SKI ISSUE 2006

Sainte-Foy Tarentaise, France

Flat areas are few at Sainte-Foy Station; crowds are scant, too.
Flat areas are few at Sainte-Foy Station; crowds are scant, too. (Terry Ward)

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The reward in skiing at Sainte-Foy Station in the Tarentaise Valley comes in the form of shorter lift lines and longer-lasting powder -- not to mention the small-town vibe and Mont Blanc views. A newcomer to the Alps, the resort opened in 1990 a few miles uphill from the original village of Sainte-Foy Tarentaise. But there's no poured concrete here: The mountainside chalets are built from local timber, stone and slate, and much of the development has taken an enviro-friendly slant.

Visitors can fly into Lyon, France, or Geneva to access this growing, family-style resort within easy striking distance of the Haute-Savoie region's top terrain. Plan on a 2 1/2 -hour drive from either airport. Sainte-Foy Station (the base village) is just off the main road that cuts through the Isre Valley. But most visitors to the region bypass it for the bigger -- and far more crowded -- mass tourism resorts of Val d'Isere, Les Arcs and Tignes (all within 30 minutes of Sainte-Foy).

BEST FOR . . . powder hounds with an aversion to mega-resorts and families looking for luxurious lodgings and easy access to great ski terrain in a quiet, rural environment.

THE SKIING: On powder days, valley locals (including ski instructors from the big resorts) pass up making first tracks at Val d'Isere and Tignes for a shot at Sainte-Foy. You'll rarely wait more than a few minutes for the lifts. The mountain's northwest-facing slopes and sheltered location keep it out of direct sunlight most of the day, which means more staying power for powder.

With few traverses (flat areas) and lots of off-piste options, the mountain is particularly attractive to snowboarders. And on stormy days, when the lifts at many of the big resorts are closed, the tree runs at Sainte-Foy deliver the goods. Four chairlifts (including a new high-speed six-seater opening for the 2006-07 season) access acres of groomed slopes and endless off-piste terrain. The lower slopes are great for beginners, while adventurous types head to the top to reach a powder keg of backcountry.

One of the best-loved backcountry routes is to Le Monal, a farming village that's uninhabited during the winter. Hire a guide and drop off the back bowl from the top lift, hike a bit and you'll be surrounded by pristine meadows thick with the white stuff. The 5,577-foot vertical descent on the north face of Le Fogliettaz (accessed from the top lift) is another famed off-piste challenge.

PRICES: Lift tickets are $29 per day. Ski and snowboard rentals at a shop at the base of the mountain start at about $22 a day.

THE SCENE: British tourists abound throughout the ski season, and you're far more likely to hear the Queen's English being spoken than French. There's a hint of resentment among the locals over the British invasion (they're buying old farmhouses and renovating them faster than a London minute), but residents know it's what keeps the economy booming. Count on the biggest crowds (and skyrocketing room rates) during French and British school holidays, around mid-February.

Sainte-Foy Station feels new and shiny but manages to avoid a manufactured vibe. Dining options are pretty limited at the mountain as most people stay in catered chalets, but one pub, La Pitchouli, attracts a decent apres-ski scene. Head to Val d'Isere for serious nightlife.

WHERE TO STAY: How long you plan to stay will determine where you base yourself. All lodgings at the mountain itself are in chalets and apartments and must be booked by the week.

Hotel Le Monal (011-33-479-06-90-07, http://www.le-monal.com/) is a comfortable spot offering basic rooms in Sainte-Foy Tarentaise. It's the best pick if you're staying for just a few days or prefer to be based in the village. (There's a free shuttle from the hotel to Sainte-Foy Station.) Double rooms with private bath and TV are $79 per night, $92 with a balcony. Rooms for four are $116.

At the foot of Sainte-Foy's slopes, Chalet des Cimes (011-44-870-760-5610, http://www.peak-leisure.co.uk/), a circa-1856 Savoyard farmhouse-turned-ski-chalet, can be rented by the room or in its entirety. The five bedrooms all have private baths; a two-night minimum stay is required. Rates -- which include breakfast, afternoon tea, pre-dinner drinks, a four-course dinner with wine and transport to area resorts -- start at $163 per person per night.

For stays of a week or more, private mountainside chalets are a great option. Contact British company Premiere Neige (011-44-870-383-1000, http://www.premiere-neige.com/) for information on self-catered apartments (from $279 per person per week, based on quad occupancy) and fully catered chalets (from $963 per person per week).

WHERE TO EAT: At Chez Merie, a family-run restaurant in the tiny burg of Le Miroir, you can dine around an open hearth in eclectic Provence-meets-the-Alps surroundings. Seasonal menus might feature meats grilled in the stone hearth, foie gras salad and chestnut bouillon soup (about $50 per person for four courses).

Le Monal, one of three dining options at Hotel Le Monal, is a cozy place for fondue and raclette (from $26). You can also go budget with a wood-fired pizza (from about $12) at the downstairs bar, a popular apres-ski spot.

At the Les Arcs ski resort, try the homemade pasta (from $17) at Le Chalet de Luigi. Or opt for the hearty meat options (from $17) at La Bergerie, whose blond-wood bar and stone fireplace make for rustic surroundings at this slopeside newcomer in Sainte-Foy Station.

INFO: Sainte-Foy Tarentaise Tourist Office, 011-33-479-06-95-19, http://www.saintefoy.net/.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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