Sainte-Foy skiing: Charming, child-friendly, and uncrowded

The pistes of sleepy Sainte-Foy offer skiing as it should be, says Mark McCrum

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The Independent Travel

Tucked away in the Tarantaise valley between the attention-grabbing ski resorts of Les Arcs, Val d'Isère, La Rosière and Tignes is charming, low-key Sainte-Foy. If you yearn for a buzzing après-ski scene or want to hang out in smart bars to share tales of gnarly runs and face shots, this is not the place for you. The heart of the resort is a wooden decked area perhaps 50 metres long, with a couple of bars, a small supermarket, and a few shops selling ski gear.

Close by, there is a quaint little nursery slope, and beyond that the chair lift up the mountain, home to a modest 24 pistes, two greens, several blues, and some harder reds and blacks, including the notorious Crystal Dark – a vertiginous rock-scarred drop from the peak. A six-day lift pass at Sainte-Foy is a refreshing €160, compared with €250 at Val d'Isère.

The village is a picture of traditional Savoyard wood and stone chalets, with pitched roofs and wooden balconies. Among them was my base, La Marquise, 100m up a snowy lane from the centre. It is operated by Première Neige, along with 24 self-catered and five catered chalets elsewhere in the resort.

It is organised on an upside-down basis, so you climb from the boot room, sauna and steam rooms past seven good-sized bedrooms with grey slate bathrooms and picture windows over the mountain. There's an open-plan lounge at the top, while by the kitchen area, three upbeat young helpers work away discreetly preparing and serving drinks, meals, canapés and cake. The cuisine was terrific: homely, but inventive and delicious, not least the ginger, carrot and coriander soup and the quail's leg and Scotch egg starter.

Outside, on the wooden balcony overlooking the valley, there's the kind of hot tub that makes you feel like you've just fallen into a Bond movie by mistake. The big television screen is sensibly banished to a den up a further flight of stairs, where there's also a colourful tepee and a large basket of toys.

The child-friendly flavour of the place extends throughout the resort. Première Neige operates a central crèche for all its chalets. This is complemented by a Snow Patrollers club for children aged four to 10, who get taken out sledging, snowboarding, and building igloos, with an activities room back at base if the weather's too bad to be outside.

The separately-owned Ecole du Ski Français (ESF) also takes children from the age of three; and up on the uncrowded slopes you pass groups of tots snowploughing down like little ski-ducklings following their instructor.

As something of a novice myself, I found the uncrowded pistes of Sainte-Foy ideal for developing what rudimentary technique I had. After a nervous morning on the nursery slope with ESF instructor Benjamin, I took my juddery snowplough on to the resort's single green run, a snaking track through the woods, with nothing too steep to worry about. With confidence slowly returning, I felt up to tackling a couple of blue runs the following day, doing my best to please Benjamin by keeping my shoulders facing down the slope and "committing to the turn".

If Sainte-Foy isn't exactly Disco Central, there are a number of charming bar-restaurants up and down the slopes. At village level, La Maison à Colonnes occupies the oldest building in the resort, dating from the 17th century, and offers hearty soups, omelettes, pastas and plats du jour in a steamy, low-beamed, chattery environment.

At the top of the first chair lift is tiny Les Brevettes, which would soon become my regular hot chocolate stop. Higher up the mountain, accessible only by ski, is Les Marquises, with two big terraces looking over views to give anyone an appetite.

One evening, I ventured to the celebrated Chez Merie in nearby Le Miroir, a restaurant founded in the 1960s by an enterprising local who served omelettes and charcuterie to skiers stranded by heavy snow falls. Her daughter, Merie, and friend, Babette, continue to provide traditional French cuisine in a couple of low-ceilinged rooms where the huge log fire and floral English plates put you, after the third glass of kir, in a state of mind where the 21st century never arrived at all.

After my last day's triumphant run down from the top of the mountain on blues only, I ended up in Les Marquises, sampling Génépi, the local herb-based aperitif which tastes delicious in the snow, but would probably never transport home. After two shots, I found myself chatting to a veteran skier who turned out to be Konrad Bartelski, British hero of the 1981 Alpine Skiing World Cup, who missed winning a downhill race by 0.11 seconds, but nonetheless got the Union flag on the podium for the first – and last – time.

"People think Sainte-Foy is four lifts and eight pistes," he told me, "but it's not, it has closer to 2,000 runs, because you can ski the whole mountain." When you get to know this special place, he went on, with quiet enthusiasm, the mountain will talk to you. "This is skiing as it should be, not as it has become."

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Getting there

Sainte-Foy is easily accessible from Bourg St-Maurice, terminus for the Eurostar (03432 186 186; eurostar.com) ski train.

Staying there

Mark McCrum was a guest of Première Neige (0131 510 2525; premiere-neige.com) and stayed in Sainte-Foy at La Marquise which sleeps 16. It is priced from £790pp per week fully catered, excluding travel to the resort. Other Première Neige catered chalets start at £670pp.

Skiing there

Skis were supplied by Rental Republic, which offers free delivery and in-chalet fitting (020 3588 0016; rentalrepublic.co.uk).

Instruction is offered by ESF Sainte Foy (00 33 4 79 06 96 76; esf-saintefoy.com) and Patrick at Snocool (00 33 4 79 24 30 94; snocool.com).

Eating and drinking there

La Maison à Colonnes (00 33 4 79 06 94 80).

Chez Merie (00 33 4 79 06 90 16).

Les Brevettes (00 33 6 87 26 10 11).

Les Marquises (00 33 7 63 79 08 08).

More information

A six-day lift-pass (€160; saintefoy-tarentaise.com) gives a 50 per cent discount on passes in neighbouring resorts.

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