The Secret Resort of Le Grand-Bornand

Le Grand-Bornand is not a name that trips easily off the tongue when we mention skiing, but it's typically and traditionally French.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice
Le Grand Bornand

Photo: © F.Hardy

Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers, and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.

Peter This week we’re back on the slopes in Le Grand-Bornand, mid-way through this topsy-turvy ski season, where European temperatures seem to yo-yo dramatically as snowfall is either huge or virtually non-existent. That, of course, depends on where and when you go. When we arrived at the end of January, the mercury reads -12, and when we leave a week later, it’s +12. Climate change is a reality.

Felice Le Grand-Bornand is not a name like Morzine or Chamonix that trips easily off the tongue when we mention skiing, but it’s typically, traditionally French. It’s a resort that’s part of a big ski area. La Clusaz is the bigger neighbour, but they share a lift pass and there’s a solid snow record and reasonable prices, too.

Le Grand-Bornand

Photo: © J.Cathala/OT Le Grand-Bornand

Peter It also has one of the shortest airport transfers in the Alps. And in this changing world of post-Covid travel, that to my mind anyway, is very important indeed.

Felice Yes, our journey there from Geneva Airport using the resort’s own minibus shuttle, took under an hour and cost €41 each. What does a shared transfer to bigger resorts like Val d’Isere cost, for example?

Peter I can tell you because I’ve just booked one: €85. Mind you, it’s rather more than twice the distance and takes three hours. The trouble with the post-Covid ski holiday is travel. Choosing a resort is one thing, but you’ve got to get there and you’ve got to get back.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but some 80% of ski holidays that were inclusive of travel disappeared during the pandemic. True, there are some newcomers now, but Esprit, one of the biggest names in family skiing with its child-friendly chalet-hotels and inclusive flights, will not be operating next season. There’s lots of reasons and Brexit, of course, is one of them.

Felice Of course, back in November 1994, it all seemed very simple. I mean, who needs air travel when you’ve got direct trains? The Channel Tunnel opened and we welcomed the new stress-free travel between London and the Alps. But thirty years later, it’s a shambles and it’s also very expensive.

Peter Yes, you can take a train to Moûtiers or Bourg St Maurice, but sadly not directly anymore. You have to go via Paris and you need to switch stations for your onward journey. Ever tried that one in the rush hour with luggage and kids in tow? A slightly more direct service, via Lille instead of Paris, opened amid much fanfare last December, but it ran for just six weeks, stopping before the main high season period began.

Video: © Jack Found

Felice Yes, you can take the tunnel or ferry and drive. That’s ok if you’ve got some extra holiday time to spare. And also you need a car-load of people to make it financially viable.

Peter But flying is usually the premier choice. And that brings us back to Le Grand-Bornand, which is in the 230 kilometre Aravis ski area, close to Chamonix, but only half an hour from the delightful lakeside town of Annecy. And as we’ve said, on a good day, it takes around 55 minutes to get here from Geneva Airport.

Felice Our visit this winter has come about because of our friends Alan and Clare. They drove from England to Geneva for work and they wanted a one-week ski break. Importantly, they needed to commute mid-week to and from Geneva. ‘So where should we go?’ they asked us.

Peter We phoned a friend. Xavier Schouller is the boss of British ski tour operator Peak Retreats, and Xavier is French, and when he started his company in 2002, he used his insider knowledge of the ski industry to introduce the British to a whole range of lesser known resorts in the French Alps. ‘Easy,’ he said, ‘Go to Le Grand-Bornand, you won’t regret it.’

Felice In fact it’s one of the most popular resorts in France…for the French. But we all liked it. We’re now in Les Terres Rouges, which means the red ground, because there’s a lot of iron here.

Le Grand-Bornand

Photo: © C.Hudry/OT Aravis

Peter There’s a lot of people in here, and it’s very noisy. But we’ll do our best to have a chat with our friend, Christian here, who’s been taking us around the resort today. And Christian is a ESF instructor and a racer and the most amazing skier. How long have you lived in Le Grand-Bornand?

