French ski resort thoroughly deserves its 'hidden gem' reputation
DRIVING through the bustling town of Bourg St Maurice, I'm looking for a sign to a traditional, pretty village which seems to be a bit of a local, well-kept secret.
I always love this drive through the Savoie region of the French Alps: home to glacial purpose-built meccas like Tignes, Val Thorens and Val d'Isere, high mountains and epic skiing are usually what I'm expecting.
But this is a journey with a different agenda.
The ski station of Sainte Foy sits above the old village at a height of 1,550 metres and as I arrive here, I'm welcomed into a purpose-built ski resort that, pleasantly, doesn't look like a concrete eyesore from the 1970s.
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The buildings are built from huge wooden beams and finished with local yellowish limestone. It looks new, but undeniably pretty, and will only improve as it gains the patina of the surrounding farm buildings.
We are staying at The Peak, a hotel-sized chalet right in the centre of 'town' which backs directly onto the slopes.
Premiere Neige (www.premiere-neige.com) run The Peak, along with similar 'luxury' catered boutique chalets and self-catering chalets and apartments exclusively in the village.
Director of the company, Fiona Harvey-Jordan, along with her husband and wonderful team of staff, has gone to great efforts to make the building feel warm and cosy — on every level.
After breakfast, we leave Naomi behind to sample the spa facilities while the rest of us head down to the lower ground floor of the hotel and out of the back door to the base of our first ski lift.
Sainte Foy has only four chairlifts, starting at 1,550 metres and rising to a height of 2,620 metres at the Col d'Aguille.
For the pistes back down there is a choice of seven blues, 10 reds and one pisted black.
There are two green runs at the bottom too, although both are around 100 metres long and are purely for absolute beginners.
There are three un-pisted black runs, perfect for those looking to make the transition into off-piste skiing in relative safety.
Unfortunately, the avalanche conditions prevent us from skiing anything too steep or exposed.
However, this gives us the perfect opportunity to experience one of the truly unique (in my experience) points about this resort.
We are a mixed ability group; half staying on the wide blues and challengingly steep reds; and the others wanting to ski the large un-tracked powder fields between the pistes.
At the top of each powder field we are given some quick instructions by Holly, our host for the day.
Then the group splits up to reconvene at a lower point on the mountain.
In my experience, this usually ends up with lots of waiting around, a few phone calls and meeting up at the chalet/bar at the end of the day. Not in Sainte Foy.
Each time we pop back onto the piste, exactly as Holly described, we are just in time to see the others arriving on the run.
At first glance, a limited number of lifts and pistes could prove a turn-off for most people, which is undoubtedly why the resort has gained its 'hidden gem' reputation.
It's not the kind of resort for people looking to ski a lot of kilometres during a holiday, nor is it for the skiers who like to tick off black runs.
However, there is a ski safari service that runs transfers to the larger local resorts for those looking for a bit of a change during their holiday.
For me, the limited pistes meant alternative routes needed to be explored.
The whole area funnels down to two main lifts, with some great tree runs and pillow lines below the chair lifts — it's a perfect destination for mixed ability groups and families looking to ski together.
If skiing isn't your idea of fun, however, or if you don't want to spend all of your daylight hours on the slopes, there are also a surprising number of things to do here to keep you occupied.
From pilates classes in the village to snaking your way through magical, snow-drenched forests wearing a pair of snow shoes, not to mention the pleasantly addictive Elemis spa and outdoor hot tub/Jacuzzi or fabulous food on offer — it really is a matter of putting your feet up and getting busy doing, well, not much other than a whole lot of relaxing and 'switching off' from the routine.
After a night spent tucked-up between Egyptian cotton sheets and, as the rest of the group head off to the slopes, I, nursing a broken wrist, instead make some serious appointments with Nicola, the in-house spa therapist — and an absolutely excellent one at that.
Trained to NVQ level and with specific, further qualifications in Elemis treatments, Nicola brings a graceful, thorough and exceptionally professional capability to the pampering table — either in the comfort of your own property or in the treatment suite.
From facials, like the fruit active glow to the skin IQ+ for men and body therapies ranging from deep tissue muscle massages to exotic frangipani body nourish wraps, there is something to help both skiers and non-skiers relax and indulge in some serious 'me' time.
Personally, I'd recommend the visible brilliance facial, the sports massage and a pedicure for complete tip-to-toe cosseting.
When you're not being pampered, there are short strolls to take around the village, an outdoor hot tub on the 'top deck', which is perfect for lolling in while taking in views of the surrounding mountains, watching buckets of snow fall, and sinking a glass of vin blanc.
Alternatively, drag yourself away from the bliss of The Peak and head into 'town' for a pilates session with Sarah Sissons at her Equilibre studio (www.mountainequilibre.com).
Originally training in London as an occupational therapist and working in various hospitals in the city, Sarah moved out to the Alps 16 years ago, building up her list of therapies to include reflexology, massage, and pilates.
The contents of the bookshelves in her small but ample studio in Sainte Foy village serve as a small testament to her devotion to complementary therapy, while the large pilates machine on the other side of the room is a clear indicator of her passion for the physical fitness method.
After just an hour with Sarah, I'd learnt things about my posture I never knew existed, and pointers on how to correct the slight misalignments.
The sheer indulgence in wellbeing, coupled with generous intakes of fresh mountain air, was enough to whip up a hearty appetite and, as it often is here in France, the standard of the cuisine was tip-top.
The dining experience at Chez Merie, in a typical Savoyard chalet, is one of the best.
With huge hunks of meat cooked on an open fire, informal dining and traditional and local dishes on the menu it's an absolute must.
Les Brevettes at the top of the first lift is also worth a visit.
Premeire Neige is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this winter and its popularity is slowly on the rise.
Whispers of when the piste signs were made from humble plaques of wood, placed there by local farmers, are a now a distant memory.
Right now, it is perfect for those looking for the best of both ski and wellbeing worlds, with a good helping of warm, attentive hospitality, excellent eating and exclusivity on offer too.
Whatever your holiday agenda, staying in Sainte Foy with Premiere Neige is a must for mixed ability groups and families looking for a break with a brush of luxury and seclusion.