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Skiing in The Three Valleys, Les Menuires and Saint Martin de Belleville
p> "Life can’t get much better than this," a fellow skier remarks to me as we are standing at the summit of a slope, which had just had a heavy covering of crisp, white snow a few days before. The sky is a crystal blue and the sun is shining brightly, its rays seem to catch the pure white of the snowflakes causing a sparkling effect in the air - as if a child’s silver glitter is raining down on us.
We are skiing in The Three Valleys in France - a very popular destination for Brits who need their yearly week-long adrenaline-rush. Here skiers are spoilt for choice with 318 runs to choose from - green, blue, red and black - covering an area four times greater than Paris. And 174 ski lifts of all shapes and sizes.
The slopes are wide and expansive. So even if you find yourself in a long queue for the chair lift and feel as if you are at the Tube at Piccadilly Circus during rush hour but carrying skis instead of a briefcase - once at the summit, skiers and snowboarders head off in so many different directions, none of the slopes seem too busy.
Not being a confident skier, I headed off down the green slopes while the more advanced skiers went for the more challenging runs.
But may be one of the best things about skiing in Three Valleys, a local told me, is if it is a cloudless sky - you are always skiing in the sun. And when the temperature dips to -25C at heights 1,850 metres having the sun beating down on your face is very welcoming.
For those who are not ski or snowboard junkies and prefer to discover the beauty of the mountains on foot, there is always snowshoeing. It is not an easy option and can be quite tiring, but a fellow hotel resident who tried it did say it worked different muscles to skiing, so a good option for when you are getting tired of ‘bending ze knees’.
There are three skiing areas in this part of France, as well as the famous Three Valleys, there is also Les Menuires and Saint Martin de Belleville. The majority of tourists choose the popular resorts of Courchevel, Meribel, Les Menuire and Val Thorens to stay, but I have chosen the less well-known Saint Martin - a village with quaint wood and stone chalets nestling into the side of the mountain, giving the place a traditional Christmas card look. The village is small with a good selection of bars, some of which are just frequented by the locals, and a number of good restaurants.
Not being as popular as other resorts, gives Saint Martin a distinct advantage over its more fashionable competitors - it is a lot cheaper.
I am staying at Hotel Saint Martin, owned by Madame Olive - a neat, chic well-dressed French woman who has put a lot of thought and flair into the decor of her hotel, which offers so much more than the three stars suggests. The lounge area has lots of squashy sofas - perfect to sink into after a hard day on the slopes where you can enjoy a cup of hot chocolate. And to ease away the aches and pains from skiing there is a sauna. The other great advantage this hotel has over others is its position. The ski room is right on the slope, you don’t have to go down stairs, over a road, on a bus - there’s no hassle - the button lift is just outside the door, which takes you to the Saint Martin chair lift and then the rest of the mountain is for you to explore.
With its perfect position, hotel guests can ski home for lunch, the popular Cocoon des Neiges restaurant faces the mountains (and is the sun) and serves excellent food, but if a large meal at lunchtime is too much, it is also open in the evening.
Skiing definitely works up an appetite, and I was in one of the best places for good food, Saint Martin de Belleville and the surrounding area boasts ten Michelin star restaurants. It seems gastronomy is just as important as perfect skiing conditions in this area.
I visit Rene and Maxime Meilleur’s two Michelin star restaurant hotel La Bouittle. Rene, a small man, has had the restaurant for 35 years, and now his son has joined him in the kitchen. The restaurant is decorated in stressed wood with quirky touches - old wooden farming implements are used to pull back the drapes and the ceiling is decorated with painted cherubs.
I try the four course taster-menu; each dish is served in small exquisite cups and plates. The meal starts with three miniature bowls of onion soup, foie gras and fondue de savoie - all delicious.
Most of the ingredients are sourced locally and even the wine is from vineyards on the mountains.
It is the attention to detail which has earned Rene his two Michelin stars - and no more so than in cooking the humble egg. For most of us, boiling an egg takes three minutes. For Renee it is 68 minutes at 62.5C - making the yoke and white the same consistency. It took Rene four years to perfect this dish.
Cooked lamb with light truffle infusion is next on the menu, and to complete the meal I am served a selection of deserts.
As I sit back and savour the wine, the only discussion around the table is what slope to head for tomorrow.
At Saint Martin de Bellville, you have all the benefits of being in a small village with its character and traditional setting, but with the advantages of a large ski area in your backyard, and some of the best restaurants in the world. Life really can’t get much better than this.
Holiday facts Six day adult pass for Les Menuires / Saint Martin de Belleville (160 km of pistes): 187.60 € / person Six day adult pass for the 3 Valleys (600 km of pistes) : 244.40 € / person
Saint Martin hotel prices vary anywhere from 110€ to 245€/room.
Fly to Geneva. About two hours by car to village.