For winter sports aficionados, the words ‘French Alps ski resort’ probably conjure up a lot of images: skiing and other related sports, of course, but perhaps also an apres-ski scene that’s a little on the rowdy side.
However, Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc is a very different kind of destination. This French Alps ski resort is centered on the pretty, historic town of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, which boasts just over 5,700 inhabitants. Unlike so many other Alpine resorts, Saint-Gervais is steeped in history – nearly 700 years’ worth of history, in fact – the first written mention of it dates back to 1344! Its importance as a commercial hub (home to one of the three top fairs in the northern Alps), combined with emigration to other parts of Europe during the Medieval Little Ice Age, has endowed it with a wealth of beautiful buildings that few other towns in the area can match.
Foremost amongst these are the many Baroque-style churches and chapels that populate the district. Frequently, these were lavishly-funded by sons and daughters of Saint-Gervais who had left for foreign climes to seek their fortune in trade, especially in German-speaking territories. The two outstanding examples of this period are the church of Saint-Gervais, which dates from 1698, and the church of Saint-Nicolas-de-Véroce, just a few miles to the south. Other chapels worth taking a look at include:
Equally striking are some of the magnificent turn of the century constructions, erected at a time when the great and the good from all over Europe came to Saint-Gervais. The most famous example of the so-called ‘Belle Epoque’ style has to be the former Hotel du Mont Joly. Now converted into apartments, this was once a 5-star hotel, but it has definitely retained all its charm of yesteryear.
One of Saint-Gervais’ other great selling points is its proximity to Western Europe’s highest mountain, Mont-Blanc. Less than 14 miles from the mountain as the crow flies, there are great views to be had of the summit from the town itself. By the way, did you know that the summit of Mont-Blanc is part of the city of Saint-Gervais? A great many climbers start their ascent of Mont-Blanc, towering around 4808 meters high, from Saint-Gervais. This route is called the ‘Voie Royale’, literally the royal way, indicating that it’s the less technical path possible. However, for the slightly less athletic amongst us, it’s possible to get a lot closer without wearing out your shoe leather at all by hopping on the iconic Mont Blanc Tramway!
Opened in 1907, this is the highest mountain railway in France, running for around 8 miles and gaining 1792 meters in altitude over the course of its route. It offers stunning views over the surrounding countryside, including the Bionnassay glacier. Many hikers use it to access various trails, whilst some climbers take it to the last stop, the Nid d’Aigle mountain hut (the Eagle’s Nest), before going on to tackle Mont-Blanc itself. Naturally, it’s possible to stop off at the refuge to simply enjoy a drink on the outside terrace and marvel at the views (during the summer-time). A favourite option for many is to take the last train of the day and then drink in the sunset over the Mont-Blanc massif from the comfort of the refuge. If you’re feeling hungry, the restaurant will cook you up that classic mountain dish, fondue savoyarde!
In common with many ski resorts in the French Alps, Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc is also more than capable of meeting the needs of holiday-makers in the summer season. With a wide range of activities, sporting and otherwise, plus its ‘Family Plus’ label, all categories of clientele are catered for, from families with young children to the more elderly.
Special kids’ activities are put on at various venues, including escape games in the library, outdoor storytelling, board game evenings, knot-tying workshops and lots more! If they want to burn off some energy, that can be arranged too! Kid-friendly activities include pony-trekking, a covered swimming pool with paddling pool area, a skatepark, a treetop adventure course and an indoor ‘endless slope’ ski simulator. Alternatively, children can try their hands at more challenging activities under the watchful eye of highly-trained professionals – think rock climbing taster sessions and rifle shooting (biathlon – from age 7 up). Another absolute hit for young children especially is the ‘Chèvrerie au Coeur de Montjoie’ goat farm and the ‘Roches Fleuries’ cows and goat farm. Here they’ll be able to pat the animals, whilst the adults stock up on delicious goats or cows’ cheese and traditional ‘faisselle’ cheese.
