Discovering an authentic mountain village with easy access to superb slopes, a hidden gem that hasn't yet hit the mainstream, is the dream of many a dedicated skier and snowboarder.
The medieval village of St Martin de Belleville, located within France's sprawling 600km Trois Valleés ski area and home to fewer than 3,000 residents, has often been described as such a gem. However, development in the name of attracting luxury travellers is threatening to blow its cover, probably to the irritation of the pioneers who’ve been trying to keep its charms under wraps.
Folded into a deep valley on the winding road up to more famous Val Thorens, the highest resort in the Trois Valleés, and indeed Europe, St Martin's old town is, in contrast to its neighbour’s purpose-built towers, a rustic collection of timber and stone chalets.
Leaning over cobbled streets, they overlook a 16th-century church and medieval washhouse and bread oven. Most winter visitors barely glimpse the church’s bell tower, merely swooping down the meandering blue Biolley piste into town while touring the ski area from their holiday base in Courchevel, Méribel or Val Thorens.
Perhaps they’ll stop for lunch at Le Montagnard, a rustic chic restaurant beloved of local instructors and mountain guides. They might even grab a taxi from the base of the lift to the neighbouring hamlet of St Marcel for lunch at a three-Michelin-star restaurant, La Bouitte.
But very few stay in the small number of chalets available in the village, among them one run by British entrepreneur John Ayton and his wife, the jewellery designer Annoushka Ducas. They bought their Chalet Floralie in 2008, and Ducas explains that they were introduced to St Martin by a mountain guide: “Despite living in Méribel, he preferred the Belleville Valley for its variety, long off-piste runs and proximity to high-altitude Val Thorens.” The couple were initially drawn in by Chalet Floralie's ski-in/ski-out position at the base of the gondola and easy access to the Trois Valleés, but subsequently fell in love with St Martin, as “a ‘proper’ village with a regular farmers’ market, small-food producers and a great sense of community”.
Superbly stylish, Chalet Floralie has eight bedrooms and was once the sole luxury chalet available to rent in St Martin. Sleeping up to 18, it's still the resort's largest property and, with its prime location, talented chef, priceless art collection and impressive wellness area, it remains the most inviting.
However, Floralie now faces stiff chalet competition, primarily from another British couple. Avid skiers James and Ruth Downey fell under St Martin's spell in 2012 and abandoned legal careers in London to manage a chalet here for a private owner. Fast-forward seven years and they run White Mountain Chalets, with nine chalets in the resort and some 40 staff.
The growth of their venture is indicative of the growing popularity of St Martin and increasing number of chalets for rent. New chalets in St Martin last season included sister properties Pure White Crystal and Pure Black Crystal, and the Caseblanche development. The latter is a slopeside cluster of 34 plush chalets and apartments, along with a delicatessen, a ski shop and a bistro owned by the family behind La Bouitte, the Meilleurs.
“Our clients have always loved the rare combination of St Martin's rustic and charming nature with the direct access it provides to the heart of the Trois Valleés ski area,” says Ruth Downey. “We have injected luxury by scouting out the best properties in the village and providing top-notch cuisine and service, but now the resort is introducing its own luxury, which we and our regular guests are very excited about.”
Built into the slopes that plunge into St Martin, the imposing stone and timber chalets of Caseblanche boast contemporary design, floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies dotted with hot tubs. Ranging from three-bedroom self-catered apartments to seven-bedroom standalone chalets, they're decorated individually by their owners, who rent them through the local tourist board or, in the case of the six-bedroom Chez Bugi from White Mountain Chalets, which has a prime spot on the Biolley piste.
Chez Bugi oozes suave style with a masculine palette of browns, creams and charcoal set against reclaimed timber walls, open fires, contemporary art works and fur throws galore. A rotating circular sofa, heaving beneath fluffy cushions, swivels ingeniously to afford alternating views of the mountains, outdoor hot tub, roaring fire or sitting room. It proved the perfect spot for lounging with my one-year-old Mathilde after days of skiing the Trois Vallées with my husband Ed, and her action-packed days with one of the team of professional British nannies that White Mountain Chalets handpicks each winter.
Equal attention was clearly paid to recruiting our on-call chauffeur and two chalet hosts (all dapper and charming university graduates) and the resident chef. He learnt his art in restaurants including the Ledbury and Fat Duck and was as content to purée his exquisitely prepared vegetables for our daughter as he was to delay serving his smokey artichoke velouté and melt-in-the-mouth Aberdeen Angus beef until she'd finally gone to sleep.
As St Martin marches on in its bid to appeal to the luxury market, several more swanky chalets will join its blossoming line-up this coming winter. These include two more Caseblanche properties, eight-bedroom Chalet Luna, which is made up of two apartments, and seven-bedroom Chalet Becca, both with sauna and spectacular terraces. Chalet Astilla, available through Self-Catered St Martin, has five bedrooms, floor-to-ceiling windows and a hot tub on its terrace, while Cimalpes' Chalet La Grange is a beautifully renovated barn with views over the Roc de la Lune peak.
The gondola up to Méribel has also been updated for 2019/20, and an outdoor spa is also set to launch in the heart of the town, with three hot tubs, a sauna and a herbal tearoom. Reassuringly, entry costs just €5, a far cry from the multimillion spa complexes of neighbouring Courchevel and a sign, perhaps, that while luxury is coming to St Martin it is still far from ritzy.
Maxime Meilleur co-chef paton at La Bouitte told me: “The mayor is deeply respectful of our heritage and wants to develop the village, within reason. Our community will stand together. We have to dare to improve without fear of the future.” Having joined his father and co head chef René in a mission to develop a three-Michelin-star restaurant, five-star hotel and spa from a derelict farm building and potato patch over the course of 35 years, Meilleur is well placed to recognise the merits of “mindful” development. And, as I tuck into his €189 four-course lunch, served on rustic pottery with a wood-handled hunting knife, I hope the mayor will heed his words when contemplating the development of St Martin: “We’re not about luxury here but l’art de vivre.”
Need to know
A stay in six-bedroom Chez Bugi costs from £1,250 per person for seven nights based on 12 adults sharing with White Mountain Chalets, including breakfast and afternoon tea daily, dinner on six nights, complimentary drinks and daily on-demand local transfers. Eight-bedroom Chalet Floralie sleeping up to 18 guests costs from £1,260 per person for seven nights, including breakfast and afternoon tea daily, dinner on six nights and complimentary drinks. Find out more about new chalets to rent from the St Martin tourist office.