France's ski resorts are a diverse lot. They range from the ultramodern Courchevel, built on land selected for magnificient skiing, to centuries-old mountain villages like Chamonix.
Chamonix, one of France's oldest ski areas, has charming streets lined with old hotels and small, moderately priced restaurants. A pass holder can choose from 13 ski areas or one of the world's famed ski runs, the glacier run of the Vallee Blanche, which has spectacular views of Mont Blanc. Chamonix's one drawback is the half-hour bus ride from the center of town to most of the slopes.
Those who wish to step from their hotel directly onto the mountain and are willing to forgo ambiance might consider Courchevel. This modern resort of five separate villages offers 300 miles of carefully groomed, marked trails.
The ''town'' of Courchevel 1,850 is a clutter of small hotels and restaurants; it resembles a mining camp under construction. But first impressions aside, most of the small hotels (few have more than 50 rooms) are pleasant and intimate once you're inside. Courchevel has a reputation for fast night life and boasts some of the most luxurious hotels in the Alps.
Another resort where skiers can ski right to their doors is Les Arcs, a complex of four villages. While many modern French resorts have a hit-or-miss sense of aesthetics and ungainly high-rises, Les Arcs has gained an international reputation for the harmonious integration of buildings and environment.
Avoriaz is particularly well suited for skiers with children, because of its Children's Village. An area within the resort with its own lifts, the village offers instruction for 3- to 12-year-olds.
Although Avoriaz is a modern resort, horse-drawn sleighs have replaced cars here. Accommodations run the gamut, and a variety of apartment and condominium rentals come equipped with kitchens and can provide excellent value for a small group of friends skiing together.
Air France, TWA, and Swissair offer ski packages. Air France's Jet Vacations offer attractive room rates at a choice of six resorts, including Megeve, Avoriaz, and Val-d'Isere. Prices range from $145 a person per week at the Croix Blanche in Chamonix (depending on the week) to $735 to $970 for a week at the luxurious Annapurna in Courchevel 1,850. Mid-range (three-star) hotels at Val-d'Isere, Chamonix, Avoriaz, and La Plagne average roughly $300 a week. Expect to pay more at Courchevel, which boasts a high-society clientele, and at Megeve, a chic all-round winter resort.
Courchevel and Val-d'Isere are popular at Christmas because they are known for their early snow. But a bargain can still occasionally be found. For example , the two-week Christmas and New Year's period at Crystal 2,000 in Courchevel includes half board for $875; beginning the week of Jan. 21, rates rise to $499 a week and stay there until late April.
Most Christmas packages are two weeks; an exception is a one-week package (good throughout the winter) called Ski Spree. A two-bedroom apartment in Chamonix, double occupancy, can cost $100 a person per week, including everything but the air fare (add $600).
Bargain time is the month of January. Generally, high season includes the two middle weeks in February, concurrent with French school vacations. Christmas is usually (but not always) peak.
Swissair offers packages to Chamonix (from $154 for bed and breakfast to $405 MAP (modified American plan, or breakfast and dinner) first-class hotel), Val-d'Isere ($191 and $574) and Courchevel ($441 and $973). They will also put together your own tailor-made program.
TWA also offers ski packages to Chamonix. Prices range from $213 to $798 a person per week, double occupancy, MAP. Adult APEX airfare is $599, except the period Dec. 10-24. For each parent, one child 18 or under flies free (with some restrictions on certain weeks).
When ski passes or lessons are not included, you can figure an adult pass for six days begins at about $65 to $85, depending on the resort. Bring several passport-size photos, because some ski areas require them for their lift tickets.
It pays to check rates in packages against independent bookings. For example , a one-week stay beginning Jan. 7 at the deluxe Hotel Sofitel in Val-d'Isere is about $85. While this is certainly a savings on the usual rate of $102 a person per night double occupancy, Hotel Sofitel offers a ski-week package for that same period for $399 a person, double occupancy MAP, which includes six-day lift ticket and equipment rental. This special package can be booked though Hotel Sofitel or a travel agent.