Christian I’ve been living here since 20 years now, eight years as a ski instructor.

Peter Well, it’s obviously your home resort. So tell us a bit about the skiing first of all, what’s it like here? Is it a good ski resort?

Christian Yes, it’s a good ski or a resort. What I like the most is all the different things we can have. It’s good for beginners, good for good skiers, there’s lots of variety in the skiing. That’s really nice.

Felice And do you have a favourite piste?

Christian I would say Piste 2000, one we did this morning. The snow is always really good on this one and it’s one of the longest in the resort. It’s a good red run.

Peter We’re, quite low in altitude here aren’t we?

Christian Yes, quite low. The top of the resort is 2000m, and the lowest we can get with the skiing is 900m.

Felice And do you have a favourite off-piste run?

Christian Yes, there’s a lot. I really like a little couloir. It’s quite accessible, but it’s nice and you feel like you’re out of the resort, even if it’s into it.

Peter Is it a difficult entry?

Christian Not too bad. It’s black, but quite narrow.

Felice Is that the same as the freeride area, or different?

Christian It’s a different one. It’s from the top of La Floria.

Le Grand-Bornand

Photo: © F.Hardy

Peter Tell us about the freeride area. I know Le Grand-Bornand is famous for its freeride sector.

Christian So it’s a safe area. They make all the avalanches go down on purpose. It’s quite wide. It’s a sort of the side of the mountain, you can ski whether you want. It’s a freeride area. So safe, not groomed, not too many tracks usually; it’s pretty good

Peter There’s quite a lot of mountain restaurants here aren’t there. Is there one that you like in particular?

Christian Yes, I like one: Le Chamois, which is full today, sadly – really nice food. The people are really nice, and it’s at the bottom of the slopes so even people not skiing can come really easily. It’s a very nice one.

Felice We’re staying in Les Chalets de Joy, in the village of Le Grand-Bornand, because that’s actually divided into two parts. We’re up with a very nice view. We’re not right in the centre, it’s a bit of a walk, but it’s not too bad.

Peter Really nice apartment, very close to the main lifts and, yes, a good position to be.

Felice Brand new.

Peter We’ve got with us our friends Alan and Clare. Alan, what do you think of it?

Le Grand-Bornand

Bedroom in Les Chalets de Joy. Photo: © Peak Retreats

Alan It’s a very well finished apartment. I’ve stayed in a lot of apartments in the Alps. It’s typical of any apartment. It’s beautifully finished. It really could probably do with…I’m the cook, so the kitchen kit could be a little bit better. I’d like a sharp knife.

Felice It has a spa, and Clare’s been going to the spa every day.

Clare I love it because after a day’s skiing, your legs are quite tight and sore and you can relax in the pool, work your muscles out and then go in the sauna. And then there’s one of those really deep pools that are freezing cold. And then you come back and you have a dressing gown supplied and towels. It’s just really easy and relaxing. You feel refreshed for the evening.

Alan One thing I really like about the apartments is….this is very boring, but the parking is great. You go to places and the parking is difficult, but this is underneath the chalet. You get a code. It all works, there’s a nice place to park the car. It’s warm. There’s little trolleys to take your luggage up to the apartment. There’s a lift that works. It’s not smelly. It’s not dirty. It’s cool parking. And so if you’re going to drive from the UK, you’re an hour, two hours less than going to Courchevel, three hours less than going to Val d’Isère. It’s very, very close to Geneva. I mean, if you were to fly into Geneva and hire a car, it’s an hour.

Peter Yes, that’s very quick.

Alan It’s very, very accessible and there’s some great skiing.

Peter Let’s talk about the skiing. It’s a very interesting ski area, isn’t it? What do you think, Felice?

Felice It’s not huge. But on your lift pass you’ve got La Clusaz as well. So you’ve got plenty for a week and it’s really best for families, I think, because there’s a big nursery slope and apparently there’s a green run almost everywhere or a blue run. So people of all standards can get all around the ski area, which is great. And there is also good skiing for experts. We haven’t been on it, but there is a freeride area. The snow doesn’t look great for that at the moment.

