For Roger Thomas, skiing in a big-name resort usually meant lodging in a shoebox and spending half the holiday in lift queues - that is, until the day he looked further afield

Here's one for all ski anoraks out there. Can you name the place with just four lifts that's a stone's throw from one of the biggest, glitziest resorts in the French Alps? Another clue: the place in question has only 25km of pistes, yet it's at the epicentre of a winter sports world big enough to keep the most mileage-hungry skier piste-bashing for weeks.

Here's one for all ski anoraks out there. Can you name the place with just four lifts that's a stone's throw from one of the biggest, glitziest resorts in the French Alps? Another clue: the place in question has only 25km of pistes, yet it's at the epicentre of a winter sports world big enough to keep the most mileage-hungry skier piste-bashing for weeks.

By now, all ski saddos - pitiable figures like me who buy the Where to Ski guide every year to monitor its minor updates - will know that I'm talking about Sainte-Foy. But for most, Sainte-Foy is only a name hazily remembered, the unremarkable little village you pass through at some ungodly hour on the transfer from Geneva to Val d'Isère.

Big brother Val attracts skiers by the countless thousand, spilling them out on top of the mountain from high-speed underground trains, gondolas and chairs. In Sainte-Foy it's a busy day when you can see another lonely group sitting way ahead of you on the chairlift.

Initially, I was deeply suspicious of Sainte-Foy. I'd been to Val (please forgive the affected abbreviation) lots of times and heard vague stories of a raw little ski station about 15km back down the Tarentaise valley. It didn't appear to add up to much - just a handful of lifts and pistes that could be skied in a morning. Then, one day, I went out of curiosity, and haven't looked back. Sainte-Foy was a revelation, a classic case of somewhere that's far more than the sum of its parts.

There's a whole generation out there who have had their fill of factory skiing. You're processed up the mountain, and you bump and bang your way back down on busy, worn pistes. You eat in steamy mountain canteens and you queue for everything.

So what makes this minnow stand out among its mega-neighbours? First, there's the setting, on steep north-west-facing slopes with superb views. Nothing in Val comes even close to the in-your-face panorama of glacier-crowned Mont Pourri, which at 3,779m, is the giant of the Tarentaise.

Then there's the nature of the development itself. You have to bear in mind that there are two Sainte-Foys - the nicely worn, mature village on the main road from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Val, and the new ski station that's taking shape among the summer pasture and forests of larch, spruce and birch 7km up the mountain. It's only in the last few years that any significant building has taken place around the ski lift. The planners have learned from the mistakes made at nearby Tignes, a utilitarian nightmare blighted by the barrack block mentality of the Sixties. At Sainte-Foy there is no high rise, just buildings on a human scale made from local materials, with characteristic Savoyarde round stone columns and stone slab roofs.

It's a seamless blend of old and new - so much so that you have to look twice to distinguish between the traditional farm buildings and the brand-new chalets and apartments. And here's another good thing: Sainte-Foy has decided that its future lies in giving its guests space, comfort and a little luxury. So it's out with the microwaves and comedy beds that fall out of the wall and in with saunas, soft furnishings, jacuzzis and hot tubs.

Sainte-Foy's destiny lies beyond the mass-market "package" business. The operators that work here are small and bespoke, catering for the independent traveller. Fiona Lynch of Première Neige previously worked for a ski company in Val before seizing the opportunity to do something different at Sainte-Foy. "The idea of being able to offer luxury chalets and apartments just metres from uncrowded pistes, yet surrounded by some of the world's greatest ski resorts, seemed too good to miss." Sainte-Foy is still developing, but the good news is that they are going to call a halt soon - so the place will never join the big league, and all the better for it. There's a bar, an excellent little supermarket, two ski shops, a pizzeria and a few restaurants - and that's about it, so don't come for the nightlife.

But do come for the skiing and snowboarding. There's a small (free) drag lift for learners, and three chairs that take you from 1,550 to 2,620m. This is where Sainte-Foy comes into its own. As all keen skiers know, vertical drop is the Holy Grail. Many well-known resorts look in envy at Sainte-Foy's top-to-bottom vital statistics of over 1,000 metres.

A friend of mine - a very experienced skier - stayed here recently, planning to spend most of his holiday blitzing the pistes at Val d'Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs and La Rosière (all under half-an-hour's drive away). But, and this happens all the time, he didn't get very far. He was amazed by the amount of skiing he could access from only three lifts. It's not just the steep, swooping red runs from the top (in my opinion, some of the best in the Alps). It's also the vast areas of easy (and not so easy) off-piste that Sainte-Foy has to offer. Equipped with the new generation of skis, confidentint intermediates can have heaps of fun weaving in and out of the piste and playing around in the trees, while good skiers can hire a guide and enjoy untracked powder days and weeks after every bowl and gully in Val or Tignes has been skied to death. And it's all there for a modestly priced lift pass that, to quote the Where to Ski guide, represents "probably the best-value day's skiing I've ever had".

Sainte-Foy is the place where ski instructors from the nearby mega-resorts go on their days off, and where they bring their clients for a little peace and quiet. For hardened skiers it's an unreal experience not to encounter a lift queue and to ski on such empty pistes. There have been days when I've had the mountain to myself.

The resort also appeals to families and timid skiers. It's child-friendly, with one or two easy blues and greens through the trees and some confidence-building reds. For non-skiers, there's dog sledding and an unmissable walk to the snow-locked hamlet of Le Monal.

If there is a downside to this "uncrowded gem" (another Where to Ski compliment) it's Sainte-Foy's vulnerability to the great British disease: real estate. Canny British (and Dutch) investors were in at the start, snapping up chalets and apartments that have since soared in value; and there's still some way to go, with prices in Val still double or treble those in Sainte-Foy. Although in the vast majority of cases you'll receive nothing less than genuinely friendly mountain hospitality, there must be an underlying worry that Sainte-Foy, like Val or Chamonix, will become part of Britain's new, property-based empire.

Another bit of bad news: my spies in Sainte-Foy have informed me that, for the first time ever, peak-season demand has caused the supermarket to run out of orange juice. But don't let that put you off. Tiny Sainte-Foy is still bigger and better than the places you see in the ski brochures.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Sainte-Foy is two or three hours' drive from Geneva, which easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyjet.com) flies to from East Midlands, Gatwick, Liverpool and Luton. Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com) flies to Geneva from Cardiff, East Midlands, Manchester and Teeside. Flybe (08705, 676 676, www.flybe.com) operates a service from Southampton to Chambéry.

In my experience, Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010, www.holidayautos.co.uk) usually comes up with the best car-hire rates. One week's fully inclusive car hire in Geneva costs from £135.

STAYING THERE

Première Neige: (0709 200 0300 in the UK, 00 33 6 22 95 29 17 in France, www.premiere-neige.com) offers tailor-made inclusive catered chalet holidays from £405 per person per week and £600 per self-catering apartment (sleeps four). The Ski Safari option (£150 per person), which includes return airport transfer, ski guiding and visits to neighbouring resorts, is a good-value add-on. Sainte-Foy Lift Pass: €96 (£68) for adults, €76 (£51) for children for six days, which includes discounted skiing at Val d'Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs and La Rosière. A bargain!

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Sainte-Foy Tourist Office: 00 33 4 79 06 95 19, www.saintefoy.net

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