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Skiing off the beaten path in St Jean D’Aulps, French Alps

Skiing in St Jean d'Aulps, French Alps

When you think of ski resorts in the French Alps, it’s probably the big names that come to mind: Courcheval, Val D’Isere, Tignes, Chamonix. But there are hundreds of smaller resorts scattered across the Alps which don’t get the same amount of publicity, or visitors. I’d got the ski bug a few years ago and loved the whole experience – the gorgeous mountain scenery, the cosy log fires, not to mention the mulled wine and variety of cheese-based foods. I thought about spending a season in the snow but I didn’t fancy the hours of working as a chalet host. So when I came across a magazine article about a woman who rented a chalet in the Alps for the winter and invited her friends and family out as guests, it got me thinking.

The Espace Roc d'Enfer ski area, French Alps

The Espace Roc d’Enfer ski area in St Jean d’Aulps

But could I cope with three whole months in the cold? And would I manage to find enough people to come and stay, or end up bored, on my own and with a huge rental cost to pay? Not to mention would I survive three months without breaking something? I narrowed my search down to the area near Geneva, to make it easy for visitors to get out there, and in France to see if I could resurrect my long-dormant A-level French. And although I was briefly tempted by a season-long rental on a gorgeous 12-person chalet in Val D’Isere, the £7000 price tag was a bit too much of a risk. So I started out small, with six weeks’ rental on a small apartment sleeping six in a place I’d never heard of – St Jean d’Aulps.

The valley down to St Jean d'Aulps, French Alps

Looking down the valley to St Jean d’Aulps (minus snow)

St Jean d’Aulps is part of the huge Portes du Soleil ski area, which has 650km worth of pistes stretching over 14 different valleys along the French-Swiss border. Some of them you’ll probably have heard of – like Morzine, Avoriaz and Les Gets – but most of them you probably won’t. Although they form part of the Portes du Soleil, many like St Jean are stand-alone ski areas which aren’t joined to the main resorts. So you have a more limited area to ski on, but the lift pass prices and the number of visitors are also much lower. There’s also more of a community feel, as there aren’t any hotels or catered chalets here – most visitors own holiday homes and come back every year to spend part of the winter in the snow.

Chez Minet restaurant on the slopes of La Grand Terche, French Alps

Chez Minet restaurant on the slopes of La Grand Terche

The town of St Jean d’Aulps itself is right in a valley, and as I arrived it was looked worryingly green. But luckily the town’s ski slopes are 1000m higher up in a village called La Grande Terche and were a lot whiter. There’s a variety of pistes in La Grande Terche, from beginner’s greens to some slightly scary reds and blacks. There are some stunning views from the top too, down to Lake Geneva in one direction and and across to Mont Blanc and the Dents du Midi in the other. The 35km ski area is tiny in comparison to the big resorts, but being lesser-known, it’s much less busy than other places. At lunchtimes you could almost have the slopes to yourself, making it great for beginners. However once you’d had a few lessons, to get to the blue slopes you had to face the nemesis of the learner skier – the extreme button lift.

On the slopes in St Jean d'Aulps, French Alps

The deceptively gentle looking start to the button lift and the view from the top

Lots of ski resorts have button lifts, but this one was different, running up the side of a steep red run and adding in a couple of corners for good measure. Watching people battling with it from my prime vantage point on the restaurant terrace at the bottom of the slope provided us with a lot of lunchtime entertainment. So it was only right that karma would pay me back. Halfway up one day, I was following my beginner boyfriend when he lost his balance and fell off. I couldn’t get out of the way so fell off too, taking out a French guy and two Germans behind me and starting off an avalanche of skis and people tumbling 100 metres down the slope. Our turn to provide the lunchtime entertainment.

Views of the Dents du Midi from La Grande Terche, French Alps

Misty views across to the Dents du Midi from La Grande Terche

Unless you are a complete beginner, after a few days you will probably want to go and explore further afield. Buses run from St Jean over to the bigger resorts of Morzine and Les Gets, where you can get access the main part of the Portes du Soleil. Les Gets was our favourite resort for beginners, with plenty of wide blue runs to practice your parallel turns. Avoriaz is the highest so had the best snow when after four weeks of constant sun and temperatures of 16°C on the slopes it was starting to get a bit patchy elsewhere. And Morzine had a good mixture of slopes and the best bars and restaurants for après ski.

Snow in Les Gets in the French Alps

The first day of snow in Les Gets after four snow-free weeks

But what if you don’t ski… or if there isn’t any snow to ski on? Luckily there had been some good snowfall before I arrived but it wasn’t a great winter for it – it only snowed two days in the whole six weeks I was there. The mountain at La Grande Terche is covered in walking routes in summer and there are a couple you can go snowshoe walking on in winter. And down in the valley there’s a circular walk that takes you along the river and past the ruined Aulps Abbey. Otherwise you can just take part in my favourite ski holiday activity – sitting on a restaurant terrace looking out on the mountains and drinking a vin chaud.

The ruined abbey in St Jean d'Aulps, French Alps

The ruined Aulps Abbey down in the valley

The details

Getting there and around: The nearest airport is Geneva or you can get the Eurostar from London to Paris then the fast train on to Geneva (takes around 5 hours and starts at €84). From Geneva a shared transfer to La Grande Terche costs about €50 per person each way. There is a free bus from La Grande Terche to St Jean every hour and from there the ski bus takes you to Morzine and Les Gets (€1,50 each way).

