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Val Cenis: France's great unknown

British skiers have been missing out on a Savoie gem, says Matt Barr

British skiers are creatures of habit. How else to explain the perennial popularity of resorts such as Méribel, Val d'Isère, Tignes or Avoriaz? Each winter we return to these resorts in our thousands, skiing the same pistes, eating in the same mountain restaurants and standing for hours in the same lift queues.

It would make sense if they were the only resorts on offer. But the French Alps are littered with outstanding resorts that are virtually ignored by most British skiers. Former pro skier Max Vince, for one, can't understand it at all. It's a shiny Saturday in January and Max is giving me a breakneck tour of Val Cenis, his home turf and the main resort in France's beautiful Haute-Maurienne Vanoise valley.

I'm in town the day after one of the biggest storms the region has seen in years, which means there's 50cm of fresh snow blanketing the resort, and the forest is littered with uprooted trees. Despite this, Val Cenis seems to be almost completely deserted and we're soon enjoying that rarest of experiences: a bluebird powder day on a seemingly empty mountain.

Later, as we chat over a lunch of entrecôte, local Savoie cheese and coffee at La Fema, his favourite mountain restaurant, Max explains that days like this meant it was an easy decision to come home once dodgy knee ligaments prematurely curtailed his professional skiing career. "For me this valley has everything. If we were in Chamonix today, the powder would have already gone because of the crowds. Here, I'll still be able to find fresh tracks in 10 days."

Max is not your average ski guide. He spends our chairlift downtime filling me in on the region's history, pointing out the Alpine pass that luminaries from Hannibal to Charlemagne used to get from France to Italy, explaining the history of the Savoie region's struggle for independence (Haute-Maurienne Vanoise is part of the wider Savoie, and Max is a proud Savoyard) and pointing out to me some of the resort's fantastic-looking off-piste opportunities.

By the time our day exploring the resort's 56 runs and 120km of pistes comes to an exhausting close, I'm convinced I've found my new favourite resort – and that's not just the powder talking. Sometimes, a ski resort can just grab you in an ineffable way and there's certainly something about Val Cenis that belies its relatively small size.

Down in the valley, it's a similar story; the resort is suffused with the sense of being a secret waiting to be unleashed on the wider ski world. The tourist board is certainly aware its got a gem and has been quietly investing millions of euros in new lifts and other new initiatives. The resort of Val Cenis is really three traditional villages – Lanslevillard, Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis and Termignon – but I was staying at Château de Flambeau, a newly opened set of swanky apartments by the Pré Novel chairlift. It's midway between Lanslebourg and Lanslevillard, and an example of the new developments that mark the future for Val Cenis.

Later, I go for dinner at Critérium, a neighbouring bar and restaurant so new you can smell the woodglue. A trendy young seasonaire waitress took my order and I tucked into food that was a modern take on traditional Savoyard fare: foie gras, a vast Pic de Assiette (where you barbecue your own local meats), veal and a trio of crème brûlée.

Despite its obvious newness, the Pré Novel development (and the meal at Critérium, come to that) suggests that Val Cenis is managing the trickiest of tourism conundrums: how to move forward without compromising an area's history and beauty. The comparison with other popular French ski areas, with their eyesore concrete blocks and hotchpotch of architectural styles, is marked.

It's an impression underlined the next day when I visit the little village of Bessans, which lies a little further up the valley from Val Cenis, and is a much more traditional affair. It's also absolutely plastered in a metre of snow, so I escape the blizzard and head to a tiny restaurant called Le Paradis to try Farci de Bessans. These patties of pork, rice, peppers and other local staples are a traditional winter dish unique to the valley and it's rib-sticking stuff.

Bessans is also the Haute-Maurienne's Nordic skiing and biathlon centre, so after lunch I head there and get kitted out. Cross-country skiing is a minority interest in most of the French Alps, but here it's massive, with an international cross-country marathon scheduled to take place a few days after I leave. Much of this is to do with the valley's wide and flat floor, which is perfect for the sport and crisscrossed with 130km of Nordic tracks full of skiers skating up and down.

Although I've been cross-country skiing before in Italy and Austria, I've never tried biathlon, that strange Nordic ski race that pops up on our screens every Winter Olympics and sees Lycra-clad, rifle-toting skiers engage in target practice every couple of laps. My instructor, a laconic local called Serge, can't speak English. But he doesn't need much to communicate how hilarious he finds my goose-stepping attempt at the "skating" style of cross-country skiing. Soon, we're on to the main event: lying down in the snow and shooting at targets 10 metres away with a .22 rifle. Proper biathletes fire actual rifles with real bullets at targets up to 50 metres away, but this beginner version is challenging enough for now.

As Serge explains using a mixture of mime, sign language and basic French, the difficulty really comes when biathletes try to calm their heart rate enough to hold the rifle steady, and to prove the point, he has me clomping off on a short circuit and immediately plinking away at the target when I get back. I'm certainly no Hervé Flandin (a Bessans local who took bronze at the 1994 Olympics), but it's a proud moment for all concerned when I shakily manage to hit a couple of targets.

Later, back in Critérium, I reflect on my trip over a bottle of local rosé. I'm certain Val Cenis won't be under the radar for British skiers for long. Then, as if on cue, the smiling seasonaire waitress from the other night comes over with a free starter and thanks me for visiting again. It's the type of touch they seem to specialise in here. It may be slightly off the beaten track, but it's definitely unique.

I'll be back, that's for sure.

Travel Essentials

Peak Retreats (0844 576 0170; peakretreats.co.uk) offers seven nights' self-catering at the four-star superior Les Chalets de Flambeau from £257 per person based on four sharing a two-bedroom apartment. The price includes Eurotunnel crossings for one car and passengers with free FlexiPlus upgrade.

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