Peter That said, we’ve had blue sky days and it’s been some serious good piste skiing.

Felice Yes, I certainly haven’t been bored at all.

Peter Alan and Clare. You’ve skied all over the place, you’ve spent a season in Courchevel and you’ve skied in lots of other places. You’re an expert skiers. What do you think of a resort like Le Grand-Bornand, which is much smaller, and frankly, no one in Britain really has heard of it. What do you think, Clare?

Clare I think it was very good, because on the first day we were able to ski the whole resort very easily and enjoy it. And if I had friends with me, I think they would have all coped, as long as they were basic skier. It was really nice and good views, high up, good snow, a variety of slopes. Some of the black runs were closed today because they were a bit icy, but absolutely fabulous.

Peter How many times today did you hear English spoken on the mountain?

Clare Not very often. I can’t think today. If I did hear an English accent….and we went in a few lovely cafes to have hot chocolates and some lunch…probably 2 or 3 times perhaps.

Alan I think the accessible off-piste looks really good. There was plenty of powder around. There’s lots and lots of bowls around the runs where you’ve not got to know the way and go off the back and have a guide and there’s loads of it that looks great, looks really good.

Le Grand-Bornand

Photo: © F.Hardy

Felice One little criticism is that I don’t think the pistes are very well marked. We’ve found it hard. We’ve had to have Alan as our guide because he’s good at finding his way around using the map, but the signposts aren’t always that good. We almost got lost on our way back today.

Peter Yes, I think the signage around the mountain could do with a few little tweaks, but it’s a minor criticism overall. Clare, what do you think?

Clare I think it’s been a very friendly resort, actually. When you get to the lifts, everyone’s accommodating. They smile, say ‘Bonjour,’ help you on to the lifts and I’ve enjoyed it. Everyone’s been very welcoming.

When the instructor was with us yesterday, it was great because he was telling us about what it’s like in the summer and they do mountain biking, and you had a really good feel of how pretty it would be with all the cows. And there’s one run with lots of bells on it that you can ring as you go down. So I thought it was almost like a secret little village in the mountains. It is great.

Peter One of the interesting things, I think, is that this is a very, very French resort. I mean, the number of other nationalities that come here is very small. I think I’m right in saying that 85% of the visitors here are French, and you very rarely hear English being spoken on the mountain. We’re not the second nationality in the 15% of other people. The Belgians are the second, and then us. So I think we’re probably about 5% of winter traffic here, which is very small compared to other resorts. I think that’s the best thing. We’ve come to France to ski. Let’s ski in a French resort.

Alan I think if I was in a position where I was bringing a young family or grandchildren, it’s great because the whole accessibility of the easy stuff, it’s French prices, but it’s great, great with the young family.

Peter Yes. I reckon it’s about a quarter cheaper than anywhere in the Tarentaise. That’s the area around Bourg St Maurice and Moûtiers, and Val d’Isère Les Arcs, La Plagne, Courchevel. And you can of course come here in summer. I think there’s lots of nice hiking and things, and something like 40% of the annual tourism here is in summer. So that says a lot about the resort.

Felice And of the 60% who come in winter, quite a lot go ski-touring, and there are all sorts of other things to do.

Alan If you were thinking of coming here in the summer, one of the great advantages would be you are 25-30 minutes from Annecy, and Annecy is a beautiful town, and there’s this huge lake. And so, you could stay here. There’s mountain biking, there’s walking, there’s Annecy down the road, there’s a day out in Geneva. It’s a good summer place.

Peter This is of the cheese capitals of France here with Reblochon, which is a local cheese which you can buy in supermarkets all over the world. And it comes from this valley, actually it comes from Le Grand-Bornand and has done since the 13th century.

Felice There’s also a golf course here that Alan might be interested in.

Peter There is a really good golf course here. So that’s something for you to come and find out about.

Alan Well, I didn’t know there was a golf course here, so I’m hoping this podcast might generate the golf club offering me a weekend of playing golf.

Peter Well, you never know, do you? All you can do is play it to them and see what they say.

