Saint-Gervais-les-Bains is in the Haute-Savoie department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in south-eastern France. It’s only a short distance from Italy, Switzerland and Mont Blanc and as ski resorts go, it’s relatively quiet.
The village of Saint Gervais has been a popular ski destination for decades. However, it’s still a pretty village which has kept some of its soul – despite the addition of a huge bridge skirting round it a few years ago. It’s popular with the Belgiums but at the beginning of April 2017, there was a distinct lack of the hordes of UK skiers you find elsewhere.
As you chug up the mountain and arrive in the village, to your surprise you’re greeted by a grand old dame of what once must have been a spectacular hotel. It’s a little dilapidated now which only adds to its charm and I suspect, it’s let out as flats, but its presence is explained by the thermal baths of Saint Gervais.
The baths of Saint Gervais
The thermal spa is a little further back down the mountain in the village of Le Fayet. It has been attracting visitors to the region for over 200 years. Back then, a local fisherman recognized the smell of sulphur in an area where the snow always seemed to melt. A short time later the thermal waters and spa was discovered. By as early 1809 the spa’s medicinal qualities were recognised by the medical professions of Lyon and Paris.
The spa and baths are in a beautiful building set in a magnificent setting. You know to expect something a little special as you enter through the large metal gates and start the approach. Surrounded by 10 hectares, blossom covered trees lining the drive and a large statue of a stag crowning a boulder heralds your arrival. You certainly don’t feel like you’re in a ski resort.
The building almost has a colonial feel with its balcony and verandah. It nestles with its back to steep, tree covered slopes with views of the Alpes ahead. There’s something about blossom and snow covered mountains that makes me think of Japan but perhaps that’s just me.
It’s all very serene and dignified. In winter it shimmers in its snowy nest with icicles, dripping off the roof. I’m a romantic and my mind instantly pictured the regal ladies of the late 19th century elegantly sweeping up the steps to partake of the waters.
Time to relax
The baths include a 2 ½ hour experience, divided into preparation, regeneration and relaxation. You go from the steam room to the hot outside baths where you make your way round the different sections of the naturally heated thermal water, being seduced and delighted at once by micro bubbles, jets and fountains.
The baths were designed by therapists in a shape that represents health and well-being. The thermal properties of the water are renowned for their treatment of skin and respiratory problems, as well as easing those aches and pains you brought from the slopes. There’s a host of other treatments you can enjoy too and even an aqua-bike if you can muster the energy.
It’s a welcome respite but also a quiet reminder of the momentous journey those grand 19th century ladies must have made to enjoy it here. Before the motorway, fast cars or chartered planes. It must have felt like the ends of the earth, tucked away here at the feet of the mountains – a little bit of splendour and opulence as they descended from the headiness of the Grand Hotel. And it’s still retained a smidgen of that charm.
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France