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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).