Take a left for the thrifty side of the Alps
Lucy Grewcock had passed by the sign for Sainte Foy many times on her way to Val d'Isère...this time, she followed it instead
I feel the familiar ripple of excitement as our vehicle drops down a gear and we snake around the first in a long series of bends on the ascent to Val d'Isère. Sitting up straighter in my seat, I assess how the snow cover compares with last year, my muscles awakening and gently flexing as I take my body through imaginary ski turns.
But after only five hairpin bends, our driver swings left off the main road. In almost a decade of climbing this route, I have passed the sign to Sainte Foy more than 30 times but I've never once taken the turn towards what I've always considered to be the inferior baby cousin of Val d'Isère and Tignes.
It was my boyfriend, Tom, who suggested we give Sainte Foy a chance. He'd heard that the Alps' youngest ski resort, which has just turned 20, has been quietly developing into a chic retreat and was secretly harbouring some of the best ski terrain in the Tarentaise Valley.
First impressions boded well. With spacious rooms and bespoke interiors, our chalet, The Peak, is typical of Sainte Foy's sophisticated style, yet the stone columns and twisted timbers suggest the new building could have been here for decades. It costs half the price of similar chalets in better-known resorts, too.
We got our lift passes and ski hire sorted in record speed and found time for a few warm-up runs before heading up the mountain. On the Grand Plan chair lift, we discussed the week ahead with a couple from Edinburgh, who told us that though Sainte Foy has just four chair lifts and 15 pistes, the town is a short taxi ride from some of the Alps' most illustrious resorts, making a ski safari possible.
"You can get cheap passes for all the nearby resorts," they explained. "Think we'll be nipping over to La Plagne for a day." A great idea – we began planning our tour. With a week's lift pass costing half the price charged in the biggest resorts, at Sainte Foy you can easily afford a morning in Les Arcs, or an afternoon in La Rosière.
For now we would explore Sainte Foy. We met Fabienne, our guide for the day, at the foot of Le Marquise – the resort's new six-seater chair lift – and headed up to the Col de l'Aiguille. We pulled out the piste map to plan our attack, but Fabienne waved a mitten at the uncrowded pistes and chalky white powder below. "No need for rushing here," she said.
It was sound advice. Sainte Foy operates a laid-back attitude, with few collisions and none of the usual lift stampedes. We carved wide turns on expansive red runs and raced each other along winding, tree-lined blues.
Planning to get regain our ski legs before venturing off-piste, I was surprised when, at more than 2,000m, Fabienne lifted a fence and signalled for Tom to drop over the edge first.
"Welcome to Shaper's Paradise," she whooped, as we bounded down one of three designated free-riding zones. No off-piste area can deliver the safety of the nursery slopes, but Sainte Foy's vast bowl is controlled from the ridge above, so the risk of avalanche is greatly reduced and the chance of a speedy rescue is enhanced. Beyond this ridge, the backcountry offers endless adventure. And with a north-west aspect, you can find untouched powder long after nearby resorts have been tracked out.
We glided home through the pine trees – even down at resort level the snow quality was good. A new network of snow cannons, able to make up to 4.5 hectares of artificial snow, has recently been installed on the new blue run, Les Charmottes, ensuring skiers can shoosh straight into the Iceberg Bar for an après-ski beer, even in late April.
Après-ski is a congenial affair here. Don't expect to be spraying magnums of Dom Pérignon from the terraces, or showcasing your Gucci one-piece. The family-friendly bars are lively but, come early evening, the drinkers disperse for dinner. Drawn by a log fire and a menu of Savoyard specialities, we opted for La Maison à Colonnes, a restaurant set in a 16th-century listed farmhouse at the foot of the pistes.
As the week drifted by, we became enchanted by this unassuming ski resort that skirts Vanoise National Park and is controlled by strict heritage charters. New developments are well considered and carefully monitored.
Inspired by this attitude, on day five we strapped on snowshoes to explore the valley with Sainte Foy veteran and local celebrity, Bruno Davy. "Allez. Let's go!" Bruno grinned with excitement. Lifting our feet high to manoeuvre the clumsy raquettes, we followed him along quiet forest trails, as he pointed out the tracks of chamois, roe deer and white hare.
At the edge of the forest, Bruno offered us a glimpse into Sainte Foy's future. With construction already under way, the new buildings there will almost double the occupancy within five years. "And, here, a new lift," said Bruno, gesturing towards a clearing. He outlined plans for new shops and restaurants, the upgrade for existing chair lifts and, possibly, the opening of a new ski area. "New pistes through the forest?" I probed. "Maybe higher up, but not here," Bruno shook his head. "C'est le parc national," he laughed, slapping a larch tree.
Crunching back to our chalet for the last time, Tom spotted the couple we had met earlier in the week. "How was La Plagne?" he called across the piste. "Didn't need to go in the end," they shouted back.
Neither did we.
How to get there
Easyjet (easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick to Geneva from £45 return. Première Neige (020-7078 9580; premiere-neige.com) offers a week at The Peak from £546 per person and return transfers from Geneva airport for £90 per person.
La Maison à Colonnes (00 34 79 06 94 80); Sainte Foy Tourism Office (saintefoy-tarentaise.com).
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