Little gem: Sainte Foy has all a skier needs
This French resort is homely with plenty of off-piste and sumptuous chalets
Sainte Foy in France: ‘Skiing as it should be and not what it’s become.’
Living area of the luxurious Chalet La Marquise in Sainte Foy
‘This is skiing as it should be and not what it’s become,” says an enthusiastic man we meet at the top of the first chairlift in Sainte Foy. He’s leading a group of skiers who are – it later transpires through chats with a local – business leaders who invest euros in rounding out themselves and pushing their boundaries by skiing with revered rugby players (including, on this outing, Austin Healey) and a guide.
The latter is ex-Olympic skier for Britain Konrad Bartelski – he came second in the World Cup in 1981 – who’s passionate about this tiny French ski resort in the Savoie region, tucked over the back of Val d’Isère. Yet the ski area could be easily dismissed on first glance at the piste map and its mere four ski lifts by anyone looking to get miles under their skis.
But Ste Foy (pronounced san fwa) is a little gem. As one guide points out, when you have lots of lifts, you get pistes running down beside them but, in a resort like this manifesting as a light hand-print of lifts and slopes on the side of a smallish mountain, it can create an off-piste playground with mogul fields and forest trails running around and between the winding ski runs.
The more adventurous snow-sporters head up from the top of the highest lift and over the ridge to ski down back-country – to the right descending to the village of Le Monal, which is a world heritage site, or left towards Chez Merie restaurant in the hamlet of Le Miroir.
The resort, though small, is high with runs up to 2,620m (and 3,800m off-piste) and during the January week we are there our prospective guide deems it too dangerous to go down the back so we go to Chez Merie by road one evening.
Tempestuous temperatures are actually the reason this unassuming, house-like establishment exists as an eatery.
The story goes that one stormy night some pilgrims seeking shelter and sustenance knocked on the door and, once opened, the establishment has stayed that way. It is run by two sisters with deep pools of will and energy, who cook and serve hearty country food.
They seem to save their energy at the welcome stage which is low-key: as our group shuffles in from the snow one of the sisters quietly takes our coats. Beyond the lobby though warmth awaits in an interior that has creatively harnessed the wilderness. There are furry pelts draped over chairs and dangling from chandeliers, along with a mish-mash of wooden traditional furniture and more modern vibrantly coloured designs such as Eames chairs.
Our group gathers on a long, L-shaped sofa before a medieval-like fire on which an animal turns, on a spit, into dinner. We are served huge hunks of meat on hefty platters.
Such traditional French country cooking is also to be had on the mountain beside the main runs too, adding to Ste Foy’s non-frilly, authentic, village feel. Diners at La Maison à Colonnes or Les Brevettes sit on benches or solid timber chairs while staff chat and laugh loudly with locals across the room.
Ste Foy town centre is tiny, making the resort quickly homely. That, and the fact that the runs all end in the same spot, makes it family friendly too.
The accommodation is mainly in chalets (there’s only one hotel, new this season) adding to the neighbourhood ambience. We stay in La Marquise run by Edinburgh-born Fiona Harvey, an ex-chalet girl who met a pilot called Alistair out here and decided to stay: they set up Première Neige 12 years ago.
Her years of experience have resulted in accommodation that is tailored to snow-sporting needs without being bling.
While traditional and timber in style, the chalet is really well insulated, has a sauna in the basement, walk-in showers, twin basins, a floating, central fire upstairs, vast dining table, open kitchen and a hot tub on a balcony looking out on to a mountain with Val d’Isère on the other side.
Staff work hard to make your stay effortless, apart from gliding down mountains, with tea and cakes après skiing (and when a petit oiseau told them it was my birthday a shamrock-shaped cake awaited as we sloped in from skiing), then it’s lounging and bathing until drinks around the fire followed by food at the mega table (the chalet sleeps 16) and then, in our case, spirited games of Articulate.
The skiing is for everyone: from free, rolling carpets for beginners at the resort’s base to those twisty, wild, free tree runs.
“Don’t look at the trunks, look at the spaces between,” says our guide as we glide – “bunny-hopping” – into the woods which, smattered in snow, are stunningly serene.
The noise of life muffles as you duck beneath the first conifer branch into woodland. In the silence I have mindfulness thrust upon me as I concentrate on where I’m going – live in the moment or crash.
The guide’s advice is probably the basis of a good metaphor for much of life: don’t look for the blocks, look for the paths.
There are a couple of testy black runs in the resort, one named Crystal Dark, sounding like a Cleopatra-coiffed cartoon character from a video game.
Most of the runs are a mix of cruisy blues and satisfying, swinging, bumpy reds: there’s a thrill to be had starting at the top of the mountain and swallowing the whole lot in one go, ending back in town.
For good skiers, staying on piste would probably not be enough for a week though, so if weather stops the best of the off-piste you may need to head to nearby resorts which include Val d’Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs and La Rosière, which are all under half an hour away.
Each of the three black runs has the word Natur’ at the start of its name – implying a lack of grooming – but it also sums up this resort of traditional houses, country food on the slopes and those off-piste runs through trees and down back-country. It’s an active retreat from the whizzy world.
Emma Cullinan was a guest of Première Neige (premiere-neige.com). Prices start at £745 (€953) per person for a week fully catered (not including flights or train and transfers).
She stayed in La Marquise which sleeps 16 in six double or twin rooms and one four-bed bunk room. It is priced from £905pp fully catered (air fares and transfers not included).
Première Neige has a crèche and kids club for newborns to 10-year-olds.