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).

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