Alan Good idea.

Peter I’m just going back to the cheese for a minute. There’s an old tradition around here saying that in summer there are more cows on the mountain than there are people. But we learned today, actually, that’s simply not true.

Le Grand-Bornand

Photo: © T.Vattard/OT Aravis

Felice There’s 2,500 people to every 1,000 cows.

Peter The locals here proudly claim that they invented rural tax dodging. Long before the advent of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy back in the 13th century, the nobles and the bishops who owned all the land around here, introduced an annual milk tax on the peasants. When the tax inspectors turned up to count the milk churns, the canny farmers only half-milked their cows.

After dark, when the inspectors had gone, the second stage of milking began and they found that the milk was much, much creamier. Ideal, in fact, for cheesemaking and Reblochon was the result. I can tell you that the literal meaning of the word in the local patois, presumably, is to pinch a cow’s udder again – amazing what you can learn from Google. The one thing we haven’t touched on is there are two components.

Felice There’s Le Grand-Bornand Village where we’re staying, which is traditional with a central old square and a nice church. And then there’s Chinaillon, which is where most of the French people like to stay, because it’s more convenient.

Peter It’s more convenient for the slopes. It’s got an instant chair-lift access up the mountain, whereas our end of it, there’s two gondolas that go up, which makes it very nice. But coming back down, there’s quite limited in terms of access. You have to be a good skier, I think, to go down from one of the gondolas. I don’t know about coming back from the other easier area. But certainly to where we’re staying, there’s no piste down. Which of the two would you stay in?

Felice Definitely the one we’re in now, Le Village.

Alan I think what would sum it up for me is it’s a smallish French resort designed to look after the people, rather than a large resort designed to make money. I’d say this is a little secret, this place. I don’t think a lot of British people know about it. And certainly worth thinking about, certainly for a young family.

Felice What was your favourite thing this week?

Clare I think it’s been the visibility on the slopes, the really wide slopes, you can see where you’re going. You know, I’ve enjoyed the freedom of the slopes.

Peter I think that’s true. We also encountered all sorts of animals on the slopes. We came across something like thirty chamois.

Felice Yes, we saw them from a distance and we wouldn’t have noticed them, but our instructor pointed them out to us.

Alan There’s also some mythical chicken hibernating bird that apparently does exist. I’ve got no idea where it is in this area. Peter has been doing some research, so perhaps he can fill you in.

Peter It appears to be the rock ptarmigan. When I was told that birds hibernate in winter, I thought that was complete rubbish because I had no idea about that. But apparently they do. Whole areas of the mountain are closed off to the public because these are the nesting grounds. If skiers go over them, it wakes them up and then they don’t have any food. So it’s quite a serious situation for them.

Clare One of the great things about the apartment is that when we sit on the balcony, you have a fantastic view of the village, looking down the valley, because with that little bit higher than the other chalets in the town. So I don’t mind that little walk down to the ski lift, because in the evening and in the morning it’s absolutely beautiful, seeing the sunset and the sunrise. It’s really lovely.

Felice It gives you a bit of the luxury chalet feeling because however big or small your apartment is, there’s a really nice reception area with a grand piano, a bar, comfortable seats, sofas, etc, so you get the feeling of being in a much larger chalet.

Peter I think that’s true. I mean, what we’ve got here, we’ve got a master bedroom and bathroom and then there’s a separate double bedroom and again, a separate bathroom and a loo. So you’ve really got quite a lot of space. At the same time, it’s relatively compact.

Felice So when you add the lobby area, it gives you a feeling of being in a much bigger place.

Peter Xavier Schouller, you’re MD of Peak Retreats, which specialises in providing ski drive holidays to apartments all across the French Alps. You started Peak Retreats in 2002, I think, and your concept was, as a Frenchman, to introduce a lot of little resorts, lesser-known resorts in France, to the British public for the very first time. And that, I think, is how I heard of Le Grand-Bornand for the very first time. We loved it. Why did you choose these resorts like that? They’re resorts you knew as a child?

