France is home to some of the world’s most prestigious ski resorts, most of which are based in the Alps. However, unless you’re a real specialist, you may not have heard of the French skiing resort of Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc, located in the Haute-Savoie department in France’s southeast. And that’s the way many lovers of the area like to keep it, as one of the resort’s great attractions, is its relative peace and quiet atmosphere. With a massive ski area, character-packed villages and great scenic beauty, could Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc be France’s best skiing gem?
With a higher percentage of permanent residents than many Alpine resorts, the town of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains has a homelier, more authentic feel to it than some of its better-known rivals. Beautiful local architecture, much of it in the baroque or the Art Nouveau style, makes it even more appealing. Obviously, given the resort’s name, it’s also a wonderful vantage point for admiring the majestic mountain that is Mont-Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe.
From a skiing point of view, one of the big attractions of being based in the area is its easy access to not just one, but two large ski areas, which together link in with a total of eight different resorts. The Domaine Evasion Mont Blanc is by far the biggest area, boasting a massive 445km of ski slopes (the third biggest ski area in France). These cover the full spectrum of levels of skiing difficulty, from green (beginner) and blue up to red and black (difficult), so there’s something for absolutely everyone. Naturally, there’s a full panoply of ski lifts, (chairlifts, gondola lifts, platter lifts) and also a cable car to get you where you need to be in double-quick time.
The second, much smaller area that’s accessible from Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc is the Domaine ‘Saint-Gervais Les Houches’. It may be smaller (50km of slopes), but it more than makes up for this with bags of character. Extending from an altitude of 950 to 1900 metres above sea level, its views over the entire Mont-Blanc massif are particularly breathtaking. Another thing calculated to take your breath away is the extremely challenging ‘La Verte des Houches’ slope, which is a black run that’s regularly used during the Alpine Ski World Cup. Much of this area is forested, lending an even more idyllic touch to an already very beautiful part of the world.
Although the average visitor to French skiing resorts has come for downhill thrills, other kinds of skiing enthusiasts are also catered to. Both ski areas feature cross-country skiing trails (the Domaine Evasion Mont Blanch boasts 46 miles of different trails, one of which is a night-time trail). There are also opportunities for telemark skiing, ski jumping and off-piste skiing, not to mention freestyle skiing at one of several snowparks.
With amazing natural landscapes as far as the eye can see, it would be a pity not to capture some of the backdrops to your finest skiing moments on film. There are two bits of tech that are entirely free to use that will do just that. First up is the ‘Photo Hot Spots’, two high-definition cameras that will take detail-packed pics of you in a chairlift or you standing against the stunning background of Mont-Blanc mountain range. You just have to get up to the top of ‘Mont-Joux’ or the ‘Epaule chairlift’ first! Second, head for the snowboard cross course and get ready to strut your stuff with the best tricks you can master – the Videozone will immortalize the action and then send the video to your email account absolutely free of charge.
Like all good French skiing resorts, Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc never puts all its winter sports eggs in only one basket. There’s a full range of other winter sports activities to get stuck into. A non-exhaustive, very quick summary of the options open to you is as follows:
Snowshoeing is particularly popular and there are multiple trails and loops to follow, taking you through Alpine pastures, over plateaux, past villages, forests and Baroque churches. There are many viewpoints along the various trails from where you can see the Bionnassay Glacier cirque and the mountains of the Mont-Blanc massif. Some of the trails actually run alongside the famous Mont-Blanc Tramway railway. The train operates in winter as well as summer, although it stops before the terminus during the winter season. Access to the train is included in the Domaine Les Houches ski pass during the winter season.
Of the other activities on this list, you’ll probably have heard of all of them except perhaps snowtubing. Snowtubing consists of using a large inflatable ring to descend a slope and letting gravity do its thing! It’s fun for all ages but is particularly popular with children.
Many of the winter activities described above require expert guidance and supervision, at least when you’re starting off. An integral part of all French skiing resorts has to be the presence of ski schools and independent ski instructors. There are a number of ski schools in the Saint-Gervais area, including schools which will take on children as young as three years old. Schools will usually offer coaching in different sports (e.g. snowboarding, telemark skiing, downhill skiing), or techniques (off-piste, freestyle, freeride). More experienced skiers can ask for help in specific areas of their sport where they’d like to make improvements. Multiple languages are catered to and many instructors speak very good English.
Away from the ski slopes, experts are also on hand to help you master other disciplines, for example, mountaineering, or simply to share in their knowledge of the mountain ecosystem. A fun family activity is snowshoeing in the company of a professional, who will supply all the equipment you need and draw your attention to the animals and birds that inhabit this place even in the depths of winter.
An entirely different take is offered by companies and guides who organize team-building activities for the corporate world. These programs are tailored to the individual client and may cover anything from ice waterfall climbing and snowshoeing to bungee jumping! These activities are available in either French or English.
Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, unlike some other French skiing resorts, isn’t necessarily known for its apres-ski scene, which is more family-friendly than frenetic. What the resort does boast, however, is an absolute gem of a thermal spa, the Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc Thermal Center. Although now owned by L’Oreal, there has been a spa established around the local hot springs in the Gorges du Bonnant for over two centuries. The waters of the spa are known not just for their relaxing effect, but also for their medicinal qualities. Many people still come here today to treat eczema, psoriasis, scleroderma, asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Equally, after a hard day’s winter sports, the warm waters of the spa are incredibly soothing and can be enjoyed in many different forms. There are both indoor and outdoor baths, dry and wet saunas and jacuzzis. That’s not to forget the full range of beauty treatments that you’d expect from a centre of this kind. Massages with hot stones, crystals and alpine plants are all on offer, as are a wide selection of facial treatments – quite simply the perfect way to round off your day at one of the best French skiing resorts around.
Don’t wait any longer to come and visit!