Follow the French: Where all eyes are on the might of Mont Blanc

St Gervais isn't one of those French Alps destinations that the British flock to. How would Simon O'Hagan fare when he spent a week with the locals?

Regular visitors to the French Alps have probably heard of St Gervais, a small town tucked away to one side of Mont Blanc. I hadn't, and nor had a lot of people I mentioned the resort to before I headed there with my family for a week's skiing just after Christmas. I had to tell them that it was near Megève. "Ah yes, Megève," they said. "Very chic, Megève."

Regular visitors to the French Alps have probably heard of St Gervais, a small town tucked away to one side of Mont Blanc. I hadn't, and nor had a lot of people I mentioned the resort to before I headed there with my family for a week's skiing just after Christmas. I had to tell them that it was near Megève. "Ah yes, Megève," they said. "Very chic, Megève."

So, is St Gervais not that popular? On the contrary, it is very popular indeed, and understandably so. It is pretty, and full of character, and it offers some lovely skiing to suit all abilities. But the people it is popular with tend to be French, or Italian, with British skiers making up a small minority.

We British have far to travel to ski. When we get there we want guaranteed snow, the easiest access to it, and a great time when we're off the slopes. If we can only spend one week a year skiing, it's vital to make the most of the opportunity. Hence, if we're talking France, the enduring appeal of Val d'Isère, Courchevel and other favourites.

St Gervais is not quite like that. It's a real place rather than a mere facility. It seems to exist as much for the people who live there as it does for those who want to visit. And at 800 metres, it is too low for a lot of skiers. But it's not a problem to reach slopes higher up, and it has so much else going for it that I don't think we could have enjoyed anywhere more.

"Go where the French go," is a big selling point of the tour operator we went with, Peak Retreats, and as veterans of many a French holiday we were taken with that idea. Our reasoning stemmed in part from a fear that our skiing might not be up to much. My wife and I had not skied for more than 10 years. Our 14-year-old daughter, Isabel, had skied just once, on a school trip a year earlier. Our 11-year-old daughter, Eleanor, was a beginner. If it all went wrong then at least having an authentically French experience - the winter equivalent of the summer holiday in a gîte that was so familiar to us - would help to compensate.

That we could make the entire journey from London to St Gervais by train - and were thus spared the hours spent hanging around for flights and coach transfers - helped to create the sense that we were not part of the usual tourism process. Waterloo to Gare du Nord; Gare de Lyon to Annecy; Annecy to St Gervais. It took all day, but it was wonderful. On the final stage of the journey, when darkness had fallen, we switched off our compartment light, and gazed out across the snowy fields as the train wound its way up through the mountains.

Perhaps even more important from a practical point of view was the proximity to the telecabine of our apartment on the edge of St Gervais. If you can't ski from your door, then you certainly want the shortest walk to where you can - or to the transport that's going to take you to where you can. For us, this journey was no more than a hundred metres.

The telecabine took us up to 1,200 metres and the confluence of ski runs - and hive of activity - that was Le Bettex: a scattering of homes; a ski-hire outlet, the HQ of the Ecole du Ski Français, adjacent nursery slopes, a field for tobogganing, and an excellent restaurant - Le Presteau - where we had lunch most days. From Le Bettex you could take another telecabine up to the top of Mont d'Arbois, where the whole Evasion-Mont Blanc ski area opened out, with runs down the other side to Megève. It was spectacular - the pleasure enhanced by the number of possibilities to be explored below the tree line. And wherever you skied, the eye was drawn to the might of Mont Blanc - so close you felt you could have reached out and touched it.

Although we were mainly among French people, we heard plenty of English spoken too. One day, I got chatting to Jenny from Truro and her children. She had been coming to St Gervais for years and said she would never go anywhere else. "It's friendly and it's relaxed, and the best thing is there is so much skiing that everyone can enjoy doing together."

Jenny was right. St Gervais was an intermediate's paradise, with blues and reds that didn't disappear even on the highest slopes. Isabel and Eleanor did well by the ESF, my wife and I picked things up after a private lesson, and within three days we were whizzing about as a group.

We were equally happy come the end of the day. We had a modern, warm, light and comfortable apartment in an attractive block called Le Grand Panorama. We had a boulangerie, tabac and bar across the street. The town centre, with its small but well-stocked supermarket and other shops, was a 10-minute walk away. We tucked into the local specialities - saucisson sec and reblochon.

One night there was an ice hockey international at the nearby rink. France vs Finland. I wentwith Isabel, and we revelled in the action and the raucous excitement. We were all in the town square for New Year's Eve and a torchlight procession of ESF instructors. The mayor made a speech. In the week of the tsunami, his words had a wisdom and a dignity that were very French. Man was not in control of his destiny, he reminded us. We must respect Nature. Our freedom to enjoy the environment carries responsibilities.

We'd come to St Gervais for a skiing holiday, and now we found that we were fellow-citizens too.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.rail europe.co.uk) offers return fares from Waterloo to Le Fayet/St Gervais from £89.

Where to stay

Simon O'Hagan travelled to St Gervais with Peak Retreats (0870 770 0408; www.peakretreats.co.uk). It offers a week in La Grand Panorama from £94 per person, based on four sharing, including a return ferry crossing. STBMA (00 33 450 93 11 87; www.stbma.fr) offers one-day day lift passes from €29.50 (£21). Ski and boot hire from Twinner (00 33 4 50 47 75 97) starts from €18 (£13) per day. Ecole du Ski Francais (00 33 450 93 10 14; www.ski-ecole.com/st-gervais/) offers six-day group ski lessons for €95 (£68).

Further information

St. Gervais Mont-Blanc Tourism (00 33 450 477 608; www.st-gervais.net).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager - Commercial Cable & Wire - UK

    £60,000 - £75,000: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the major Aer...

    ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain