French Alps Secret: Sainte-Foy, Small and Spectacular

French Alps Secret: Sainte-Foy, Small and Spectacular.

If there’s one thing the French know, it’s ambience. They have, in fact, cornered the market on the word used to describe this otherwise indescribable quality.

But the dirty secret of French alps ski resorts — the enemy of ambience — is overdevelopment. As France’s famed winter playgrounds have earned reputations for having some of the world’s best skiing, they have become big and crowded and bereft of the very thing that attracted us to begin with. And once ambience is gone, nothing can bring it back.

You can, however, preserve it. Case in point: Sainte-Foy Tarentaise, an unspoiled French Alps village with a little — but surprisingly good — almost-private ski area. Located just off the road that connects one of the world’s biggest ski areas, Paradiski, to another, the world-famous Espace Killy (home to Tignes and Val d’Isère), Sainte-Foy’s pistes are linked to theirs by an exchangeable lift ticket, but no lifts.

The mountain itself claims a mere four chairlifts, which serve an underutilized ski area of 15 runs and 3,500 feet of vertical. At just half the vertical of its gargantuan neighbors and a tiny fraction of their terrain, Sainte-Foy’s slopes are quiet, its powder beautifully untracked.

“Sainte-Foy offers some of the best off-piste in the French Alps, without crowds,” notes Marianne Brechu, the former French downhill team member and free-ride champion who organizes private powder-ski touring and heli-skiing through Elite Ski Team. There are also groomed trails for all ability levels, right up to the steep black piste No. 2, the ominously named Dark Crystal. If, heaven forbid, the Alps face a weak snowfall, the resort has 100 percent snowmaking coverage. And dodgy French ski lodging — the bane of the smaller resorts — is not a problem here, courtesy of the Yellowstone Lodge.

The best chalet on the hill — thanks to a resident chef of French quality, an on-call chauffeur, and a talented masseuse — Yellowstone recently got better with the addition of a helicopter pad (illegal in France, heli-skiing is quite legal just over the border in Italy).

The helipad is just 150 feet from the lodge (turn left at the front door) and two Italian bases — La Thuile and Val Grisenche — are just a five-minute flight away, which opens up a massive range of terrain. From either, the day’s last run brings you from the border back to the Sainte-Foy valley, where you can ski down through wilderness to end your day in one of the lovely surrounding villages. In neighboring Le Miroir, for instance, you can enjoy drinks or a meal a world away from the ski crowds at the traditional Chez Marie.

But you may understandably want to race back to the Yellowstone, to soak in a hot tub as you gaze across the valley to magnificent snowcapped peaks, sipping a hearty French red and enjoying the attention of its staff. And ambience by the bucketful.

SNOW Tidbits:
*Its closest English synonym, the Greek-derived “atmosphere,” means, roughly, “vapor circle,” and this airiness somewhat captures the ineffable quality (the “je ne sais quoi”) we associate with ambience. Atmosphere, of course, diminishes as altitude rises, and thus exposes itself as a poor metaphorical option for this magazine’s subject matter.

*As with all things Sainte-Foy, “small and personal” also means limited availability, so book early. Elite Ski Team, 0033 (0) 6 10 90 76 78; eliteskiteam.com.

*Yellowstone Lodge, Sainte-Foy Tarentaise, +44 (0)20 8877 8822; yellowstoneskilodge.co.uk. France’s Yellowstone Lodge is in no way affiliated with Montana’s private Yellowstone Club, and is thus uninvolved in that imbroglio (which is a fine Italian word, yes?). Other lodging is available in the valley, both on the hill and in surrounding towns. For more information, contact the Sainte-Foy Tarentaise Tourist Office, +33 (0)4 79 06 95 19; saintefoy-tarentaise.com.

*Chez Marie, Le Miroir, +33 (0) 4 79 06 90 16. Reservations are a must.