There’s so much in the Three Valleys ski area in the French Alps that clamours for attention: chic, glitzy Courchevel and its Michelin stars; marginally less chic Méribel and its luxurious chalets; high-altitude Val Thorens and its growing number of five-star hotels. Even adorable little St Martin de Belleville makes its mark with a quaint, villagey atmosphere.
Then there’s Les Menuires. The ugly sister of the lot, it was built in the Sixties when architecture was going through a brutalist phase that blotted parts of the French Alps. It’s not pretty. But, slowly, it has been improving with age — helped by newer satellite villages that have brought a dose of much needed style.
Location is what really sets Les Menuires apart. If you plan to cover as much as possible of the Three Valleys’ 600km ski area you’re in the right spot. Want to get over to Méribel and Courchevel? Easily done. Want some high-altitude views? You’ll be in Val Thorens within 10 minutes. In the mood for classic French ambience? St Martin de Belleville is next door.
Meanwhile, if what you’re after is excellent skiing right on your doorstep without having to fork out eye-watering prices for a lift pass, you can’t go wrong with Les Menuires’s 86 runs and considerably more affordable restaurants.
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I’d had a tantalisingly brief glimpse of the resort a few years ago during a visit to St Martin. But late last season I was able to spend more time in this vastly underrated part of the Three Valleys — specifically in the stylish hamlet of Reberty. Happily cocooned in Powder N Shine’s warm, wood-filled Le Chamois chalet overlooking the blue Boyes run, I had 160km of pistes at my feet.
It was blue heaven, as wide, cruisey runs up to 2,700m criss-crossed the mountain. At the top of the Grand Roc chairlift was a crossroads leading to Val Thorens or St Martin. Decisions, decisions. I swooped down to St Martin, revelling in the bright sunshine and the fact that there were only a few people on the pistes — and three of them were my companions.
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Meandering back to Les Menuires on those gorgeous motorway runs, I didn’t have to go far from my chalet to find a decent spot for lunch. La Ferme de Reberty (lafermedereberty.com) —handily just next door to Le Chamois — had a large inviting terrace and served one of my favourite Savoie dishes. Fat, juicy, smoked sausages called diots came with crozets (tiny pasta squares) smothered in gooey Beaufort cheese. I’d come to the right place to feed my cheese addiction.
A new wellness centre, L’Espace Aqualudique, had opened recently in the Bruyères area of Les Menuires, and the late afternoon whizzed by in a multitude of swimming pools, hot tubs and pulsating water jets. Soon it was time for one of Le Chamois’s exquisite dinners cooked by the chalet’s professional chefs. No huge vats of spag bol here; instead there was a velvety velouté of white onion followed by succulent beef fillet and a Baileys cheesecake that induced a state of bliss.
Another bluebird day followed, offering more cruising in glorious sunshine. Les Menuires’ best-kept secret hides in plain sight — La Masse, whose peak reaches 2,804m, was curiously empty. There was plenty of room to explore this marvellous mountain, including the immensely satisfying red Fred Covili run.
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Just when I was wondering where everyone was hiding I found half the population at the Chalet du Sunny restaurant at the top of the Sunny Express chairlift. On the slope side, a massive party was under way. A small army of onesie-wearing skiers waved their silly hats in anticipation of the music about to be played by a Polish DJ and his team of wildly dressed dancers.
It had a similar vibe to the famed chain of on-mountain bars La Folie Douce, an outpost of which was just next door in Val Thorens. The proximity of this famously raucous après-ski venue proved too much of a temptation for a few of my friends, but I couldn’t see the point of skiing over to a party when I had one right in front of me. Besides, there was a generous dish of cheese-laden tartiflette with my name on it.
Luckily there was an easy red run back to Le Chamois, where the terrace hot tub was bubbling away, ready to soothe tired muscles. After a quick soak I was back in town to try out the Speed Mountain mechanical toboggan. I can never say no to things that whoosh me down a winding course at top speed and let me shriek like an overgrown child.
While Les Menuires is geared towards families, I found a different atmosphere the next day when I skied over to Val Thorens. Europe’s highest ski resort has been smartening up over the past few years, and attracts a young, lively crowd. It was also busier than Les Menuires, so I hopped on the gondola that took me to the air-thinning 3,200m peak at Cime Caron and its entrancing views of the Maurienne Valley and Les Deux Alpes.
The serpentine Cumin run led me back to Les Menuires and reminded me again how enormous this ski area is — and what a pleasure it is to explore. Even the village centre’s architecture was beginning to grow on me. Perhaps love really is blind.
Details: Les Menuires
Mary Novakovich travelled with Voyages-sncf (voyages-sncf.com), which has trains from St Pancras International to Chambéry from £110pp return. A week’s half-board at Le Chamois with Powder N Shine (powdernshine.com) costs from £649pp, chalet-board, including wine, canapés and afternoon tea.