Hidden charms

Just a swift gondola ride from the Trois Vallées, St Martin de Belleville has all the charm of a French Alpine village, with none of the maddening crowds, reports Stephen Wood

The dream is familiar to all those who ski in France. In the Alps they stumble upon a small, unspoilt village which, miraculously, has a ski lift. It's only a four-seat gondola, or an old, triple-seat chairlift - nothing big or fast enough to attract a queue. But it takes skiers straight up to one of the huge French ski areas whose main lift-bases are expensive, over-developed resorts. OK, the village doesn't have much nightlife except for Gaston's bar and La Bonne Femme restaurant; but after a couple of days it's all
bonjour,
bonsoir and
bonhomie at the
boulangerie, the
épicerie and the ski-rental shop, where Monsieur Dubois keeps a small stock of skis ranging from the classic, first-generation Salomon X-Screams to the latest, Chinese-made K2s.

The dream is familiar to all those who ski in France. In the Alps they stumble upon a small, unspoilt village which, miraculously, has a ski lift. It's only a four-seat gondola, or an old, triple-seat chairlift - nothing big or fast enough to attract a queue. But it takes skiers straight up to one of the huge French ski areas whose main lift-bases are expensive, over-developed resorts. OK, the village doesn't have much nightlife except for Gaston's bar and La Bonne Femme restaurant; but after a couple of days it's all bonjour, bonsoir and bonhomie at the boulangerie, the épicerie and the ski-rental shop, where Monsieur Dubois keeps a small stock of skis ranging from the classic, first-generation Salomon X-Screams to the latest, Chinese-made K2s.

The two UK ski guides keep the dream alive. The Good Skiing & Snowboarding Guide has a list of 10 "small, attractive villages in big ski areas"; Where to Ski and Snowboard uses the rather more fundamental "Back-door resorts" tag for its 11 choices, adding in small print that these are "cute little Alpine villages linked to big, bold ski areas, giving you the best of both worlds". Quite whether these places live up to their billing is a matter of opinion, a fact eloquently demonstrated by the limited overlap between the two lists. Of the villages mentioned, 11 appear on only a single list. Saint Martin de Belleville, however, is among the five that feature in both.

Two decades ago St Martin probably fulfilled the British skier's fantasy (except for the last part: I did get a bit carried away with the ski-rental shop). Even then it had a two-seater chairlift which climbed slowly out of the village up the Vallée des Bellevilles, part of what is probably the most popular ski area for Britons: the Trois Vallées. Since then the villages in the other two valleys have grown into big attractions. One of them, Courchevel 1850, is the most fashionable ski destination in the world; another, Méribel, is now so heavily populated by south-west Londoners as to warrant an "SW" postcode. And the Vallée des Bellevilles? It is little-changed. Despite its great skiing - the highest and best in the Trois Vallées - it is blighted by the Sixties and Seventies architecture in the major resorts of Val Thorens and Les Menuires.

Lower down the valley, St Martin has seen notable growth in its accommodation; but nothing dramatic happened there until the 2002/3 season. Then the old two-seat chairlift was replaced by an eight-seat gondola. This hardly took the village into the big league, in terms of uplift. Nevertheless it made some sit up and take notice.

Neal Manuel, managing director of the bespoke ski-tour operator Kaluma, first visited St Martin 15 years ago. He remembers it as "a charming place which needed a big lift to get skiers back on the mountains". Last season Manuel went back, having been invited for a meal at La Bouitte, a restaurant at Saint Marcel, a hamlet just above the village. At the time he was looking to extend Kaluma's operations to a new destination somewhere near his base in Courchevel 1850. The Trois Vallées - with its 600km of pistes and 200 lifts - was ideal, he says, "because everyone likes it: it's a ski area which caters for everybody except the super-expert".

Manuel had no interest in going "to a concrete jungle like Les Menuires". But he was so taken with St Martin - still charming but now with the ski-lift it needed - that he tried to buy a hotel at the lift-base. Beaten to the purchase by some Belgian investors, Manuel contented himself with adding St Martin to the Kaluma brochure. For this season the company is offering packages to the Hotel St Martin, in the village, and to La Bouitte.

Set down at the bottom of the skiable area of the Vallée des Bellevilles, St Martin is currently not an easy sell, Manuel reckons. "A lot of people don't know it - you have to tell them it's part of the Trois Vallées. But with the new gondola, plus improved snow-making on the descent to the village, it's bound to be developed. Right now, though, the Hotel St Martin costs about half that of a comparable property in Courchevel. And because it is still establishing itself, St Martin offers better service: they have to make more of an effort here."

The old part of the village has a couple of squares with a church set between them. (The local ecclesiastical showpiece, the chapel of Notre Dame de la Vie, is up on the main road, towards Saint Marcel.) The bakery, grocery, butchers and other shops crowd around the place de la Mairie, where in La Voute the barman told us - with no note of apology - that St Martin was growing because second-home buyers "come here to escape from the English" in the other two valleys. Above old St Martin, apartments now run up to the lift base, itself semi-encircled by new residential/retail buildings. Alongside them is the Hotel St Martin, whose guests have only to traverse a slope and drop a few metres before starting a day's skiing.

An attractive, designer-ish hotel with two restaurants, the St Martin is a three-star built to four-star standards: Manuel pointed out the tell-tale signs such as toilets separate from the bathrooms, a pre-requisite of four-star status in France. (Another is a phone booth in the lobby area, apparently.) The hotel's owner explained that St Martin skiers are not yet four-star types, and they would regard a hotel with that status to be out of their league.

To see the hotel in summer is to get only a limited impression: it is closed then. Luckily, La Bouitte stays open through out the year. So I was able to stay in what is a gem of a place.

Its owner/chef, René Meilleur, opened La Bouitte in 1976, when there was no ski lift out of St Martin. "But we used to see these skiers who had descended off-piste arriving hungry and thirsty, and we thought: 'We should feed them'. So we opened a little terrace, and people started skiing down for lunch. Afterwards they would take a taxi back up to Les Menuires." Until 2000 La Bouitte (the name means "small house") remained just a restaurant, albeit one subsequently recognised by the Gault et Millau and Michelin guides; but thereafter it became - in Meilleur's words - "a restaurant with rooms". There are now five suites, all skilfully inserted into the old building and all tastefully combining rustic charm with mod cons. Meilleur's cooking is modern and creative, but largely free of that style's usual decadence - and strong on good, simple ingredients. Remarkably, he is self-taught, having started his career as a chef churning out steak-frites at Les Menuires.

Is St Martin a "small, attractive village in a big ski area"? The first part is correct, but "attached to" a big ski area would be a better description of its connection with the Trois Vallées. A "back-door resort"? Please: St Martin is hardly a tradesman's entrance. But when the Where to Ski and Snowboard talks about cute little villages linked to big ski areas and offering the best of both worlds, it has got St Martin just about right.

Kaluma (0870 442 8044; www.kalumatravel.co.uk) offers seven nights' half-board in the Hotel Saint Martin from £828 per person, including flights with BA or Swiss from London to Geneva or Lyon and private transfers. The equivalent price for B&B in a suite at La Bouitte is £718 per person. More information on St Martin de Belleville from 00 33 4 79 00 20 00 or www.st-martin-belleville.com

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