Skis and tranquillity
Looking for a home in a traditional and tranquil ski resort with an authentic French ambiance? Glide right this way, says Ruth Wood
Authentic Alpine ski resorts far from the madding crowds and commercialism
So you love skiing and you love France but don’t want to pay sky-high prices to dance on tables in a soulless purpose-built resort spoilt by commercial glitz and crowds of Brits? Many people will tell you to head for the Pyrénées, Jura, the Vosges or Massif Central.
But if you adore the snow-sure Alps – and after all the travel industry does make it easy to get there – then these traditional and tranquil resorts may be the place to buy yourself an Alpine retreat. And the great news is that property prices are generally cheaper than in the trendier, busier resorts.
Samoëns A huge lime tree dating back 600 years dominates the traffic-free centre of Samoëns, a reminder that this Savoyard village is about as far as you can get from a purpose-built ski resort. In fact, you can’t ski in and out of the village, which is only 720m above sea level, and you could happily spend a holiday here simply wandering the narrow streets, sampling the cheese, skating on the outdoor rink and visiting the botanical garden, if it’s not under snow!
Hop aboard the gondola or shuttle bus that departs from the village, however, and in minutes you can be on a 1,600m-high plateau at the gateway to the Grand Massif ski area, with 265km of snow-sure pistes connected to Flaine, Les Carroz and more.
One fan of Samoëns is travel writer and experienced skier Mary Novakovich. “I love the atmosphere,” she says, recalling a recent visit. “The village is charming, laid-back and very French. I heard hardly any English voices and it’s not a party place. It’s very down to earth, with little crêperies and restaurants, a few bars and those nice little shops where you buy things to decorate your home like an Alpine chalet!”
Population: 2,340 Ski area: Le Grand Massif, Haute-savoie Village altitude: 720m Alpine skiing: 1,600m-2,500m Runs: 0 into the village but gondola and free shuttle bus to the Grand Massif Airport: Geneva 1h10
One of the birthplaces of Reblochon cheese, the village of Le Grand Bornand has more cows than inhabitants
Victor Hugo hailed Combloux the “Pearl of the Alps”. That could have been the kiss of death for the Savoyard village facing the Mont Blanc massif, and yet today’s visitors will find an unspoiled French farming community with rustic architecture and a warm welcome.
“Combloux has absolutely fantastic views of Mont Blanc,” says Howard Watts, director of Alpine Property World, which will soon be marketing new apartments in the village. “All the jetset go to nearby Megève, but Combloux is a very pretty, traditional area that is particularly good for families and close to Chamonix.”
Offering plenty for expert, intermediate and beginner skiers alike, Combloux is part of Les Portes du Mont Blanc ski area and linked to the huge Evasion area.the resort has the Famille Plus label recognising its childcare facilities and family-friendly activities including horse-drawn carriage rides and swimming in Europe’s first ecological lake. The village has a weekly market and a spa, and the upmarket shops of Megève are only a few minutes’ drive away.
Population: 2,100 Ski area: Les Portes du Mont Blanc/ Evasion, Haute-savoie Village altitude: 1,200m Alpine skiing: 1,183-1,930m Runs: 18 blue, 14 green, 29 red, 7 black Airport: Geneva 1h
Loved for its diverse terrain, forest runs and value for money, Serre Chevalier is not a fashionable destination. Its image could change when the trendy Folie Douce hotel chain opens up in 2020 in Villeneuve, one of the 13 communities that make up the resort on the edge of the Ecrins national park.
However, it is the lack of pretension and nightlife that appeals to many skiers, who also appreciate the friendly family-run businesses and French feel of the villages with their narrow streets and cosy bars and restaurants.
Chris Gill, editor of the guidebook Where to Ski and Snowboard, goes so far as to call Serre Chevalier “a sort of Provence in the snow” and “one of our favourite places”. He singles out Le Monêtier-les-bains (also known as Serre Che 1500) as the smallest, highest, quietest and least spoiled of the four main resort villages.
Ranging in altitude from 1,200m to 2,800m, with the tree line starting unusually high at 2,150m, the resort has reliable snowfall and a long season. It offers 3,900 hectares of terrain with something to suit everyone, from beginners and youngsters to off-piste skiers, though some of the lift infrastructure is dated.
Population: (Le Monêtier-les-bains) 1,100 Ski area: Serre Chevalier, Haute-alpes Village altitude: (Le Monêtier-les-bains) 1,500m Alpine skiing: 1,200-2,800m Runs: 25 blue, 13 green, 30 red, 14 black Airport: Grenoble or Turin 2h
Thollon-les-mémises Praised in the Michelin Guide as the most beautiful vantage point for Lake Geneva, the village of Thollon-les-mémises sits on a 1,000m-high balcony overlooking the glittering lake towards Switzerland. It’s a drive of less than 20 minutes down to the lakeside resort of Evian-les-bains, which is bustling with sun-worshippers in the summer.
In winter, skiers in Thollon have direct access to 50km of downhill skiing, from 1,000 to 2,000m, with 14 north-facing pistes and 18 ski lifts. Beyond lies the rest of the Portes du Soleil, one of the largest linked ski areas in the world with runs of up to 11km.
Alpine Property World sells apartments at various resorts across the Portes du Soleil and Thollon is by far the most popular destination, says director Howard Watts. “Most of our clients are seasoned, discerning skiers, who are looking for a nice traditional Alpine village,” he said. “Thollon offers incredibly good value for money and punches above its weight in terms of quality.”
Ski area: Portes-du-soleil, Haute-savoie Village altitude: 1,000m Alpine skiing: 1,000-2,000m Runs: 4 blue, 2 green 9 red, 2 black Airport: Geneva 1h25
The jagged Pointe Percée and neighbouring peaks of the Aravis mountains form the magnificent backdrop of Le Grand-bornand, a village between Mont Blanc and Lake Annécy.
One of the birthplaces of Reblochon cheese, it famously has more cows than inhabitants and, with its covered market and historic chalets (some 300 years old), it has a special village atmosphere.
“It truly feels like falling into old France,” says Chris Woodbridge-cox, managing director of French Alp specialists Peak Retreats, and the skiing is good too, he adds, especially for beginners and intermediates. “There are lots of blue runs and a big beginners’ area at the top of the Rosay gondola. Our favourite run would be taking the lift up through the trees to the Tête des Annes (1,869m) and skiing the gentle blue Le Col des Annes back down. It’s a really pretty run, the highlight of which is when you ski past a picturesque stone chapel. You can also get the shuttle bus to La Clusaz if you have the Aravis lift pass.”
Le Grand-bornand is a great area to invest in, according to Richard Deans, sales manager of MGM French Properties, the largest Alpine property developer in Europe. “It’s a really cute little place, very charming,” he said. “In summer, it’s very popular with mountain bikers and hikers; the Tour de France went through this year.”
Ski area: Aravis, Haute-savoie Village altitude: 1,300m Alpine skiing: 1,000m-2,100m Runs: 13 blue, 16 green, 16 red, 4 black Airport: Geneva 1h
The Pointe Percée is the highest peak in the Aravis range above Le Grand Bornand
Combloux is known as the Pearl of the Alps A cosy chalet in Le Grand Bornand
The heart of Samoëns village
The Chablais Alps above Châtel
The traditional Savoyard village of Valloire