Travel: Savoie Mont-Blanc, France
The plane sank lower over the clear water of Lake Bourget before landing on the small runway at the foot of the Rhône-Alpes mountains.
Chambéry is located in the heart of the Rhône-Alpes region, making it a natural gateway to the Alps and the ski fields of Savoie Mont-Blanc. Its proximity to the snow means transfer times are short, and that most of the 110 major ski resorts in the Savoie Mont-Blanc region are within an hour or so’s drive.
We were en route to sample four resorts, Valloire (Galibier/Thabor), Orelle, the Vallée des Belleville/Les Menuires and Val Thorens, all part of Les Trois Vallées. Before making our way up the winding road to Valloire, we stopped in the town of La Ravoire to rent skis and save ourselves a bit of money. Then it was on up the mountain road which lay deep in snow and we were thankful for the snow tyres that allowed us to manoeuvre our way up, every corner giving us stunning winter wonderland views.
It is generally accepted that the Savoie region took its name from the Latin word sapaudia, which means a landscape covered in fir trees – a perfect description of what lay before us.
The Galibier Thabor ski area links the resorts of Valloire and Valmeinier in the heart of the Maurienne Valley by way of 150km of piste with 33 lifts and 86 runs, and plenty of options for all levels of skiing and boarding. There was no shortage of the white stuff when we arrived at the Grand Hotel in Valloire. Perfect skiing conditions greeted us, as we clicked into our skis and headed up the mountain to take full advantage of the fresh powder. We skied hard along beautifully-maintained runs, stopping for lunch at Le Chalet de la Brive where a hearty plat du jour costing around a tenner set us up for the afternoon. You don’t need skis to get there as the Crêt de la Brive cable car also delivers hungry pedestrians to this popular mountain restaurant.
The Savoie Mont-Blanc region will certainly satisfy your taste buds, with traditional classic dishes such as fondue, tartiflette, gratin de crozets, and hundreds of cheeses and saucissons. It’s a great gastronomic region, with more than 20 Savoyard chefs boasting Michelin stars.
The cows here produce rich milk that is used to make fabulous local cheese, including Beaufort, Reblochon, Tomme and Gruyere, all of which can be sampled or bought from Valloire’s quaint shops and weekend markets that are set up around a large church that dominates the village. Valloire also produced the current World Cup Slalom champion, Jean-Baptiste Grange, who grew up skiing on the nearby slopes. If you want to follow in his skibooted footsteps, the two highly-respected ski schools of ESF and Ecole de Valloire can take skiers to the Three Valleys area for £34 (¤40) per person a day, which includes a Three Valleys lift pass and transfer.
At night, tucked away in our own private booth, we indulged ourselves on cheese fondue at La Grange de Thelcide, a quaint, rustic and cosy restaurant that makes use of local cheeses in traditional Savoyard cuisine. For traditional French cuisine, try Le Grand Hotel’s L’Ecarnave gastro restaurant and for a nightcap, pop into the lively Le Mast Rock pub, which showcases live bands during the week.
Then it was on to the Vallée des Belleville area, a 45-minute drive down the mountain into the Maurienne Valley, linked to Les Trois Vallees by a large gondola from Orelle. A great centre for discovering the mammoth Three Valleys region, which covers an unbelievable 600km, Orelle is a popular destination. There we took a gondola ride and then a chairlift to the top of Rosael and had another wonderful, powdery day on the slopes.
If it’s traditional chocolate box scenery you’re after you can’t beat the pretty mountain hamlet of St Martin de Belleville, with its traditional stone and wood buildings. We’d booked into the Chalets Cocoon, where owner, Jean Paul Delettre, takes great pride in his six cosy chalets. Each can accommodate from six to 18 people and Jean Paul is always on hand to help guests with any queries. The ski lift is a short distance away, practically making the chalets ski-in/ski-out residences.
At night we dined at La Ferme de Reberty in the Reberty 2000 quartier. The restaurant serves fantastic local food, but be warned, the portions are enormous and the ‘special menu’ options could be shared between two people. For après-ski or after diner drinks, head to the funky modern Piano Bar Le Kube in nearby Val Thorens which boasts a long cocktail list and live music.
The following morning we skied locally in Vallée des Belleville, which covers 300km of groomed and off-piste terrain, and stopped for lunch at La Ferme de la Choumette in St Martin de Belleville, a working farm that is situated on the edge of the Biolley piste.
From the outside the restaurant looks like any normal mountainside lunch stop but inside, the dining area overlooks a barn, and while guests dine upstairs, goats, cows and sheep chew away on hay downstairs. Food here is traditional Savoyard style, with tartiflette, a dish made from local potatoes and copious amounts of cheese from the farm’s dairy popular.
The following morning we traded our ski boots for cook’s aprons and headed to the famous Michelin two star restaurant La Bouitte for a lesson with acclaimed father and son team, René and Maxime Meilleur. The restaurant prides itself on using local produce and teaching guests how to create stunning dishes in a simple fashion. And when you’ve cooked and eaten your fill, there are charming and uniquely rustic guest rooms on hand in which to collapse.
Wherever you choose to ski in the Savoie Mont-Blanc region you will be greeted by friendly faces, unique accommodation, wonderful food, fun après-ski and probably the best skiing terrain in the world. You can’t go wrong.
• Easyjet flies from Edinburgh to Chambéry airport on Saturday and Sunday, currently from £255, www.easyjet.com. The London City to Chambéry flight operates four times per week (Friday to Monday), from £67 per person, ba.com/londoncity
• The Grand Hotel de Valloire et du Galibier, rooms from e75 (£63) pppn half board through Peak Retreats (www.peakretreats.com) and Erna Low (www.ernalow.co.uk).
• Chalets Cocoon, St Martin de Belleville, chalets from £1,013 (e1,190) for six, booked through Peak Retreats and Erna Low or www.chaletscocoon.com
• La Bouitte, double rooms from £231 (e276), www.la-bouitte.com.
• Three Valleys lift passes will cost £41 (e48.50) for a one-day adult pass and £202 (e241) for six days; Les Menuires and St Martin, one day pass, £32 (e38) and £155 (e185) for six-day pass; day pass for the Vallée des Belleville £38 (e45) and six-day pass, £188 (e224).
Further information at www.savoie-mont-blanc.com; www.valloire.net; www.lesmenuires.com