As a Francophile who only recently returned to skiing after a long hiatus, I was less than enamoured by the idea of the French Alps. Too many British people and concrete villages. But surely there was an authentic slice of France somewhere among the dozens of resorts that run from the Jura to northern Provence. I asked a few people from the Rhône-Alpes region where I could find a resort that could more or less guarantee snow, wasn't completely anglicised, had more than two restaurants and didn't resemble a Sixties modernist horror. "Samoëns," they chorused. "Where?" I asked.
I was more familiar with its neighbour, Flaine, which happens to be a concrete monstrosity but shares the 265km of pistes that make up the Grand Massif ski area, one of the largest in France. Samoëns itself, nestling in the Giffre valley in Haute-Savoie, is the only French resort that is classified as a national monument. It has a 16th-century church, a covered, outdoor ice-skating rink and a relaxed atmosphere. It's also part of the official cheese trail of Savoie, which got me salivating at the thought of Reblochon, Tomme de Savoie and Beaufort.
What it lacks is the nightlife many British skiers are used to. Inside the main square's Bar le Savoie, the young barmaid was pining for the excitement that New Year's Eve had brought the week before. The outdoor bar that usually serves vin chaud was shut.
Luckily, I hadn't come to dance on tables or knock back cocktails. Charm, comfort, natural beauty, great food and skiing – that was more what I had in mind. The charm and comfort were there in abundance at the family-run Hotel Neige et Roc: cosy pine interiors, log fires, friendly staff. A session in the Jacuzzi was an appealing substitute for any raucous après-ski that might be going on in the noisier resorts.
I took the Grand Massif Express gondola up to the Samoëns ski area at 1,600m. Local schoolchildren were having their PE classes along the many green and blue runs in the lower area. I headed up to Tête des Saix at 2,120m, where I wasn't quite high enough to see Mont Blanc, but the view was heavenly nonetheless. Nathalie, my Ecole du Ski Français instructor, pointed out the Lac des Nuages, the "lake of clouds" that swirls around the neighbouring peaks. There were more mountains than people.
I cruised along the wide red runs that eventually took me back to the 1,600m area, where a delicious lunch at Lou Camboëns beckoned. French skiers make up the majority of visitors, while only about 10 per cent are British. I was hearing more British and Irish voices than I expected to, but most of the ski signs and menus were only in French. I knew that there was an Irish pub around here somewhere, but I had yet to see it.
Lack of time meant I couldn't try the Grand Massif special: Les Cascades. This incredible blue run starts in Flaine at the 2,480m peak of Les Grandes Platières, and carries on for 14 blissful and scenic kilometres into the forest. Two-thirds of the way down is about the right time to stop for lunch at the restaurant in the woods. After a meal of Savoyard specialities (more cheese) at the Gîte du Lac de Gers, continue through the woods until you arrive at Sixt, where the shuttle bus will take you back to Samoëns.
Here La Cheminée is a café serving crêpe compagnarde, a savoury pancake filled with melting Reblochon cheese, chunks of bacon and onions, but that was on the next day's to-do list. I'd already had a tasty cheese fondue at the hotel on the first night, and that evening would look forward to tartiflette, a winter-warming dish of Reblochon, potatoes and bacon, at the stylish Le Bois de Lune. I could see a pattern emerging here.
All of those were just a prelude to the best cheese fondue I've ever eaten. As a connoisseur of the much-maligned dish, I met my match at La Table de Fifine. It's a bit of a walk from the village centre and the fondue costs €23 per person, but it's worth it. Fifine gave me a list of cheeses she uses – all local.
I never did find the Irish pub, tucked away in a rather obscure location behind a supermarket. I did, however, stumble upon Café Guançao near the main square. I swiftly realised I was the only non-French person there; the rest of the crowd were entranced by a singer covering songs by one of France's biggest rock bands, Noir Désir. A big, hairy dog ambled in, got the requisite number of pats and shuffled out again. The atmosphere was warm, lively and civilised, bottles of Perrier outnumbering small glasses of beer. Val d'Isère might have cocktails and glitz (and Brits), but I know which resort I prefer.
Mary Novakovich travelled with Peak Retreats (0844 576 0170; peakretreats.co.uk), which offers seven nights at the Hotel Neige et Roc from £632 per person half-board, which includes Eurotunnel self-drive with free FlexiPlus upgrade. A six-day ski pack (equipment hire, lift pass) costs from £214 per person.
Plenty of airlines serve the nearest airport, Geneva, from a wide range of UK airports. Private transfers to Samoëns can be arranged through GoMassif (00 33 626 074 100; gomassif.com) for €60 per person, based on four sharing.
Hotel Neige et Roc (00 33 450 344 072; neigeetroc.com) offers doubles from €240 per night, half board. Sport 2000 (00 33 450 344 214; passionglisse. sport2000.fr) offers six days' ski equipment hire from €77.
Samoëns Tourist Office: 00 33 450 344 028; samoens.com. Rhône-Alpes Tourism: 00 33 472 592 159; rhonealpestourisme.com.Reuse content