From Surrey to Samoëns…

Exterior of the chalet on a snowy evening

Exterior of the chalet on a snowy evening - Credit: Archant

As the longest ski lift of its kind in Europe opens for its first season at Le Grand Massif in the French Alps, Rebecca Younger discovers there’s much more to the area than just the white stuff

Rebecca, her partner and family with Mont Blanc in the distance

Rebecca, her partner and family with Mont Blanc in the distance - Credit: Archant

Skiing is not my forte. I’ve given it a go a few times but I seem to be a lot better at the après ski than the actual skiing. For Joss and Denée (Dee for short) Thompson, it’s a part of every day life. In fact, they love it so much that in 2016, they sold their home in the Surrey village of Holmbury St Mary to make a new life for themselves just outside Samoëns at the foot of the French Alps.

Here they run Chalet Brio; a catered chalet sleeping up to 16 people, which provides easy access to some of the best slopes in Le Grand Massif. The chalet is just over an hour’s drive from Geneva airport, on the French side of the border – which isn’t a bad slog when you consider you can travel on the road for up to three hours to reach many of the top ski resorts in The Alps.

Luck would have it that their move has come as a substantial expansion of Le Grand Massif ski area – with the addition of four new pistes in an entirely new valley – enters its first stage of completion. Two blue runs have opened this season and two red runs are due for winter 2018/19.

The pistes will be served by a new six-seater chair lift, which departs from 1,200 metres and arrives at 2,120 metres. At 2,850 metres, the Coulouvrier lift is the longest lift of its kind in Europe but takes just 10 minutes to whisk skiers back to the top, with a capacity of 3,000 people per hour. The expansion is attracting further investment in the area with a 420-bed Club Med Samoëns Morillon opening on the Plateau des Saix, this season and new hotels springing up in the resort’s towns and villages. While this provides an additional pull for avid skiers and snowboarders, there’s a whole host of other reasons to visit the area, whether you’re a fan of the white stuff or not.

We arrived in shoulder season – just before the first real snow had fallen – which meant Joss and Dee were able to show us many of the other attractions the area has to offer. “Sometimes I actually prefer the summer here as I love walking and you discover so many things you’d probably miss if you came here in winter solely to ski,” says Dee.

Our first stop, once we had been shown our cosy en suite rooms and treated to tea and homemade lemon drizzle cake (like most catered ski chalets, afternoon tea is served for guests every day at Chalet Brio), was a walking tour of the surrounding area (along with Joss & Dee’s pointer, Lhotse) so we could get our bearings. Fishing, water sports and even a driving range, where you hit golf balls at targets in the water, are just some of the activities that can be found around the Lac aux Dames (meaning Lake of Ladies) and Base de Loisirs de Samoëns (leisure centre) in the spring and summer months and, when the snow begins to melt you can white water raft down the Giffre river.

The view at breakfast

The view at breakfast - Credit: Archant

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Home comforts

Back at the chalet, mealtimes are a huge part of life at Chalet Brio and self-confessed foodies Joss and Dee spend a lot of their time researching and sourcing local produce to provide tasty and authentic dinners for their guests. If you happen to be there on a Wednesday then get them to show you the popular market in town so you can take home some of the produce yourself.

And their food is exceptional. Our three-course evening meals, which were accompanied by local wines and beer (alcoholic drinks at other times of the day work by way of an honesty bar, which you can help yourselves to at leisure) were hearty yet refined – exactly what you want after a day on the slopes, or like us, a long hike. Dishes included the Alpine classic tartiflette, mushroom risotto, foie gras, beef bourguignon and Dee’s speciality, Bloody Mary soup (served with a shot of vodka). Puddings were just as delightful; cheese cake, crumble and booze-soaked pears are often on the menu, followed by cheese and biscuits if you can manage it. A breakfast of eggs to your liking is served each morning against a backdrop of the snow topped (or covered depending on what time if year you are there) mountains. This is the stuff dreams are made of.

Inside Chalet Brio

Inside Chalet Brio - Credit: Archant

Well fuelled, we decided to explore the main town a little more before heading off for a walk. Samoëns is a relatively small town of around 2,500 people and is designated as a ‘ville fleurie’, identifying it as one of the most beautiful towns in France. It appears quite fitting then that its emblem is a heart - you’ll spot the symbol all over; on signs for the town, on wooden shutters and above the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Lac aux Dames.

The name Samoëns is said to derive from a medieval word meaning ‘the seven mountains’, referencing the peaks that surround it. Evidence of its stone masonry heritage (in years gone by men in the region used to work in stone to supplement their income from farming) can be found dotted around the streets and in the main square. During shoulder season in October and November, many of the shopkeepers and restaurant owners take their holiday, however we managed to find a handful of open cafés, bars and shops selling treats to take home.

From Samoëns there are all manner of walks you can take (which don’t require snow shoes) to explore the wider area. We decided to take the six-mile trek along the river to Sixt-fer-à-Cheval, passing working agricultural farms along the way, before we met up with Joss and then hiked deep into the National Park to a waterfall known as the end of the world. Joss explained that you can also ice climb these waterfalls when frozen so even in the depths of winter, there are plenty of alternative activities to skiing that will equally get your adrenaline pumping. The occasional sound of mini avalanches within this area known as ‘The Horseshoe’ was enough to keep my feet firmly on the ground however.

Another day, another mountain to climb. This time, Dee took the lead as we ascended Col de Joux Plane, which is famed for being one of the ascents for cyclists competing in Le Tour De France. Okay so perhaps Dee drove us to part way but, I promise, we walked the rest! From here you get a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountain range, including Mont Blanc. Legs throbbing and hearts racing at the awesome scene we had just taken in, we headed back to Chalet Brio, which by the way means ‘lively’, for a dip in the outside hot tub and a glass of Dee’s special mulled wine. “What’s special about it?” I ask. “It’s got vodka in it,” she replies.

Whether you’re an avid skier, keen walker, cyclist, foodie (or just like the taste of vodka!), you’re going to fall in love with this small but perfectly formed part of the world.

Chalet Brio is offering Surrey Life readers 10% off stays booked and taken before April 30, 2019. Simply quote Surrey Life when booking.

Good to know

British Airways, Easyjet and Swiss Air all run daily direct flights from London to Geneva.

Prices at Chalet Brio start from £85 per person per night or £490 per person per week (catered) in winter. Exclusive use of the chalet is also available, contact direct for prices. Chalet Brio, 139 Route De La Turche De Vercland, L’Etelley, 74340 Samoens. France.

Tel: 00 44 7858 796176

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