A new chairlift, and a five-star hotel have given the charming village of Saint Nicolas a fresh face for the new decade. And the village is more than a little made up about it!
The six-seater Chattrix chairlift is just part of the renovation plans for the Saint-Gervais les Bains ski area and gives quick access to the highest ski area of the Evasion Mont-Blanc (2,353 m), thanks to the area’s E8.5m investment (there’s more on this later in the story).
Add in a five-star Leading Hotels of the World property and you start to see why the village is excited.
The 17-room Armancette Hotel opened last summer and enjoys a stunning mountain backdrop at the foot of Mont-Blanc.
The hotel has also just opened three luxury chalets, which is where I stayed (see chalet review).
Mountain life has drawn me for the last decade, so this season I opted for fresh-air investment and gave up my day job, for the good life.
What better way to kick this off than in a place I’d enjoyed greatly last season?
The Haute Savoie town of Saint Gervais has long boosted visitor numbers to the south east of France, and now it’s attracting more Brits too.
Improving the appeal of historic, calming Saint Nicolas will bring more.
But tourism isn’t new here – those keen to benefit from the area’s thermal spa have been coming for over 200 years.
Being of the age to benefit from all things skin enhancing I welcomed the chance to return to the warm, cossetting, thermal waters, which have such a rich history.
In 1806 notary Joseph-Marie Gontard founded what is claimed to be the first Alpine spa town, which brought palaces, parks and casinos to the Auvergne Rhône Alpes.
The spa was a quick hit as its natural waters helped heal the skin. This attracted wealthy tourists, who stopped at its prestigious hotel on route to Chamonix, along with hikers talking the ascent of Mont Blanc.
‘Les Thermes’ sits in the ‘Parc Thermal’ in the lower village of Le Fayet and is still a hit today, helping 1000s of patients annually.
Its health and beauty treatments are all based on the therapeutic properties of spring water – and it’s a great place to visit after a day on the slopes, or for a day of wellbeing.
Travelling up from Le Fayet to the main town is also a treat as St Gervais, like Saint-Nicolas de Veroce, is not a purpose-built resort and has many historic buildings.
You could say it’s a charmer, with its belle époque centre, welcoming chalets and quirky contemporary art exhibition in its car park!
A significant year-round population also gives the place a settled feel, with a range of locally run restaurants and cafes, and a lively street market.
Check out Le Coin du Feu in Saint-Nicolas de Veroce for a family-run fine feed of traditional Savoyard food. For fine dining, Le Rond de Carotte is a town treat.
Set in a narrow gorge, St Gervais 260km ski area is pretty, and mostly tree lined.
Folk on the hill are also friendly, and the heart of the resort is a find for beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders, with wide runs and plenty of space to build-up confidence and have fun.
Mont Joly (2,353m), where the new Chattrix chairlift runs to, is a different scene, with steeper, more challenging routes on and off piste and runs that really make you legs work!
The new lift gives direct access to Monty Joly’s upper slopes and the Grande Epaule run, with its 1,000m vertical drop towards Chattrix.
The infrastructure is good, with heavy investment in new lifts and snow cannons in the last 10 years, and there are nice, unpretentious places to eat.
Food on the piste is generally more affordable than the resort’s neighbours, and there’s a fun party scene, focused on the resort’ La Folie Douce.
We found Le Tremplin de la Croix a good choice – the ancient farm building has been converted into a contemporary restaurant serving traditional local fayre.
And food doesn’t come any more traditional than that to be found at the P’tit Riquet Mountain Hut.
We accessed this via a snow groomer, dined on ‘granny’s recipes served by her granddaughter, then snow shoed back down the piste under a star-blessed evening.
Getting out and about doesn’t feel busy in the resort whether it’s day or night. Lift queues are rare, and you can (sometimes) cherry pick the seats you’d like in the restaurants.
St Gervais is also part of France’s third largest ski resort, the Evasion Mont-Blanc.