The quieter resorts of the Trois Vall�es are happy hunting grounds for skiers and gourmets, says Mary Novakovich
I was here to explore two of the smaller corners of the Trois Vall�es: La Tania in the first valley and Saint-Martin-de-Belleville in the third. La Tania, built for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, is instantly enchanting in its woodland setting. It’s tiny – more like a toy town – with blocks of balconied chalets and restaurants clustering around a snowy car-free centre lit by fairy lights.
The hub of the village is Pub Le Ski Lodge, its name giving a clue to its English ownership. Tim Wall was there at the beginning and he also runs La Ta�ga bar-restaurant on the village ring road. Pub Le Ski Lodge is where people can gather for drinks and keep an eye on their children tobogganing in front of the terrace. If you are after the wilder nightlife seen in M�ribel or Val-Thorens, you have come to the wrong place, even if the decibel levels do go up slightly when bands perform. What you get in La Tania is a friendly, genial atmosphere and a convenient set-up for skiing for about 20 per cent less than it costs to stay in the area’s other main resorts.
Blue, green and red runs glide right into the village, and I could ski straight from the Skiset rental shop to the gondola that goes up to Praz-Juget at 1,867 metres. The Bouc Blanc restaurant sprawls over the top of the piste, its huge terrace a major draw for the apr�s-ski crowd in search of live music. From Praz-Juget I took the chairlift up to Col de la Loze at 2,305 metres, where I had the tantalising choice of skiing right towards M�ribel or left into Courchevel. I turned left, as I have always loved the latter’s wide runs, and had something special in mind for lunch.
The well-organised lift system meant it was easy to make my leisurely way up and down the pistes of both Courchevel 1850 and 1650. By lunchtime I was in the centre of 1850, where the shuttle bus belonging to the four-star hotel Le Chabichou was waiting – as it does for anyone who has a lunch reservation. It is one of three hotels in Courchevel with two Michelin stars, but I wasn’t eating in the main restaurant, where lunch menus start at €55. I was heading for Le Chabott�, the new brasserie where three superb courses made in the same kitchen cost just €29: hearty terrine, a large entrec�te with creamy mash, and a light tiramisu. This was astounding value in a resort where a simple omelette can cost €25 in a mountain restaurant.
The hotel is right beside a blue run, so I made my way down to the Plantrey chairlift to return to La Tania. If thick fog hadn’t set in, I would have been able to ski the Foly�res blue run that winds through the woods, but I had to settle for the gondola. Thankfully, it didn’t require great visibility to relax with a vin chaud on the terrace of Pub Le Ski Lodge as twilight cast a glow on the children playing in the gently falling snow.
I had another culinary experience to look forward to that evening, one you wouldn’t expect to find in a village as small and homely as La Tania. Just a few metres away from Pub Le Ski Lodge and fondue restaurants is Le Far�on, where chef Julien Machet’s innovative take on Savoyard flavours won him a Michelin star in 2006. Within the classy wooden interior I was led through the tasting menu of about six courses plus numerous amuse-bouches, each accompanied by an expertly chosen wine from the Rh�ne-Alpes region: pumpkin pur�e with truffles; a grilled scallop with wasabi; lobster with a white chocolate mousse; saddle of rabbit with mushrooms and tiny shrimps; potato pur�e with raclette cheese (very Savoyard and sublime) – all beautifully done and tasting superb.
A post-prandial stroll was in order and that was about the only time La Tania showed a weakness. It really is tiny, so it took very little time to stroll through the village. But there was something magical about walking on a piste in the moonlight, revelling in the contrast between the bustling daytime and peaceful night.
I could have easily spent a week in La Tania flitting between Courchevel and M�ribel, enjoying the compact spa in the H�tel le Montana where I was based, and trying the giant tartiflette at the Saucisse Savoyarde deli. But the Meilleur family’s hotel-restaurant was waiting for me in Saint-Marcel, a hamlet two kilometres outside Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, and it was time to move on.