Older children aren’t left out either. Mountain-biking, tennis and even ziplining are all available in the local area. There’s also plethora of fun, sometimes adrenalin-pumping water-based activities that will definitely appeal to teenagers. These range from canoeing/kayaking to rafting, paddle boarding and canyoning.
So, what about the adults? Well, all of the above, plus pastimes as varied as angling, curling, via ferrata, paragliding, mountaineering and themed walks (churches, birds, plant-life) are catered to.
If sports and other physical activities aren’t your thing, don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to stretch your mind and broaden your horizons in Saint-Gervais! For a start, there’s an impressive range of contemporary art venues. These include the highly original 2KM3 Saint-Gervais, which is an incredible art gallery that takes several public areas as its canvas! (For example: a multi-storey car-park, a gondola lift station, an indoor swimming pool…) In the car park, it boasts 11 different levels, featuring wall paintings in the street art style by various artists from all over the world. There are handy information panels explaining the artworks and giving you the background story of the artists who created them. Another remarkable temporary exhibition space is found in the Pile Pont Expo space, which is located inside one of the pillars of the new bridge that spans the Bonnant river. This venue welcomes different art installations every year and is open until the autumn. A mixture of open-air exhibitions and temporary indoor exhibitions complete the picture.
If all these activities make you feel tired just thinking about them, maybe you need to relax into Saint-Gervais’ very own thermal baths. The local hot springs in the Gorges du Bonnant have been flowing for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until 1806 that a thermal baths establishment was created here. There are a mixture of indoor and outdoor baths, dry and wet saunas and Jacuzzis. A particular favourite with visitors are the special late-night sessions, where you can bathe beneath the stars – a great way to round off any day!
In terms of skiing, the French Alps offer an embarrassment of riches – what makes Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc stand out from the crowd? One outstanding feature of this resort is the relative lack of crowds, compared with some other French Alps ski resorts. Being of a slightly lower profile than some resorts, yet still laying claim to the third largest ski area in France all adds up to that bit more space and that bit less stress. Saint-Gervais is linked to two ski areas. Firstly, the Domaine Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc, part of the ‘Evasion Mont Blanc’ ski resort. This links to 7 different resorts and comprises no fewer than 445 km (277 miles) of pistes. A total of 35 black slopes, 88 red slopes, 61 blue slopes and 46 green slopes provide opportunities for skiers of all levels of skill and experience to test their mettle. The slopes are served by 108 lifts of various kinds.
Within the Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc ski area, apart from traditional downhill skiing, there are also 3 cross-country skiing trails (12 miles in total), two snow parks for freestyle skiers and some good off-piste skiing to be had in the vicinities of Saint-Nicolas-de-Véroce and Mont-Joly. Snowboarding, snow-shoeing, dog sledding, tobogganing and snowtubing are the other main winter sports that can be practiced here.
The second, smaller ski area connected to Saint-Gervais is called ‘Saint-Gervais – les Houches’ ski resort. Used as a training area by none other than the French national skiing team, this area comprises 2 black slopes, 12 red slopes, 6 blue slopes and 4 green slopes. It’s also suitable for cross-country and telemark skiing as well as snowboarding and ski jumping.
Evasion Mont-Blanc also has several tech-related bonuses up its sleeve. Conveniently, beside the lower gondola lift station there are a large number of ski lockers which can be reserved by smartphone for anything from a day to a week, or even longer. These lockers are capable of holding up to five pairs of skis plus accompanying accessories (gloves, boots, helmets). As well as keeping your kit safe, these hi-tech lockers will dry and warm their contents. Also on your smartphone, check out the Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc app complete with resort information and personal skiing statistics (position, route, speed, descent etc). And for the Instagram generation, what could be better than the two ‘Hotspots photo’ hi-definition cameras at the top of Mont Joux and ‘Epaule chairlift’ and the Videozone on the snowboard cross course, which sends free videos of your boarding exploits straight to your inbox!
Does all of this make you dream? Then come visit us in Saint-Gervais, an awesome French Alps ski resort!