A new way to ski

  • Inspiring places
  • France
  • 6 min read
A new way to ski

If you’re looking for a ski trip that doesn’t cost the earth (economically and ecologically), Rachel Ifans could have the solution for you.

All-inclusive, affordable skiing

On the lookout for something a bit different this year, a friend tipped me off about an under-the-radar British ski company that seemed to be everything I wanted. Action Outdoors, she told me in hushed tones (we want it to stay under that radar, right?), was set up in 2004 when David Robertson and Mark Gillis, keen skiers in their late 20s, wanted to create a company that made skiing more accessible to young people on a tighter budget. 

A classic 1970s alpine building with large apex roof and dark wood balconies on each floorUCPA Les Contamines has a capacity of 270; it sits at the end of town near the télécabines | Credit: UCPA

Action Outdoors became the British partner for a not-for-profit French organisation called UCPA, which was set up in the 1950s to get young people outside and doing sport. It was a perfect fit and the original UCPA ethos is still alive and kicking today; it offers all-inclusive, affordable skiing for 18-45 year olds in great resorts in the French alps with an emphasis on sport and social. 

What’s not to love, I thought, as I signed myself up for a break at UCPA Les Contamines, a small and very French resort near the foot of Mont Blanc, and booked a LeShuttle crossing.

UCPA – your ski holiday in experienced hands 

The first win was the booking process. One online payment, as promised, covered off accommodation with full board, ski kit hire, ski lessons and ski pass. (Travel to and from the resort isn’t included and neither are drinks.)

Two men and a woman in the ski boot fitting room. A row of red skis in the foregrounds

The second win was the fuss-free know-how. UCPA has been doing what it does for 65 years and it was all very slick; even the most chaotic-looking check-in desk on a Saturday early evening was dealt with efficiently and quickly as was the ski fitting caboodle for 270 people the next morning in the basement of the centre. What could have been a headache was made simple; the staff were friendly and welcoming, the admin system foolproof. Talking of 270 people and efficiency, the three-meals-day mass catering was of a quality and quantity that had me blinking in amazement.

Hostel-style living

So that’s the basics covered, but what about the accommodation itself? Regulars at Action Outdoors/UCPA centres don’t pull any punches when it comes to this part. The sleeping quarters were definitely basic but what you miss out on in terms of bells and whistles is made up for in functionality. The rooms were clean, the showers hot. Dorms came in fours, threes and twos, with bunk beds and lockable wardrobes; in a four, you get an en-suite shower, but otherwise you use a shared one nearby. 

A basic bedroom with white walls and four single beds. Two are normal singles on the floor and two are mezzanine beds which sit perpendicularlyA four-bedroomed room in the Les Contamines centre. It’s basic but functional and clean | Credit: UCPA

Ski together, have fun together

Another part of the UCPA offering that impressed me was the lessons. They are compulsory and a key part of the UCPA ethos; ski together, have fun together. You’re allocated a group according to ability – beginner, intermediate, advanced or expert – or if you’ve chosen to specialise in off piste or ski touring, you’ll be grouped accordingly. Groups in Les Contamines UCPA seemed to have a maximum of 12 and, certainly in mine, the vibe was friendly and supportive. 12 hours of lessons were split over the six ski days and I found that to be the perfect mix of independence and tuition. UCPA ski instructors are employed full time and this means they’re more engaged than the follow-me ESF guys I’ve had in the past. It was also nice to swig a beer with them at the UCPA bar in the evenings and put a face to a name rather than the anonymity of the ski google/helmet combo.

A group of skiers listen as their instructor tells them what to do

Our group was Advanced and although it was challenging, it was supportive and fun | Credit: David Robertson

Skiing the French way

This brings me on to the vibe. I was so impressed with the feel of the UCPA centre I stayed in. What could have felt like a slightly faded soulless block was warm, convivial and welcoming. The staff were all French so the place had a really local feel, the entertainment programme was informal and fun (you could take it or leave it) and the bar had such good apres-ski there was no need to go out at all into the town. There were also nice touches in the afternoons; a crepe party one night, a cheese fondue the next and there was always a plentiful supply of cake for returning skiers. 

A sustainable ski holiday

What about the environmental footprint of a holiday like mine? The largest carbon impact on a ski holiday is the travel to resort so if you drive and take the LeShuttle, you’re already slicing a huge amount off your carbon footprint. There’s no need for a car once you’re in resort and you travel by shuttle bus to and from the télécabines. So far so good.

In essence, UCPA is quite a sustainable travel option. It’s a not-for-profit, for a start, which means it’s putting money into the local regions and providing affordable ski holidays for young people now and in the future. In terms of its impact on the environment, it’s hard to pin down exact figures but mass catering and large-scale accommodation should, if done well, be less impactful than individual self-catering units. For instance, the kitchens at UCPA weigh the slops bin each day in an effort to minimise food wastage. 

A chef serves from a huge paella dishFood was definitely a highlight; both quantity and quality were excellent and the menu was varied | Credit: UCPA

Glorious gastronomy

Talking of the food… Never have I dined so well on a ski trip; from beef stews, to Savoyard specialities like Croziflettes and Tartiflettes, to Morrocan fish and mussel curry, sausage casserole, tuna steaks à point and oodles of salad and veg. Usually, I joke that my ski diet is 100% beige – chips, pastries, bread, pasta etc – so this was a real delight, and I haven’t even described the homemade tarts, ile-flottantes and mousses, the cheese selection and the picnic lunches. (After all, it’s supposed to be hush hush, we don’t want everyone knowing…)

A large help-yourself salad bar showing grapefruit slices, grated raw cabbage and typical salad leavesWe ate better than normal on a ski trip. Our diet was more varied and way more authentically French | Credit: UCPA

UCPA all year round

UCPA is not all ski ski ski. Centres are open all year round and not limited to the mountains either; you can choose from activity holidays in Verdon, along the Mediterranean coast and even in Japan and Portugal. The organisation is very big on watersports (everything from kite surfing to yachting) and they also offer mountain biking, hiking and horse riding, tennis and yoga breaks. 

Book your ski holiday with Action Outdoors

Action Outdoors is the British handler for UCPA holidays. The booking team is friendly and efficient and the service is personal. 

Family of four enjoy a break in an outdoor picnic area just off the slopesPicnic lunches are part of a UCPA all-inclusive holiday, or you can choose a hot lunch in the centre | Credit: Adam Ifans

Go skiing with LeShuttle

LeShuttle is the perfect way to get to the Alps. The roads are quiet and easy to drive and the journey from Calais to Les Contamines takes about 8.5 hours. Book now and plan next year’s fun on the pistes or squeeze in a cheeky ski at Easter!

About the author: Rachel Ifans

I am a journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects but always returning to my first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents, I have spent my life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as I can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging my children round all six sides of l'Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to my husband about moving there.

To read more from Rachel, click here.

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