Tchupi fluttered his long eyelashes at me and muttered something incomprehensible. Then he made a break for it to chomp on a hedge alongside his chum, Tio. Evidently these llamas had a one-track mind.
I was in Valloire, the only French ski resort where you can take these adorable creatures for a gentle snowshoe stroll through woods, along the river Valloirette, in the shadow of the peaks that loom over this corner of the Maurienne Valley.
Ostensibly it’s meant to appeal to children – the two tiny French sisters in our party were squealing with glee – but the grown-ups were equally won over by these docile, sweetly mischievous animals.
Eventually their chatty owner, Gilles, brought out a picnic of herbal tea and tartines with jam and cream. I also saw why he had been carrying a tripod all this time: he set up a telescope, trained it on the mountainside and stared intently.
“There!” he said. “Two chamois and a deer. Make that two deer.” We all took turns to look, the little girls as excited as the adults to see these elusive animals. It was like no other snowshoe walk I’d ever done. It was also, as I was discovering, typical of Valloire: quirky, intimate, full of pleasant surprises – and very French.
The skiing isn’t to be sniffed at either. Between Valloire and neighbouring Valmeinier there are 150km of pistes across the Galibier-Thabor ski area – with 70 per cent above 2,000m. There’s also a snowpark, a freestyle zone and some tough off-piste areas. So any daredevils in the family – and it was mostly family groups here – can have a good hair-raising whizz round, while the rest of us could enjoy some excellent and varied terrain at a more relaxed pace.
I was seeing Valloire through a beginner’s eyes, as my husband had decided to ditch his snowboard and take up skiing for the first time since a long-ago school trip. Seemingly endless, high-altitude green runs gave beginners plenty of space to practise on – unlike some resorts where there’s a small novice area and then you’re chucked straight on to more challenging slopes. Here the move from green to blue – and then red – was a smooth transition made easy by our cheerful ESF (French Ski School) guide, Mathilde.
The month before had been dry, but snow arrived in the nick of time for our trip. We could explore both of Valloire’s sectors, the high-altitude Crey du Quart (with a magnificent view from 2,534m) and the more sheltered Sétaz, with runs winding through the woods. One by one, the pistes were reopening – notably the chairlift at Moulin Benjamin across the street from our flat at the Chalets du Galibier, saving us the trouble of taking the free ski bus to the centre.
During strolls through the attractive village – mostly traditional Savoyard buildings marred by only a couple of modernist blots – we were drawn inexorably towards the numerous food shops. We were no match for their mouthwatering displays of charcuterie, Beaufort, tomme de Savoie and other local cheeses. The Friday market – one of the best I’d seen in the region – made me glad I was taking the train as I stocked up on cheese, saucisson and génépi, that golden herbal liqueur that really brings back the taste of the Alps.
About the only thing that was missing was the collection of café terraces usually found by ski lifts, but what Valloire was lacking in the 4pm après-ski action it made up for in late-night fun. Two live music bars by the outdoor skating rink, Le Moussequif and Le Mast’Rock, were the places to pitch up in after 11pm, with the nearby Slalom nightclub kicking off after 1am. The bowling alley and its bar were busy, and Le Centre bar was a friendly spot for those us with less staying power. I couldn’t fault the restaurants either, with affordable mountains of cheesy dishes to plough through at Le Plancher des Vaches, Au Resto and La Pizza.
Leaving the skis behind one day, we joined our snowshoe guide, Thierry, for an 8km trek through the forests near the 1,566m Col du Télégraphe. Thickly falling snow and clouds obliterated the view of the mountains, and an observation deck mocked us with what we were missing. But the woods were silent and serene, disturbed only by our tracks in the deep snow. After a few hours we reached a hut, where another group huddled around the wood-burner eating a cheese fondue. As we devoured our picnic, two of Thierry’s friends turned up on their snowmobiles, bearing emergency supplies of hot chocolate and génépi – an unexpected and very welcome act of kindness.
Back in the village, we visited Brasserie Galibier, which, until recently, was the highest microbrewery in France. Its co-owner, former pro snowboarder Brice Le Guennec, wasn’t bothered about losing that distinction. “We don’t care. We just brew the best beer in the Alps,” he told me. It wasn’t an idle boast. Only spring water is used, and no preservatives. Clean-tasting, refreshing, unpretentious – and as cold as Valloire is warm.
Mary Novakovich travelled with Voyages-sncf (0844 848 5848; voyages-sncf.com), which offers direct Eurostar trains from London to Lyon and connections to St-Michel-de-Maurienne. Bus transfers (mobisavoie.fr) to Valloire cost €12.30.
The writer was a guest of Peak Retreats (0844 576 0170; peakretreats.co.uk), which offers a week at the Chalets du Galibier from £269pp, including Eurotunnel crossing.
Six-day lift passes cost €190; ski and boot hire from Intersport Galibier (intersport-rent.fr) costs from €13 a day.
Walking with llamas (estancot.net) costs €22 for adults, €14 for children aged seven to 17 and free for children under seven.
Half-day snowshoe treks cost €23 (00 33 6 99 96 41 87).