Le Grand-Bornand

Photo: © C.Hudry/OT Aravis

Xavier I was lucky, very privileged to have been skiing since the age of five, and my father was in education and I was suffering from asthma. And the doctor said, ‘Oh, well, it would be good to go to the mountains, you know, for Xavier to go to the mountains.’ And that’s how my parents decided that we were going to go skiing when I was five. And after that, we all kind of enjoyed it. And we would go two or three times a year.

We visited a lot of resorts in France. We were living in Normandy, northern France. We would just drive there, and we visited a lot of resorts every year. We would visit different resorts after that. When I was in travel and I thought, ‘Well, it’d be nice to start sort of a ski company.’ And I looked at all the results that were featured by operators in the UK, and it was like a dozen resorts that most operators had in their books. I thought, ‘Well, there’s 300 resorts in France, how come nobody’s featuring all these other places that I’d been to?’ And that’s how we started.

Felice How many resorts do you go to in France?

Xavier We’ve got about 85 resorts now. But when we started, we had about 25 resorts, which were totally unknown in the UK, places like Le Grand-Bornand. So places like, Samoëns and Aussois. There was a mixture of resorts. Some were linked to big ski areas that were known to the British market, people didn’t know Samoëns really or Les Carroz, but they knew Flaine. These kind of satellite resorts, nobody was ever going to them.

And, so we introduced a lot of these resources to the British market. I knew a lot of people before we started the business, working for other ski tour operators because I’d been in travel for a while. I had friends in other companies. And I said to everybody, ‘Well, how come you’re not featuring all these little resorts that exist in France?’ And everybody said to me, they all said the same thing,

‘Well, we’ve tried, there’s no market. It’s a waste of time. You’re just going to go to the wall if you base your business on that.’

We decided to go ahead and ignore the good advice we’d been given by people who sort of knew, or thought they knew, at the time. And very quickly it became apparent that there was really demand for different resorts. People still enjoy the big-name resorts, but there was a lot of people who wanted to discover something else in France, to ski more like the French people were doing.

Peter Well, you’re going skiing in France, you might as well enjoy France as well. And there are resorts I won’t name them, like Meribel, where it is very British, that there’s not much French influence. When we go to somewhere like Le Grand-Bornand, it’s great that everybody speaks French and that prices are not as ridiculous as they are in some of the high-altitude resorts. And we loved it, didn’t we?

Felice Yes, it’s great, the sort of place you could live. It’s a real village rather than just a holiday village, I felt.

Xavier No, exactly. When you go to places like Le Grand-Bornand, firstly it’s mostly French people staying there, and that’s just the way it’s geared in terms of experience, in terms of the restaurants, in terms of everything. You’ve got a chance to experience France as a holiday destination rather than some international ski resort.

So in the French market, so the British are the biggest foreign contingent in France, well ahead of the Dutch and the Belgians. You know, you come kind of after that. People enjoy that they’ve got a sense of really being in France and not being in an international resort where when you go to a bar, people will speak to you in English, even if you’ve not spoken a word, they’re just assume you’re going to speak English to them. I think people like that immersion experience.

Peter What’s your most popular resort overall? Where you take the most people.

Xavier I guess resorts like Peissey-Vallandry where you’re into a really big ski area, which is Les Arcs-Paradiski. We take our clients there and we also take a lot of clients to Tignes, to the lower villages. It has got big international resorts like Tignes Val Claret and Tignes le Lac, but also there’s the lower villages that don’t tend to be as well known.

Peter They’re very attractive, the lower villages.

Xavier They’ve got, in terms of architecture, it’s more of a village than just a purpose-built destination. And I think people like that. They’ve got the feeling of being in a real village where there’s a bit of charm and authenticity.

Peter Xavier, thank you very much indeed. And maybe we’ll see you on the mountain again this year sometime.

Xavier Thank you. Peter. Thank you, Felice. Hoping to see you on the slopes very soon.

Felice To find out more about the ski drive specialist, Peak Retreats, and their apartments in 85 French resorts, go to

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. By the way, we’re no 7 in the Top 20 Midlife Travel Podcasts.

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