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2nd Mar 2013 11:56am | By Jade Bremner
“Where do you usually ski?” is the gentrified phrase I expected to hear echoing around the slopes of Grand Massif.
Monied British tourists arrive en masse to the Alps every winter and consume copious amounts of wine, steak and fondue.
At Les Trois Vallées and Val d’Isère they ski with Brits, drink with Brits and sleep with Brits.
Luckily, my recent trip to the French winter wonderland is to be decidedly different.
The hidden ancient village of Samoëns, located in the Vallée du Giffre, offers 265km of slopes nearby and an olde rural mountain charm untainted by the region’s hordes of package tours.
Here, there’s more than skiing to keep you entertained.
This quaint town is known for its rich limestone quarries and stonemasons, who famously created a brotherhood and commune in the village hundreds of years ago.
In the main square, typical wooden mountain retreats are swapped for stone structures dating back to the 17th century.
On a simple walk around the town, visitors will see a variety of these carved sculptures dotted along the streets. It’s just as well the town is so interesting, because it turns out I can’t ski at all – I look like Bambi on the slopes.
After my first day its feels like I’ve been crouching over a public toilet for six hours. And, when I’m not in the ‘toilet seat-hovering’ position, I’m legs akimbo on my back.
Covered in bruises, I take some time out from all the sliding around. Almost every guesthouse in this area comes with après-ski provisions.
Mine, La Reine Des Prés, has a sauna, steam room, and hammam. I use all three in an attempt to banish my aches and pains.
But after a day of tumbling and throbbing, I opt to switch things up and book an educational tour with the local mountain rescue team.
These red-suited, Santa Claus look-alikes keep people safe while they’re skiing around Grand Massif, and tourists can hang out with them for a tour of what goes on out of plain sight on the mountain.
“Climb up into the gondola,” says beardy pisteur Michel Dunoyer. At the top of the stairs there’s a mechanical room, which controls the gondola.
I watch as Dunoyer does his morning safety check before the mountain opens for action.
He looks for breaks in the industrial-sized cables and whacks every supporting tyre with a hammer, to make sure they’re not going to pop. Technical.
“The rest of what we do takes place at the summit,” he says. To get there I must scale the 2000km face on skis, via chairlift. Here we go again.
I just about manage to sit on the chair without falling off and gauchely plonk myself down, next to the first Brit I meet since arriving.
“Have you ever skied before?” asks my chairlift buddy. I tell her I haven’t and ask if it’s really that obvious. “Yes,” she chuckles.
“My husband only learnt to ski at 55 years old, so there’s hope for you yet,” she consoles. “I hated skiing at first,” her husband chimes in.
“Now skiing is a drug for me. I can’t get enough of it.” Our chair enters a cloud and the view disappears entirely.
The haze clears to reveal the piercing sun and big blue skies.
The scene above the clouds is humbling, with jagged mountains like cardboard cut-outs on the horizon. Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak at almost 5000m, commands our attention.
We feel like we’re on the roof of the world. On the peak there’s a cabin filled with more men in red jackets.