La Bouitte means ‘little house’ in the local dialect, and while the Savoyard chalet might have been little at one point, it has since expanded to include eight rooms and a restaurant with two Michelin stars. But the feeling of intimacy implied by the name is everywhere, from the rustic and comfortable pine bedrooms to the unpretentious restaurant clad in warm wood and stone. With heavy snow adding an extra foot to the rooftops and the moon brightening the night sky, it was hard to think of a cosier place to snuggle up in the Alps.
Father Ren� and son Maxime made a cheerful, unruffled pair in the kitchen as they applied a delicate touch to local ingredients. The kitchen was open to diners, lending a more informal air than you would normally find in a two-starred restaurant. Some diners would expect more ostentation when menus start at €89, but I loved the refreshing lack of stuffiness and ceremony – and, of course, the high quality and service. A trio of amuse-bouches turned out to be an exalted and highly refined version of French staples: onion soup, foie gras and cheese mousse. An egg poached perfectly at a low temperature for exactly 68 minutes sat on top of minced trout and consomm�. Duck breast was cooked rare (“I hope people don’t mind it saignant,” said Ren�) and with venison gravy over tiny, deep-fried balls of mashed potato. Then the huge cheese trolley arrived and there was none of that nonsense of offering three tiny slivers. They could see my indecision as the dizzying range of Beaufort, Abondance, Tomme, Vacherin and numerous goats’ cheeses was placed before me. “Have as much as you like.” That’s not an offer to turn down.
At least I could work off the cheese on the slopes of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville the following day. Unusually for such a historic village, you can ski down right into the charming centre, with its Savoyard houses of traditional stone and wood, and a 16th-century church. It is also possible to ski over the ridge into M�ribel if you want a change from its own slopes. However, there was plenty to keep me occupied on Saint-Martin’s sunny pistes; I could gaze over broad, snowy vistas on wide, empty runs and then ski down to the village to the back door of the Grenier restaurant at the H�tel Saint-Martin.
A satisfying Beaufort omelette gave me the energy to cruise on tranquil blue and green runs over to neighbouring Les Menuires. This purpose-built resort does not have Saint-Martin’s traditional architecture, but there is a wide range of slopes. It is particularly popular among families with young children, as there are several ski play areas as well as a sports centre with indoor swimming pool. Regular buses shuttle between Les Menuires and Saint-Martin, making it easy for those who fancy a change of scenery.
Like La Tania, Saint-Martin isn’t known for its pounding nightlife, but there are some pleasant bars that make convivial places for apr�s-ski activities. Warm yourself by the fire at the Pourquoi Pas Piano Bar, or try the friendly Le Billig (which lives up to its name – German for inexpensive) for late-afternoon vin chaud and irresistible Nutella cr�pes.
Further up the valley in Val-Thorens, skiers would have been dancing to the DJs in La Folie Douce, one of the most celebrated nightclubs in the French Alps. But sometimes you want to go down a gear and take things at a more relaxed pace. At La Tania and Saint-Martin-de-Belleville you can do just that – but have some of the world’s best skiing beneath your feet.
By air: The nearest airport is Chamb�ry (100km) which has UK flights in the winter.
By road: La Tania and Saint-Martin-de-Belleville are about nine hours’ drive from the northern ferry ports.
WHERE TO STAY
H�tel Le Montana, La Tania
La Bouitte, Saint-Martin- de-Belleville
WHERE TO EAT
Le Far�on, La Tania
Le Chabott�, Courchevel 1850
Tel: (Fr) 4 79 01 46 86
Peak Retreats has self-drive ski holidays in several residences in La Tania, including Le Christiana (self-catering apartments from €768 per week). In Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, it offers self-catering accommodation at the four-star Les Chalets du Gypse (apartments from �1,445) as well as half-board at the three-star Alp’Hotel (doubles from €718 per person). All prices include a Eurotunnel crossing. Tel: 08445 760 170