Powder and the Glory
The Tarentaise Valley in France is home to some of the world’s most famous skiing, but while the crowds head for the mega resorts of Courchevel, Méribel, and Val d’Isère, the real magic is to be found in Sainte Foy, at the luxurious Chalet Merlo
It is early in the morning in the foothills of Sainte Foy, in South-Eastern France, and the clouds are heavy, filled with perfect, powdery snow. It floats across the sky where the air is thin, high above the Tarentaise Valley, one of the most idyllic spots in the French Alps. As I swish down the wide, tree-lined slopes, I stop for a moment to take in one of life’s greatest riches: absolute silence. The fresh, cold mountain air fills my lungs and my adrenaline pumps. It is the start of the ski season, and at this precious moment, there is not one soul around – this couldn’t be any further from my daily life in the hustle of central London…
A chalet retreat
Home for the week is one of Premiere Neige’s most luxurious catered chalet retreats. Founded in 2001, and winner of ‘Britain’s Best Ski Operator’ at the Telegraph Travel Awards 2017, Premiere Neige is Sainte Foy’s longest standing chalet company. Catered chalets are looked after day-to-day by their own hosts, who are on hand to pander to guests’ every need, both day and night, while a private chef ensures they want for nothing. And with a dedicated concierge service to arrange extras such as mountain guides, heli-transfers and spa treatments, a truly memorable break is guaranteed.
Built in a quintessentially Alpine style from local wood and stone, Chalet Merlo is set high above the Isère Valley, nestled in the heart of the pretty village of Le Miroir. The cosy interiors are the definition of hygge: exposed wooden beams, comfy sofas and a seemingly ever-burning log fire. Floor-to-ceiling windows sweep the length of the building, affording gorgeous views of the valley below (when the weather allows).
There is room for 12 of us, in six comfortable bedrooms, each with an en suite fully stocked with luxury toiletries. And while we might not be right on the piste, with chauffeur-driven minivans to take us to wherever the ski conditions are best, and all of the famous resorts within easy reach, it is the perfect spot for an extended family break (where après ski comes in the form of an on-site gym, sauna, fully secluded outdoor hot tub and private massage suite, rather than cool bars and hip restaurants).
As the sun sets on our first day of skiing, heavy snow begins to fall. Thankful for the fire, we settle in for the night, tucking into pre-dinner Champagne and canapés prepared by the chalet’s talented team. A lavish gourmet dinner follows: the creamiest crab risotto to start, followed by tender duck breast and rounded off with a naughty-but-nice cheesecake. Everything has been prepared using the freshest ingredients and is exquisitely presented and served paired with fine wines chosen by Premiere Neige’s resident sommelier.
Afterwards, replete, we stagger outside, braving the cold for a dip in the hot tub. Not just an antidote to ski-weary muscles, with its breathtaking view of the snow-covered valley and the twinkling lights of distant villages, it is a magical end to the day. I could sit here all night, but sensibly decide to turn in early, excited to get back out on the slopes the next morning.
On waking, we fortify ourselves with a hearty breakfast prepared by the chef: delicious eggs Benedict washed down with strong coffee. It’s still snowing heavily and visibility is low, but despite this, I’m eager to get out. Sainte Foy itself might have only four lifts, but it offers something that the neighbouring mega resorts cannot: quiet, uncrowded slopes that are just as good for beginners as for enthusiasts who want to enjoy the vast untracked powder slopes. I’ve asked the team to arrange a guide and am introduced to Christel, of Snocool ski school, who is keen to show off the area. Before I know it we are off-piste, racing through the beautiful wooded landscape.
In the middle of the day, we stop to recharge at Les Marquises, a restaurant perched high above the valley. As we prepare to leave, the sun breaks through the moody winter light for just long enough to reveal the astonishing views of Mont Pourri and the Turia glacier.
We spend a glorious afternoon lapping the slopes and carving shapes in the snow, but by 4pm, when we make our final run, I’m exhausted and eager to unwind back at the chalet. An evening of luxury awaits, with a post-ski massage to soothe aching muscles, followed by another gourmet feast.
The next morning the sky is crystal-clear and we are treated to the spectacular sight of the sun breaking over the Isère Valley and the peaks of Mont Pourri and L’Aiguille Rouge. The light trickles down the valley, making the virgin snow glisten.
Later that day, while exploring the village, we discover Chez Mérie. Less than 100 metres from the chalet, it also happens to be one of the best restaurants in the area. Inside is gorgeous – a roaring log fire, sheepskin rugs, and lots of gnarled wood and quirky décor. We make a booking to come back later in the week, on the chalet chef’s day off.
For me, the draw is simple: whether you live for the pistes, love a taste of Alpine culture or just fancy warming your toes in front of the fire, the dramatic sight of the Tarentaise Mountains from Chalet Merlo is unrivalled. This luxurious chalet ticks every box on the holiday wish-list, and then some…
What you need to know
Chalet Merlo is bookable through Premiere Neige, with half board prices for up to 12 guests starting at £10,000 per week, including dedicated chalet staff/chef. Le Miroir, 73640 Ste Foy Tarentaise, France (0131 510 2525, premiere-neige.com). Ski and snowshoe rental is available from Skiset (skiset.com) and ski instruction by Snocool (snocool.com). Massages and treatments can be arranged through Massage Me (massage-me.com)