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The timewarped villages French skiers try to keep secret from the British

Hôtel Armancette
Armancette is the only hotel in the ski village of St-Nicolas de Véroce

It’s one thing gliding gracefully off a moving chairlift with skis on. It is quite another without. This was why I spent the ride up the mountain pondering how best to tackle the impending clumsy descent in ski boots with dignity, instead of drinking in the kaleidoscopic Alpine views – toy-size painted church framed by white pastures underfoot, the wild Chaîne de Fiz sawtooth ridge across a bluebird sky to the north and Mont Blanc peeping over Dômes du Miage in the east.

These days it’s rare to find chairlifts in France that require skiers to take their skis off before embarking. But then again, the ski village of St-Nicolas de Véroce – squirrelled away at 1,180m in Haute-Savoie’s Val Montjoie ski arena and only 30km from behemoth Chamonix – is no ordinary vintage.

Custodian of tradition

Born of simple farming stock, it found fortune in the 16th century when most of its young men headed east across the Alps’ mountain passes on foot to peddle haberdashery they had purchased in Geneva. Money sent home from Switzerland, Austria and beyond by these itinerant colporteurs funded St-Nicolas’ jewel of an 18th-century baroque church. A small museum of sacred art nearby glitters with sumptuous artistic riches acquired on their travels.

Church in St-Nicolas de Véroce
St-Nicolas is home to an impressive 18th-century baroque church - Boris Molinier

“Each valley traded a different type of good – fabric, buttons, thread, everything to make clothes in our valley, but others sold seeds for the garden or hair to make wigs for the nobility,” local historian Caroline Duperthuy told me during a post-ski guided tour of her Savoyard village, home to 250 inhabitants year-round and not more than double that in winter.

A little further up St-Nicolas’ only street, the retro two-seater connecting Route de Ste-Nicolas with the snowy Plateau de la Croix at 1,450m hasn’t changed one jot since opening in 1970. Skiers thread their skis into a metal quiver bolted to the back of the chair and rely on the helping hand, literally, of a lift attendant at the top to leap safely off – and out of the way of – the swinging chair. The budget for a €6 million cable car to replace it in 2025 has been approved, but in the meantime, the delightfully whimsical Télésiège du Chef-Lieu remains emblematic of a hidden Alpine village committed to tradition and a quieter, slower way of life than its neighbours.

St Nicolas de Véroce
A vast ski area links St-Nicolas with Megève and St-Gervais-les-Bains - Boris Molinier

Top-drawer intermediate skiing

“Guests come here to ski and enjoy nature,” general manager Damien Bastiat told me that evening over a locally distilled Gin du Mont Blanc in the bar at Armancette, St-Nicolas’ only hotel. “From here they can dip into the festivities of Megève, but return to peace and quiet.”

Bastiat moved with his family from St-Barts to St-Nicolas in late 2022 to oversee the Almae Collection, a small French luxury hotel group committed to community partnerships and regeneration. Upon opening in 2019, the first thing five-star Armancette did was revive the village boulangerie (very little beats the smell of freshly baked baguette wafting across your balcony as a wake-up call). Lake fish, charcuterie and seasonal produce – all religiously sourced within a 90-minute-radius of St-Nicolas – fuel the gastronomic cuisine of hotel chef Fabien Laprée.

Hôtel Armancette
The five-star Hôtel Armancette opened in 2019

From the beginners’ area on Plateau de la Croix – serviced by a couple of tot-friendly drag lifts, an ESF ski school and Le Schuss café serving locally-brewed Marmotte beer – I weaved my way up to Mont Joly. At 2,525m this is the highest point in Domaine Évasion-Mont Blanc, a vast ski area with 400km of runs linking St-Nicolas with Parisian favourites Megève and St-Gervais-les-Bains.

The Grand Chamois run from the top of Mont Joly is as hairy and white-knuckle as ungroomed blacks get, and off-piste trails to Megève and Les Contamines keep powder hounds on their toes. Telemarking is wildly popular and night skiing by torchlight between fir trees down the red Marmottes run is alpine cool on steroids. For skiers content to stick close to home, a micro ski pass covering St-Nicolas costs €17 a day compared to €55 for the entire Domaine Évasion-Mont Blanc.

At the bottom of the Mont Joly draglift in St-Gervais, I skip the Jägerbombs, rosé on ice and après-ski dancing on tables at A-lister La Folie Douce. I need to get back to St-Nicolas – a 15-minute ski – to watch the cows being milked and learn how creamy Tomme de Savoie cheese is made at La Ferme de Véroce.

La Folie Douce-St-Gervais
From the famous La Folie Douce, it's just a 15-minute ski to St-Nicholas - Boris Molinier

Beginner-friendly mountain bowls

Leaving St-Nicolas the next day and after the high-octane thrill and speed of turbo-charged Chamonix, it was quite frankly a relief when the Mont Blanc Express train pulled into the village of Vallorcine, a 30-minute journey north toward the end of the valley. The cherry-red carriages in the snow are storybook stuff with last-frontier charm.

Skiing out of the resort, in the Domaine de Balme–Le Tour area, is cruisy and insanely scenic, with eagle-eye panoramas of the Chamonix Valley and Swiss Alps. Unlike other sectors in Chamonix’s world-famous Mont Blanc Natural Resort domain, Balme is kind to beginners and timid intermediates. A state-of-the-art cable car in Vallorcine and La Tour’s Charamillon gondola ensure easy access to 21 easy blues and red runs, some prettily between trees.

Vallorcine
It's a picturesque journey to Vallorcine on the Mont Blanc Express train - LR Photographie

Skiing like it’s 1959

”Viva la Vida! ” exclaims racleur Gérard between deft scrapes of warm raclette cheese. Behind Vallorcine’s quaint train station with green wrought-iron canopy and beautiful mosaic signage, I lunched on the sun-drenched terrace of Le Café Comptoir.

The buoyant crowd was overwhelmingly French and it was no surprise to learn this is where skiers in vintage kit from the 1930s to 70s chink glasses of Génépi after Vallorcine’s riveting retro ski-race festival in March. I tucked into a couple of gherkins and boiled potatoes swimming in a glorious puddle of silky, sun-spangled cheese. It might not be the bright lights of Chamonix, but I’d struck Alpine gold and uncovered France’s best-kept ski secret.


Essentials

Where to stay

St-Nicolas de Véroce: Armancette (almae-collection.com/armancette) offers doubles from €750 or ski-in/ski-out chalets sleeping up to 14 from €1235 per night.

Vallorcine: Les Chalets du Plane by Le Café Comptoir, (lecafecomptoir.com) offers doubles with half board from €120 and chalets sleeping for up to eight people from €800 a week.

How to get there

Fly from London to Geneva, then travel 60-90 minutes by car or private transfer to St-Nicolas de Véroce and Vallorcine. By rail, take the Eurostar to Paris, then direct high-speed SNCF train to Sallanches (five hours, then 30-minute minibus transfer to St-Nicolas de Véroce) or St-Gervais-les-Bains (five hours, then Mont Blanc Express in 90 minutes to Vallorcine).