SAMOËNS, FRANCE - A snowy Tuesday night and, as usual, it’s standing room only inside Covey’s, a small Irish pub deep in the heart of the French Alps. It’s quiz night. But this isn’t your typical après-ski crowd. Tradesmen in old jeans and work boots jockey for position at the bar with tourists in chic ski attire, all eager to get their orders in before the quiz kicks off. The outfits may differ but the thirsty customers have a couple of things in common — they all love to ski and they all speak English.
You wouldn’t see a crowd like this in tony Chamonix or Zermatt, but that’s what ma akes the ancient village of Samoëns special and the reason so many English-speaking people have decided to move here permanently.
Samoëns is not one of those purpose-built resorts France is known for. This is a real place, with a real history. Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants not far from here; the Italians and the Germans occupied the area during World War II; and farming and stonemasonry were the main livelihoods long before anyone dreamed of making money from skiing.
Above: At night the town is magical with some odd landmarks and a lovely backdrop.
The arrival in 2003 of a high-speed gondola connecting the village to the sprawling Grand Massif ski area put Samoëns on the ski map. The Grand Massif Express also sparked a building boom and led to a small avalanche of mostly English builders and entrepreneurs — ski lovers all — settling here in the Giffre Valley, an hour southeast of Geneva. Hang around a bit and you’ll also hear the Irish lilt and Scottish brogue, as well as the odd Canadian and Australian accent.
If you’ve ever been on vacation and been reluctant to leave a place, that’s Samoëns. A lovely old square with a church, a pretty town hall, cozy cafés and shops on narrow streets, diet-destroying bakeries and, of course, superb skiing. You could shoot a Bond movie here.
With two girls in French Immersion in Ontario, both avid skiers, it seemed like a good spot for your correspondent and his family to spend a semester. A once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing so the girls could attend a local school and really polish their French, n’est-ce pas? That was in 2008. Eight years later Samoëns has become a second home.
“I think that’s pretty typical,” says Wendy Hedditch, who gave up a banking career in Australia and moved here in 2005 with her husband, Don, who taught hospitality at a college Down Under. “We used to ski in Morzine on vacations and we kept hearing about Samoëns. One year we came here and just loved it.”
The Hedditches now operate a self-catering farmhouse, Ferme Dowena, and look after a number of apartments and chalets for U.K.-based clients.
The two of them also run the raucous weekly quiz at Covey’s, which usually consists of 20 to 25 teams of four. The banter is lively. If England has suffered a particularly agonizing defeat in rugby or cricket, you can be sure Don will have a question reminding them of the fact.
The Poms counter by needling Don about his French accent. (Imagine the big shark in Finding Nemo speaking French and you get the idea.)
During the Christmas holidays the village is especially festive with streets and shops beautifully decorated, church bells ringing, vin chaud stands everywhere and nightly entertainment in the square. A couple of years ago, Père Noël fell out of his sleigh drunk in front of scores of kids during the procession through the square on Christmas Eve. (Père Noël has since been banned from adjudicating at the vin chaud competition.) Ahhh, what a night. Not that you can expect that kind of entertainment every year, mind you.
Yes, the village will charm you, but it’s what awaits skiers after the nine-minute, 900-metre ascent to Samoëns is the real reason to visit Samoens. The Grand Massif ski area, the fourth largest in France, consists of five connected resorts – Samoëns, Flaine, Morillon, Les Carroz and Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval – and 148 groomed runs, as well as vast off-piste possibilities. Flaine boasts the highest elevation at 2,500 metres and the corduroy extends down to the village of Morillon at 700 metres.
Flaine offers the most challenging tracks, and the best view of Mont Blanc, but there are runs for all levels in each resort. Here are a few favourites:
Marvel (green, Morillon): Ski snobs tend to shun green runs but this six-kilometre beauty shouldn’t be missed. Marvel snakes through an ancient forest and is perhaps the prettiest run in the entire Grand Massif. (You shouldn’t really be bombing down a green run but this tree-lined piste does feel like a downhill course and first trackers occasionally get Marvel to themselves. Just sayin’.) Note: This is the home resort of Turin Olympic downhill champion Antoine Deneriaz.
Cascades (blue, Flaine): The most famous run in the Grand Massif. Starting from the top of Flaine, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, this remote 14-kilometre blue winds its way to Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval at the eastern end of the Giffre Valley. Take your time on this one, bask in the scenery and savour the deafening quiet. At the halfway point you can stop for lunch or coffee at the Lac de Gers. Look for the phone and a snowmobile will soon arrive to tow you up to the restaurant. From Sixt a free ski bus returns you to Samoëns.
Serpentine (blue, Flaine): A long, fast blue that features a steep start and huge rollers. If you enjoy watching unsuspecting tourists windmilling through the air – and who doesn’t? – this spot rocks. Near the bottom, stop and check out the wall on the right, which is frequently covered in chamois (mountain goats). Le Bissac at the bottom of the run serves the best hot chocolate in the Grand Massif.
Aigle Noir and Chamois (blacks, Samoëns): Two thigh-burning black runs that start at the top of the Chariande Express chairlift. For strong skiers, Aigle Noir and Chamois are about as good as it gets after a big dump. Aigle Noir, however, features large moguls most of the time and can be a bit scary in bad conditions.
Gers Bowl (off-piste, Flaine): Gers is the destination of choice for all the top skiers in the area. This massive bowl is located in a remote area of Flaine and serviced by an old thigh-busting button lift. Do not ski Gers on your own. Fall and get hurt here and you may not be found until the spring. That said, powder days here are a spiritual experience.
Geneva is the nearest airport, a 75-minute drive from Samoëns. Private airport transfers to ski stations are expensive, about 100 euros per person return; renting a car is the better way to go, especially if you plan on skiing elsewhere or need to shop for groceries. / SKI PASS (Grand Massif): 1 day: 45.50 euros; 6 days: 237 euros / SKI PASS (Massif, excluding Flaine): 1 day: 39.50 euros; 6 days: 205 euros / GRAND MASSIF INFO: www.grand-massif.com
/ For lodging info, go to www.samoens.com
/ The best day ski tirp from town is to Les Gets, a 25-minute drive from Samoëns. Park at Les Perrières chairlift, first lot on the right as you enter town. Part of the massive Portes du Soleil ski area (12 connected resorts, four in Switzerland). Ski into Switzerland for lunch but be sure to allow for two hours to get back to Les Gets. / The best non ski rip is to Annecy, 60-minute drive. Beautiful old town with great shopping and pretty canals surrounded by mountains. The IOC passed on Annecy for the 2018 Olympics, what dopes.