When booking your ski trip, there is often a trade-off between convenience and charm. Samoëns, in the Grand Massif ski area, just 1 hour and 10 minutes’ drive from Geneva airport, is a beautiful alpine village, ancient and very French…
It’s a tale of love at first sight for travel writer Rachel Ifans, whose guide to family skiing in Samoëns reveals why this resort is a winner…
What’s great about skiing in Samoëns?
I’ve been to a range of ski resorts in the French Alps over the last decade – from Les Gets to Flaine and back again, but the one that stays in my memory the most is Peisey Vallandry, a wonderfully inaccessible village perché on the side of a mountain, seemingly unsullied by tourists, inhabited by families who’d lived there for generations, who farmed the land in summer and who piste-bashed their way through the winter months. Always a hint of wood smoke in the air, always a weather-worn smile of welcome at the local shops.
But after a trip to Samoëns, I’ve got a feeling I’ve fallen for it in much the same way. The skiing is great and well connected (part of Grand Massif) but, to be honest, it’s a bit clunky getting from town to the slopes. It’s not insurmountable but the convenience of newer resorts is lacking. Hang on, though, I’m talking about falling in love here – and common sense never played a part in that!
Booking a ski trip is a head/heart situation. If you’re choosing with your head, sure, go for the high-rise, ski-in-ski-out resorts – there are plenty of them! But, if you want to fall a bit in love with your ski resort, you’ll need to go to Samoëns.
Un coup de coeur in Samoëns
It’s hard to explain why some things tug at your heart strings while some things don’t do it for you at all. And, bold francophile that I am, I’m going to give you a few illustrations of why I loved it so.
It’s really French. Many ski resorts, some of which I also love dearly (yes, that’s you, Les Gets) feel culturally homogenous, just a bit international, in comparison to Samoëns. It’s like a stubborn French lady who refuses to chuck out her stale bread, or an obstinate fromager who would not allow a crumbly cheddar over his threshold. It really is just so French there.
It’s old. The name Samoëns dates from the early 12th century and is said to derive from a word meaning ‘the seven mountains’. The locals here are known as ‘septimontain(e)s’ and the boulangeries in town do a fantastic cake that is reminiscent of a bakewell tart that is called just that.
It’s the only French mountain resort classified as a national heritage site (Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques) and its church, according to records, dates from the 12th century, although was finally completed in 1555. The village has a long history of stonemasonry; many of the buildings survive today, like the pillared and covered marketplace in the main square. Older still is Le Gros Tilleul, an ancient and imposing lime tree, planted in the square in the mid-1400s.
A friendly ski resort
It has character. We saw it all. From oompapa bands in the town square, swing music serenades at the bottom of the gondola in the mornings, chunky wooden games in the marketplace, crazy people on stilts leading a NYE parade around the streets.
It’s so friendly. Never has that stereotypically rude-French rep seemed so wrong-footed. We couldn’t believe how nice everyone we met was. No sign of frustration at the tourist-heavy queues, no annoyance at the lack of language skills, the people in shops, manning lifts, running ski schools, serving in cafés and restaurant were unfailingly friendly.
It’s not chic. It doesn’t have schmanzy bars serving Apero Spritz and sharing platters. To give you an idea, we were regulars at two bars on the main square: Bar Le Samoëns and Bar Le Savoie. All you hear are French voices (even during a school holiday peak week). Think standard French bar, lots of seats, big TV playing sport, waiter zooming around, tray aloft.
A bit of a drag
No-one and nowhere is perfect, and I’ve hinted already that it’s a bit of a drag (‘scuse the pun) to get to the slopes from Samoëns town. So, the key is to make things as easy as possible for yourselves. In terms of planning, I recommend prioritising your accommodation and hiring ski kit wisely too.
So, for lodging. If you don’t want to walk even a little bit, I advise getting somewhere close to the gondola.
At the end of a great day’s skiing, if we didn’t feel like walking there were free ski buses. We would peel off on foot to the town to buy the evening meal and have an après-ski drink – or two – on the way. Poulet roti and baguettes tucked under our arms, the walk back is just lovely.
Getting kitted out
We hired our kit from a wonderful family business – called Roland Gay – with branches in town and on the plateau too. Roland himself is hands on and works alongside his impeccable team of experts. The kit is top notch. We also took advantage of one of Roland’s heated lockers on the mountain. Just 30 metres down a short slope from the top of the Grand Massif Express (GME) cable car, our locker meant we could leave skis, boots, helmets, bags, poles overnight, making the walk and the cable car (almost) effortless.
