x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Take to the pistes at Sainte Foy

The modest French ski resort, which lies close to the Swiss and Italian borders, has an air of quiet exclusivity.

A traditional farmhouse seen on a walk with Bruno Davy.
A traditional farmhouse seen on a walk with Bruno Davy.

"Not at all. Not. At. All." Even for a French ski instructor, Alex Rippe is blunt. "We will try one more time, and then maybe we stop." I'm not enjoying his lesson, as apart from two sessions at Ski Dubai, I haven't skied for four years. The high-octane memories of previous ski holidays to Val D'Isere, St Anton and Chamonix are being crushed as I slip and slide my way awkwardly down the nursery slope while small children barely out of nappies ski rings around us. I just about manage to board the "magic carpet" without falling over.

Still, I need this lesson. It's April 2 and having caught the tail end of an already poor snow season, I'm lucky not to be tackling the thin icy slopes alone. Thankfully, after a serious talking to about my posture (I'm too rigid and lean either forward from the hip or backwards as I go downhill), Alex manages to get me back in control of my skis ("forward from the knee", "weight on the outside edge", "lean downhill") and my speed. It's enough for me to make it from the top of Sainte Foy's beginner's slope to the bottom in a reasonable time without crashing and burning.

Like any skill, skiing is all about practice, and after an hour Alex says we're able to tackle one of the resort's five blue runs. Les Combes, the only green run, is a lovely, long descent through trees but is out of action due to lack of snow. "Much better!" Alex shouts, scarcely able to believe the improvement I've shown: so surprised, in fact, that he buys me a coffee at a scenic terrace at the bottom. That's the luxury of an individual lesson over a group one - your progress is about five times as fast.

The next morning I'm able to tackle all the reds and blues in the resort - a necessity to access the chairlift to Col de l'Aguille at 2,620m, where there is the best snow and unreal views across the mountain plateau.

Yet I've chosen Sainte Foy not solely for its skiing but because of the town's size and location, and the presence of The Peak, a new "boutique chalet" which offers eight luxury rooms, a spa and all meals right next to the slope. Being used to the mega-resorts of Val D'Isere and St Anton, I want something smaller, friendlier and less crowded, and that's certainly what I get. Much of the small village centre is car-free so it feels laidback, family orientated and exclusive without being snobby. Unlike some French ski resorts, a large proportion of its business comes from the UK so people don't object to speaking English. Most of the resort has been purpose-built in the traditional style, with simple pitched roofs and local wood and stone. The Peak, four storeys high, is grander than most of the other properties in town. My room looks out over the nursery slope, which is never crowded during the day and by nightfall it's silent, once the pistes have been groomed. I love being able to breathe the cool night air and watch the moon from my balcony.

On the top floor, is a gorgeous open-plan living area with exposed timber and high ceilings. It's where fellow guests - in my case an interesting mix of mostly British skiers - can relax on sofas or in the hot tub on the terrace with views of the Tarantaise valley after a hard, or not so hard, day's skiing. I meet Barry, a pilot with Virgin Atlantic, Sophie, an actress and three generations of the same family - two well-behaved young children, their parents and grandparents. Each night we're served an elaborate three- or four-course dinner (roast duck in orange sauce one night, fillet steak the next) and mornings see freshly baked croissants and crusty bread delivered from the bakery in addition to a hot breakfast. It's means I'm able to be first on the lifts without rising at the crack of dawn and trudging miles through town or onto a bus. I simply grab my ski boots from the ground-floor boot room and step out onto the slope. There are no queues for the lifts, the slopes aren't crowded and the quality of food at the restaurants in the converted farm buildings on the pistes - particularly Brevettes and La Maison a Colonnes, which offer big salads, tasty stews, raclette and other comfort food - is excellent.

By the standards of some of its neighbours, the 2,500-room Sainte Foy is a small resort, with four chairlifts and a total of 15 slopes. The location, close to the Swiss and Italian borders yet not somewhere you ski through to get to other resorts, lends it an air of quiet exclusivity. Its small, walkable centre has a handful of restaurants, bars and ski shops, most of which centre around a sunny timber-built plaza. At 1,550m, the town is disappointingly short of snow during my visit. Although the upper slopes still have good cover, on our third day several of us climb into Barry's Range Rover and drive half an hour up the road to Tignes, which, at 2,100m at resort level, has more snow and boasts almost year-round skiing on the Grande Motte Glacier.

We pay €44.5 (Dh225) each for a day pass and immediately feel the familiar pressure of having to cover as much distance as possible to get our money's worth (at Sainte Foy, a whole week's skiing costs the same as three days here) and ski in several different areas. We throw ourselves into the melee and gradually become accustomed again to crowded slopes and crushes at lift and funicular queues. After a few hair-raisingly fast races, during one of which a boy runs into me, we ski down from the top of the glacier at 3,656m to the funicular station at Val Claret, an eye-watering drop of 1,400m, in less than half an hour. Parts of it are steep but the views are spectacular. Ski slopes are, like life, generally best attacked at speed rather than skirted around. The challenge and the elation that follows a successful descent could carry that simile on forever, and with 90 lifts serving more than 300km of pistes in the Espace Killy, we could almost have stayed forever. Yet, at the end of the day, we're happy to leave the ugly apartment blocks and cheap restaurants behind to return to modest Sainte Foy, where a family atmosphere, spa treatments and peaceful sleep await.

The next day, I decide to take advantage of the unseasonal warmth and tour the local area with guide Bruno Davy, a Parisian who has lived in the Tarantaise for most of his life. With two other visitors we strap on snowshoes and go on a fascinating trek through other mid-altitude villages such as Manal and Chanal, where small-scale dairy farming still exists in tiny settlements with 17th-century farmhouses.

Bruno laments both the depopulation of these areas, which now have fewer people living in them than at the beginning of the last century, and rising temperatures, which are resulting in the fast retreat of once-mighty glaciers. Using binoculars, he points out two on the other side of the valley, stunted and precarious. It does seem slightly unnerving when we come across muddy green pastures where the snow has melted and have to remove our snowshoes: buttercups and other wild flowers have already surfaced and it feels like early summer. Yet it's still bliss to be out of sight of any large settlements or resorts, and we delight in seeing old chapels and crumbling Savoyard homes.

That evening is a night off for our chalet cooks so we go to dinner at Chez Marie, a chic but homely farmhouse conversion in one of the neighbouring villages. Steaks the size of bricks are sizzling on an open fire and I decide not to calculate the carbon footprint of a nearby table of six who have ordered one each. This place, more than any other ski resort I've been to, is about switching off, tucking in and enjoying life. Barry the airline pilot, has already resolved to quit Britain and move here - and who could blame him?

rbehan@thenational.ae

 

If you go??

The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Geneva from Dh3,150 return, including taxes.

The package? ??Premiere Neige (premiere-neige.com; 00 44 870 383 1000) offers seven nights catered accommodation at The Peak from £924 (Dh5,450) per adult based on two sharing, including taxes. Its on-site concierge service can arrange ski lessons and other activities. A three-hour individual lesson with Alex Rippe costs from €150 (Dh757) and a half-day snowshoe excursion with Bruno Davy costs from €19 (Dh95), both including taxes. Return transfers from Geneva cost £90 (Dh530) per person. Sainte Foy lift passes cost €142.5 (Dh720) for a six-day adult pass, €109.50 (Dh553) for children aged between seven and 12. Children under seven ski free.