Which would you choose? St Martin de Belleville or Les Menuires? The two resorts at the ‘other’ end of the 3 Valleys are as different from each other as you can get, and their atmosphere is completely at odds with Courchevel and Meribel.
For this is the lower-priced sector of the fabulous 3 Valleys and, arguably, these resorts are in the best position. For just two lifts (gondola/chair) from Les Menuires or two (gondola/chair) from St Martin de Belleville – followed by one enjoyable long run down directly into the Meribel Valley.
These two Belleville Valley resorts have much more of a French ambience than you’d find in Meribel, and they’re certainly a lot cheaper than Courchevel 1850. This end of the ski area is generally less crowded, as the resorts are slightly outside the main circuit (and the busy Meribel crossroads) and yet they are less severe – climate-wise – than treeless Val Thorens at the far end of the valley.
The skiing here is delightful and there’s the choice of going straight towards Meribel, or heading to Val Thorens where you’ll always find snow – albeit rather exposed as it’s above the treeline. Or you can stay in the separate local area of La Masse. On a fresh snow day you can ski on easily-accessible off-piste over undulating terrain between the Belleville and Meribel valleys. Whatever else, it’s never boring, and you could spend weeks here without skiing the same run twice.
Wherever you choose to stay, don’t miss a visit to the Trait d’Union above St Martin, an old refuge which has recently opened for business. You can stay the night here, or just come for lunch or dinner. The sweet little hut is run by a mother and daughter – the mother cooks and the daughter assists – and drives the mini snowcat that delivers you back to the piste afterwards. It’s a short detour off-piste to reach the place – but possible for any intermediate skier to tackle as it’s via a rugged path which most people snowplough down. Lunch is cooked on the wood-fired stove and is wholesome and tasty.
Above Les Menuires is the Bouche a Oreille, which is owned by René and Maxime Meilleur of the Michelin three-star La Bouitte – but comes at a much lower price range. It is in a gorgeous setting at the top of the Roc de Trois Marches 2 and Granges chair-lifts, and has a delightful sun terrace from which to enjoy the views. The food is excellent: fresh ingredients and dishes such as trout with almonds, meat on the spit, and blueberry waffles. There is a good choice of wines, and the service is friendly, but you’ll need to book in advance as it can be busy.
Another must-do is lunch at the slick Fahrenheit 7 hotel on the piste in Val Thorens. There’s a wonderful buffet and food choices are vast. It’s a particularly good place to go for a long lazy lunch when the weather is bad.
But where to stay in the Belleville Valley? You have a choice of old-world charm or ski-in ski-out convenience, both sharing the same ski area. Here’s what we found:
St Martin de Belleville
St Martin de Belleville is a traditional and pretty village, with several little hamlets dotted around it. In the centre is a thriving bar called Pourquoi Pas. Also here is a museum of local history which is located inside an old farm, and includes a reconstruction of a village house with its tiny little beds. Apparently the people of the time sat up to sleep because they believed you’d die if you went to sleep lying down.
We stayed at Chalet Abode in the hamlet of Villarabout, five minutes’ drive from SMB. It’s a collection of attractive chalets with a chapel, but not a lot more. Another nearby hamlet, St Marcel, is home to the famous La Bouitte restaurant. Abode is a 100-year-old farmouse, which was completely revamped and decorated by British couple Helen and Chris Raemers. It comes with a driver 24/7 – not that you’ll need him or her every hour of day or night, as this is definitely not a destination for party-goers.
However the driver is on hand to take you to and from the main SMB hub where you’ll find ski rental shops (we went to Intersport), the ESF ski school office (we had a fabulous morning exploring this part of the area with instructor Didier), a handful of shops and bars, and of course the slopes and lifts.
Our skis were carried to and from chalet and piste, and our boots put away for us at the end of each skiing day, which was bliss. Abode contains four large bedrooms, with a spacious open-plan sitting room/dining room/kitchen so you can watch the chef at work. Our bedroom was extremely comfortable, with an en suite bathroom containing a big bathtub and over-shower. There’s a separate downstairs ‘snug’ which doubles as a massage room.
Upsides: a bit like staying in a very private boutique hotel, with lovely bedrooms, a charming and attentive chalet host and drivers – nothing is too much trouble for the staff. To top it all, there was delicious cuisine from chef, Laine. Highlight was his home-made marshmallows cooked over the log-burning fire, and a three-hour roasted pineapple with pecan nuts.
Downsides: the open-plan kitchen means that unless you ventilate the sitting room (not always easy in sub-zero temperatures) the cooking aromas waft around the living area. There isn’t currently a sauna or hot tub, but watch this space as the new owners – of sister company White Mountain Chalets – have six other chalets which all have one or both. Their Chalet Verdet, for example, has a glitzy spa area as big as you might find in a decent hotel.
At the end of our stay in SMB we skied across to Les Menuires with our luggage taken for us, by road. The grey sky didn’t do anything for the looks of Les Menuires – one of those mid-1960s ski stations built for function rather than style. However, the appearance of the resort has gradually improved in recent years, and it has remained authentically Gallic. Just above it, and completely ski-in ski-out, is the purpose-built and much more attractive village of Reberty.
In fact Les Menuires is made up of different quarters: La Croisette (the original part), Reberty (at 2000m), Les Bruyeres (at 1850m), as well as Sapiniere, Les Fontanettes, Preyerand, and Brelin – all of them are linked by free buses and piste.
Reberty, where we stayed, has chalet-style buildings that line a small road winding up a hill. There’s a Sherpa supermarket, a pizzeria, La Ferme de Reberty restaurant-bar (for cocktails as well as food), three ski hire shops including a good Intersport, Oxygene and ESF ski schools. That’s about it; for a doctor, bank or pharmacy you’d have to take the bus or ski down to central Les Menuires.
Reberty is also where you’ll find a cluster of family-specialist tour operators – the reason being that the village is quiet and convenient – with no cars and no nightclubs. We stayed here with Powder n Shine who – in order to to stand out from the Reberty crowd – make a conscious effort not to be a family specialist. They specialise in comfortable yet affordable chalets which couples, families and groups of friends can book by the room.
Our home-from-home was Chalet Neve, which is one of four similar chalets from the same operator. All four are ski-in ski-out on a blue run – and from the top of Reberty it’s just one lift followed by a long run down into the Meribel Valley. It’s easy to reach Val Thorens, too. Neve has three storeys with a sauna and outdoor hot tub, a cosy sitting room with central log-burning stove, a play room complete with books and board games, and six bedrooms of different shapes and sizes (all en suite) ranging from a sweet little double to a roomy triple. The food created by chef, Simon, was of a high standard and the staff were all charming. The long dining table seats 14.
Fellow chalet-mates were a retired couple from Yorkshire and six 30-something doctors from Scotland, and our visit coincided with Burns Night. So quiet little Reberty became not so quiet, with the sound of piped bagpipes and everyone spinning reels. We were not allowed to opt out, so we spent the evening learning new skills!
Upsides: comfy sitting room with a nice homely ambiance, and bright friendly staff (interestingly, owner Fran only employs staff with university degrees). If you are feeling sociable, or want to meet like-minded skiers, this is the place to stay. There’s a sauna and hot tub, a balcony that looks out onto the piste, and tasty food. You can put on your skis and set off down the blue run right outside the ski room door.
Downsides: the bedrooms on three floors include two that are right next to the sitting/dining room, so you’d need to be willing to join in the fun and stay up as late as everyone else!