If you want a heated locker, you have to book well in advance for peak weeks.
There are many ski hire options everywhere. Extreme Glisse, for instance, is another good option right at the bottom of the gondola that is worth a look.
What’s the skiing like in Samoëns?
You take the GME cable car from just outside Samoëns village. It takes a few minutes to get up through the fluff before you float to an eyeball-burning winter wonderland that’s inconceivable below the cloud level. It’s a mecca for beginners with loads of nursery slopes, easy Blues and drag lifts.
If you’re an experienced skier, there’s not much on this plateau – you’ll need to take an express chairlift called the Charmiande Express which hoists you out of Samoëns and into the realms of Les Carroz, Flaine, Morillion and Sixt. This connecting lift is quick but it creates a potential bottleneck; there is probably a 10-minute queue when things are at their busiest.
So, you need to wise up and time your approach. Get there early and take advantage of myriad pistes over the hill. You have to return to Samoëns1600 if you’re dropping kids at ski school in the afternoon and then it’s hard to avoid queues as bibbed infants and liberated parents descend on the Express at the same time after drop off. My advice: drop your kids bang on time and flee before the rush.
Coming back in time for the last cable car down to town is another pinch point, as there are certain lifts you HAVE to use to get home and everyone is doing it at the same times. Not only once did I yearn for the option to ski down to town at the end of the day. The queue to get back to town at 16:45 was the part of Samoëns ski that we didn’t enjoy. Tired children, cold children, long waits, stamped-on feet, passive aggressive behaviour, the distant lure of vin chaud.
Impressive ski area
Niggles aside, the ski area is impressive – great for beginners and early intermediates. In school holidays, the blue runs got busy and it was sometimes a bit of a bunfight, especially at the top of pistes before people dispersed. Reds were a different experience, and when we got to grips with the slopes on offer we found fantastic snowparks and off-piste potential.
There are plenty of pistes above the tree line but we also enjoyed Les Carroz with its tree-lined pistes. I skied down a very long blue with a divine scent of Boeuf Bourgignon in my nostrils, wafting up from a restaurant at the base. Considering there was no snowfall while we were there (and a lot of sun), the pistes held up well and were entirely skiable every day.
Ski lessons for kids at Samoëns
We booked our kids’ ski lessons which consisted of small groups for 2.5 hours, well-judged levels and fab instruction. Our two were working for their Gold and Diamond badges so there was a mix of technique and fun through the week. They were the kind of lessons that have you looking at your kids and marvelling at how confident they’ve become.
Eating out in Samoëns
Down to brass tacks now, here are my notes on nosh, starting with a general point on piste eating: there aren’t many cafés on the slopes in this ski area compared to other places we’ve been, so you need to time pitstops and toilet trips well.
Restaurant Lou Caboëns. It’s on the right slightly back on yourself coming out of the GME – there’s a restaurant with a good rep (but you need to book ahead) and a popular outdoor snack bar. Good price too – but get there early for lunch as the queues get long!
La Gamelle is a snack bar on the plateau. A nice spot, out of the way of passing skiers, and you catch the late afternoon sun. Basic, but decent and good value. Seating is mostly outside.
Croc Blanc. Beautiful views but no loos – that rhymes! This is the only lunch spot at the top of the Charniande Express/Tete des Saix lifts. The spaghetti carbonara was delicious and beautifully decorated with artistic carrot shavings, and we also had good croque monsieur and fries here.
Shopping for self-caterers
As for the food options in Samoëns village, these are our stand-out spots:
Boulangerie Tiffanie. There are at least two branches – one at the bottom of the GME and one right in the village centre. They do excellent baguettes and fantastic cakes from the Exotika passion fruit pud, to the local septimontain tarts, and not forgetting the oreillettes, wafer-thin, crunchy bread sheets sprinkled with icing sugar.
Traiteur Le Pied de Poule. Restaurant-quality meals for tired people who don’t want to go out to eat – on various days we ate their lasagne, regional cooked sausage called diots, a gorgeous canard, dauphinoise potatoes and, of course, poulet roti
AltiPizz – lovely thin base and excellent toppings. Take away or eat in – just off the main square
The supermarkets in town can get packed, particularly on weekends. There is a Carrefour 2km away: a quick drive or a lovely walk through a lakeside park and frosty woodland.
More on Samoëns
Rachel Ifans is a British journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects, but she always returns to her first love, France.