cable car that connects to the neighboring valley of La Plagne.
Image: Snowboarding in Les Arcs
The village of Les Arcs 1950, opened by developer Intrawest in 2003 at the Les Arcs ski resort in Savoie, France.Kelvin Chan / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The resort of Les Arcs in the French Alps is renowned for having 125 miles of runs, a lift system that can take you all the way up to 10,500 feet, and a cable car that connects to the neighboring valley of La Plagne.

But I didn't experience much of that on my week there. Instead, I spent a lot of my time at the resort's highest station, Les Arcs 2000, falling down on the bunny slopes as I tried to learn to snowboard in a six-day group course.

As a kid I learned to ski. But I had never snowboarded. As I entered my 30s, I wanted to see what I was missing before I got too old to learn. How hard could it be?

A week later, I had my answer: I had learned to snowboard, but my class had its share of injuries and drop-outs along the way.

Tucked away in the Savoy region, close to where France meets the borders of Switzerland and Italy, Les Arcs is probably not a name familiar to North American skiers and snowboarders. Its slopes, overlooked by Mont Blanc towering in the distance, attract mainly French visitors, including many families.

My wife and I chose the resort partly because a guidebook recommended it as one of the best places in Europe for beginner boarders and skiers. (She didn't know how to ski and opted for those classes instead of snowboarding.) Les Arcs was also one of the few places available when we booked our trip from Britain at the last minute.

I signed up for afternoon lessons with Ecole du Ski Francais, the main school at Les Arcs 2000, and joined a class of about two dozen. The class was split among French kids, and Dutch and British vacationers.

Our instructors were two easygoing, bronzed dudes who spoke both French and English.

We spent the first few days mastering basics on the bunny hill, where we learned to control our speed by leaning on the board's front or back edge — or, as our teachers said, by "back hedging" or "front hedging".

Everyone seemed to master sliding back and forth to some degree down the hill on one edge. But making a complete turn from one side to the other proved trickier.

The instructors kept exhorting us to "keep your body in line with ze board!" Some took to it more naturally than others, but one Dutch woman struggled. Two days in, she gave up in frustration.

Making a turn proved to be a challenge for me too — the delicate exercise of shifting weight from my heels to toes (or vice versa) and keeping my weight over the front of the board instead of the back. The sensation that I was about to topple headfirst down the hill whenever I leaned forward was unnerving, and I fell countless times until I got it right. Unlike some of my classmates, I hadn't brought along a pair of padded undershorts to protect my backside.

That, combined with the vigorous use of muscles that are usually neglected during my normal desk-bound life, made the first few days and evenings painful and achy.

Off the slopes, I was glad we'd booked ourselves into a fully catered chalet. Each day, the young, mainly British staff cooked up a full breakfast, afternoon snack and delicious dinner, so we didn't have to do it ourselves or hunt around for a decent place to eat.

Not that we'd have much luck. As we discovered, Les Arcs 2000 is a modernist super-resort built during the fever for architectural modernism that swept France in the 1960s and 1970s.

Unlike Swiss or Austrian ski areas that grew up around centuries-old villages, Les Arcs is a purpose-built ski resort plunked down on a mountainside — in this case at 6,500 feet or 2,000 meters up, hence the name. (Sister resorts 1600, at 5,250 feet, and 1800, at 5,900 feet, are lower down; a more recent addition, 1950, at, 6,400 feet, is next door.)

Les Arcs 2000 consists mainly of a line of big angular, timber-clad hotels with swooping rooflines that zigzag across the mountainside. There's not much in the way of apres-ski, just a few bars and restaurants.

A cluster of chalets, including ours, have been built in the resort's backyard. We ventured out exactly twice at night during our stay. The first time was with other chalet guests to a quiz night held deep in the bowels of the resort at a bar decorated like strip club, complete with mirrors, zebra-skin seats and a pole-dance platform.

The second time, we headed to Les Arcs 1950. At first glance, 1950 might seem like a classic Alpine ski village, consisting of chalets and low-rise apartment buildings. Skiers and snowboarders amble along with no cars in sight and a clock tower overlooks the village's main square.

But look closer: Things aren't exactly how they appear. The cars are parked in the underground garage. There aren't any townsfolk because, well, none live here. That clock tower? Look closer and you'll see the word "Intrawest" written discreetly on the face.

Yes, 1950 is a faux Alpine village, opened in 2003 by the Canadian ski developer Intrawest, the same people who brought us Whistler Blackcomb, Mount Tremblant and Copper Mountain.

It may be fake but we found it to be a more pleasant place to hang out than the hotel complex at 2000. On the one night our chalet staff had off, we took the free Cabriolet cable car down to 1950 to eat at an Asian fusion restaurant, one of nine restaurants at 1950. Restaurants at both resorts also serve the Savoy specialties of fondue and raclette.

Back on the slopes, I made steady progress. When our group was split in two, halfway through the course, I was in the slightly more advanced group, which used more challenging runs farther up the mountains. One day, after a heavy snowfall, my teacher encouraged me to go off one of the pistes (what Europeans call runs) and into fresh powder. I glided silently over the virgin snow, picking up speed with little effort. A wave of exhilaration washed over me and suddenly, I discovered why people love to snowboard.

But others weren't so lucky: Two Dutch guys gave up after one messed up his knee. One of the French boys in the other group broke his arm. Ben, from England, tore a stomach muscle and retired in excruciating pain. On the second-last day another Dutch woman, Kim, went down hard on her shoulder and was taken away by snowmobile.

Most of the remaining Brits threw in the towel; one went off in search of skis his last day. By the end, my group was down to four — including two French girls barely in their teens.

On our final run, we went off the piste to an extremely short but steep slope where we edged down gingerly. My calves and thighs started to burn. At the bottom, we paused to catch our breaths. Then we turned to join the hordes pouring off the mountain at the end of the day.

No, not so hard after all.