Sainte Foy: A ski holiday with all the white stuff
Sainte Foy, France
When Irish people hear of the concept of the chalet holiday, the reactions range from baffled at the notion that, in the chalet set-up, holiday-makers share mealtimes and accommodation with other skiers, to tentative excitement when they hear about the free bar.
Holidaying at close quarters with unknowns at first seems like a recipe for disaster, or at least profound boredom, but actually passing a week in the company of strangers makes for excellent people watching. Throw in the free booze and the potential for social awkwardness escalates nicely.
Myself and the husband opted for the chalet experience on a recent trip away in the French Alps. We both worked in chalets when we were younger and were keen to experience how the other half live. Also we found holidays alone together a bit tedious. Dinner conversations usually revolved around speculating about the other diners and often descended into rows over who got the bigger half of the shared dessert so we decided to do the communal thing and booked a room in a 14 bed chalet with Snowology, a ski tour operator based in the gorgeous resort of Sainte Foy.
This was our first holiday away as a couple since having a child which meant that I would've enjoyed an en suite room in Cell Block H as long as I could sleep through the night and not have to deal with another person's excrement, but from the moment we arrived, Sainte Foy far exceeded our, admittedly not particularly high, expectations.
As soon as we made contact with Snowology I realised that this service was above and beyond the usual travel operator. Every aspect of our trip was ironed out in advance from our airport transfers, to equipment hire, right down to a call from the chef the week before our arrival to chat about our culinary foibles. This meant that there were virtually no irritating logistics to sort out when we arrived in resort.
On arrival we were greeted by our team; Hannah, our chef and Zoe, the chalet host. The chalet host is the person who looks after your every need during your stay - basically like a cheerful slave - something one gets accustomed to pretty quickly.
Chalet Sache is the picture-perfect idea of a ski lodge. Set over three floors there is a sauna in the basement and a hot tub on the balcony with absolutely stunning views of the surrounding snowy peaks. There's a roaring fire with enormous plush couches to collapse on after a hard day's skiing or even just after some particularly intense eating. Our room was on the top floor and tucked up in bed under the slanted wood panelled ceiling you could watch the snow falling and enjoy the view of the whole Tarentaise valley.
After settling into Chalet Sache we went to collect equipment and explore the town. Sainte Foy is a relatively small resort, especially compared with neighbouring giants, Tignes and Val d'Isere, both of which are just up the valley but Sainte Foy's size is one of the resort's biggest selling points. The so-called 'ski-factories' may have a greater area but they also process thousand of skiers a day, this can mean longer queues for ski lifts and busier slopes whereas in Sainte Foy the slopes are less crowded and the general vibe of the town is nice and laid back.
Sainte Foy is considered by those in the know to be the valley's best kept secret. For more advanced skiers and boarders the off-piste skiing is one huge snowy playground much of which is relatively easy to access from the lifts or some just a short hike away. There is also great variety in the ski terrain, as, along with great clear open pistes, steep, challenging reds and mogul fields, much of the resort is also below the tree line with endless tree runs to explore.
As with all holidays a routine evolved over the course of the week. The thing that most confuses people at first about the ski trip is the early start. It did seem counter intuitive to be setting an alarm while on holiday but each morning we would be up and dressed by eight - it certainly helps that Snowology delivers tea and coffee right to your room before breakfast to ease you into the day. Also the smell of pancakes and bacon will coax any stragglers down before the lifts open at 9am. Getting out on the slopes early is key as at that time the slopes are pristine and freshly groomed.
Snowology offers group skiing sessions for all the chalet guests, to give everyone a feel for the resort and to encourage a bit of chalet banter - plowing into someone by accident on skies is a great ice breaker.
The Snowology team were also on hand to document everyone's efforts which lead to much mirth and minor injury - the husband was playing up to the cameras quite a bit until he collided with a rogue child and was admonished severely by the parents.
After the hearty feed in the morning, lunch seemed like pure greed but we still managed it most days. The slope-side restaurants serve delicious specialities of the region such as tartiflette - essentially a bowl of potato, bacon and cheese - which we gorged on safe in the knowledge that during a day's skiing one can burn up to 3000 calories.
Generally the afternoon ski was a bit more sedate than the morning's efforts, hampered as we were, somewhat, by the high levels of tartiflette-consumption and copious vins chauds at lunchtime. A gentle ski back down to the town followed by a good hour soaking in the hot tub was usually enough exertion to work up an appetite for dinner.
The four course dinner in the chalet each night was the highlight of our days. Our chef Hannah devised sensational meals of restaurant standard, my absolute fave was the peppered duck breast with orange and garlic jus served with spinach and nutmeg mash and green beans wrapped in parma ham with Beaufort cheese - delish.
The fabulously convivial atmosphere in the chalet in the evening was perfect for getting to know the other holiday-makers as there was much lounging by the fire before dinner with Host Zoe topping up glasses of wine while we watched back the day's ski footage, compared bruises and swapped ibuprofen tablets for difene tablets.
Naturally it is around the dinner table in the chalet that the best people-watching takes place. Once we had all bonded on the slopes it was easy to pump our fellow guests for intimate details of their lives which the husband and I would then dissect at bedtime - we all do it so don't come over all judgemental on me now.
Midway through the week we made the trip to the nearby resort of La Rosiere - just a short drive from Sainte Foy - where it is possible to ski from France into Italy. It was a great day of skiing nicely punctuated by a real Italian pizza and gelato at lunchtime.
If you find yourself suffering from ski-fatigue there is no shortage of fun things to do in the mountains. The forests surrounding Sainte Foy have great snow-shoeing trails for those who are keen on hiking. For adrenaline addicts there is paragliding, snowmobiling or even ice diving. There is a spa and massage therapists on hand to ease those aching limbs. Or even just relax in front of the fire, watching movies and gorging on the home-baked treats.
The thing I really liked about the chalet holiday is the generosity. There was no sense of quotas or skimping on anything. From the Molton Brown bathroom products in the perfectly appointed rooms, to the abundant spread at breakfast time and the free-flowing wine - there was always a sense of plenty.
The attention to detail was incredible. Nothing was too much trouble for our hosts who were on hand to appease our every whim.
The chalet holiday is a little bit like what I imagine being a celebrity is like. Your needs are met before you have even articulated them. You can easily imagine how famous people can become so dysfunctional, by the end of our week's stay I was verging on Diana Ross levels of diva-dom and the husband was beginning to worry that I had lost basic skills like putting the kettle on and picking up after myself.
My first experience as a chalet guest was truly the most pampered I have ever been, when I got home and resumed my duties as a normal civilian and harried mother I realised that my son, Rufus, exists permanently in this state of cosseting. We've already booked for next year.
Read more: Take Three: Fab French ski chalets