Ski hire and lift passes: There are a couple of ski hire places in La Grande Terche – the guys at Muffat Sports were really friendly (and you might get a shot of the owner’s eye-watering homebrew from a Perrier bottle if you’re lucky) – and an ESF ski school if you want lessons, which are €127 for six half-day group classes. Lift passes for the Espace Roc d’Enfer are reasonable at €23,70 a day/€144 a week (2015–2016 season). There are discounts for children, students and seniors and a ‘happy hour’ pass before 2.30pm. You can also get a Portes du Soleil lift pass which covers the whole area, but unless you plan to ski outside St Jean every day it’s better value to buy day passes (€49,50 per day/€279 a week).

Accommodation: There aren’t any hotels in La Grande Terche but there are a few apartments and chalets to rent. I found my apartment thorough Holiday Lettings and winter prices range from €310–€620 a week (it’s also available in the summer if you want to visit the area to go walking).

Eating and drinking: There’s a small supermarket in La Grande Terche and a slightly bigger one down in St Jean. Up on the slopes are two restaurants, Chez Minut and La Licorne, which non-skiers can walk to from the cable car. If you’re feeling brave La Licorne run a weekly dinner up on the slopes where you stay up after the last lift and ski down the red run to the village by torchlight (don’t overdo the wines). Down in the village itself there are four more restaurants, from traditional French to a pizzeria. Also recommended are the bars L’Avalanche (a friendly British-run place with free wifi) and L’Efanle (run by ski instructor Yann and his wife and the place to find a party, with live music some evenings).

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Skiing off the beaten path in St Jean D’Aulps, French Alps – On the Luce travel blog

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Anita Mac
    February 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Sounds like a brilliant idea Lucy! I am sure you had no troubles finding friends to come visit!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 1, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      No, funnily enough I was very popular! It actually worked out really well as it was a cheap way to do a ski holiday so a few friends who’d never skied before came out and all of them loved it.

  • Reply
    Cole @ FourJandals.com
    February 1, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Damn wish I knew you had this place 😉 Would have come and stayed haha. Sounds like a cute resort. I just spent a month up at La Rosiere ski resort. So beautiful!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 1, 2013 at 8:25 pm

      Ha ha, it was last year unfortunately but you’d have been been very welcome! Might have to do it again sometime. La Rosiere looked beautiful too, love the scenery in the Alps.

    • Reply
      Neil Barnes (@packsandbunks)
      February 7, 2013 at 5:51 pm

      Agree with Cole, sounds like a great little place and had I known I might have contacted you about staying.

      Are you taking bookings for next year? haha

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 7, 2013 at 6:00 pm

      I think what we need is ‘Bloghouse: The Alps’ – just need to find a generous tourist board to sort us out with a nice luxury chalet!

  • Reply
    The Travelbunny
    February 4, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    What a fabulous idea Lucy! You’ve just reminded me about all the things that are sooo good about skiing and The Alps 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 4, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      I’m missing not having a ski trip this year so reliving past ones is going to have to do for now!

  • Reply
    Madhu
    February 5, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    What a brilliant idea Lucy!
    I don’t ski, but sitting in a restaurant, with a glass of vin chaud and staring out at that awesome landscape seems like perfection 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 5, 2013 at 5:39 pm

      My parents don’t ski but love coming on ski holidays – the cheese, wine and scenery keep them occupied! I’ve never been to the Alps in the summer though and would like to see those slopes all green for once.

  • Reply
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    February 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    […] Skiing off the Beaten Path in St. Jean D’Aulps, France – On the Luce […]

  • Reply
    On the Luce in 2011 | On the Luce
    March 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    […] nervous of the scarily expensive season rentals, but I found a place for five weeks in the town of St Jean d’Aulps, near Morzine in the French Alps. The apartment was tiny – though I managed to pack in 15 people […]

  • Reply
    Jodi
    April 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Never been skiing before, but I’m now looking forward to my first attempt. Stunning photography!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:53 pm

      Thanks, the mountain scenery in the Alps is just gorgeous, so many photo opportunities!

      • Reply
        S Dryden
        January 19, 2015 at 11:57 am

        This is really useful info Lucy thanks, ps how long does the bus take from St JD to Morzine? and are they frequent?
        Thanks Shaun

      • Reply
        Lucy
        January 19, 2015 at 1:40 pm

        Hi Shaun, the bus from St Jean to Morzine only takes about 15 mins. There aren’t loads of them but about once and hour in the mornings and afternoons (nothing runs at lunchtime). You can see the timetable at http://winter.valleedaulps.com/winter-shuttles.html (Line 1 is the most useful, though if you’re staying up in La Grande Terche rather than St Jean town you’ll also need to get the shuttle down first which is at the back of the timetable).

  • Reply
    Mike Marwick
    February 16, 2016 at 7:52 am

    Good news, Lucy, the dreaded double drag lift has now been replaced with a chair! Did you do the Roc d’Enfer circuit in Grand Terche? Imho, it’s one of the nicest runs in Portes du Soleil. Mike

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 16, 2016 at 12:41 pm

      That’s excellent news – I will have to go back and try it out! That and the full Roc d’Enfer circuit, the year I was there had so little snow that part was closed so I couldn’t do the full circuit.

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