From Surrey to Saint-Gervais: What it's like to stay in the French village
PUBLISHED: 11:18 22 January 2019
When a Farnham couple embarked on a building project in the Alps, they turned what was once a 17th century farmhouse into a luxury ski chalet right below Mont Blanc. We paid a visit
The mountain regions surrounding Mont Blanc are a Mecca for skiers during the winter but there is more to the Alps than skiing – as Farnham couple Ed and Anna Hurley discovered when they embarked on a Grand Designs-style project in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.
Having owned an apartment in the small French spa town for a number of years, in December 2014 the couple decided to upscale their living arrangements and launch a new catered ‘ski chalet’ business.
Ed and Anna could have simply purchased one of the ready-made chalets in the area and move straight in but they had a very clear vision of what they wanted their ‘new home’ to be like and so decided to create their own – transforming a traditional alpine farmhouse into a luxurious, six-bedroom mountain escape.
The project took two years to complete, with local craftsmen carrying out the work, but it wasn’t as smooth running as they had hoped. “There were lots of obstacles to overcome along the way,” says Anna. “We had hoped the original foundations of the building would be enough but they weren’t so we had to dig down further.”
Just weeks before the Hurleys were due to unveil the finished project to 22 members of their friends and family for a special Christmas get together in December 2016, there were still no windows. As Ed explains: “In the end we had to drive to Italy to explain to the window company how important it was that we had the glass in before Christmas. A few days later the frames arrived but there was still no glass! There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing but eventually it came, along with the glass for the staircase and mezzanine balustrade, which my father in-law and I were still fitting the day before our guests arrived!”
The result is simply breath-taking. From the outside, the chalet may well look similar to other chalets dotted across the mountainous landscape of St Gervais but step inside and you’ll be blown away by the flawless design and immaculate attention to detail.
It was important to Ed and Anna that they retained as much of the original material as possible. Consequently, most of the wood and other feature work (such as the rustic brickwork in the entrance hall) are from the original farmhouse so it’s still got that traditional cosy Alpine lodge feel – with a comforting oak aroma to boot – but with luxurious, contemporary touches, such as underfloor heating and a Sonos music system.
There’s an amazing first floor open-plan living area, with stylish kitchen featuring no less than two dishwashers, and a large central island to gather around for pre-dinner drinks, while the dining room has a long, oak dining table which can seat 14.
In the lounge, a modern fireplace – complete with stag’s head above and plenty of comfy seating – helps add to the cosy, home-from-home feel, while floor-to-ceiling glazing offers prime views across the surrounding mountain ranges of Aravis, Fiz and mighty Mont Blanc. There’s also a snug on the mezzanine floor, where you can watch TV should you – unlikely – get bored of the views, or step outside to the adjoining balcony and see if you can spot any climbers scaling the surrounding mountain ranges.
Each of the six bedrooms (two on the ground floor and four on the upper floors) is en suite but the master suite on the mezzanine floor, which we were fortunate to stay in, is the piece de resistance; the open plan bathroom has a huge free-standing bath and there’s also a private south-facing balcony.
Ed and Anna are real foodies and so mealtimes are a focal point of any stay at Ski Chalet Mont Blanc. Anna, who has trained with Davina and Rachel Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, Ireland, and Ashburton in Devon, creates tantalising menus, which are shared with guests and altered to their tastes before arrival. Afternoon tea is served every day with a home-baked cake and on the first evening guests are treated to a Champagne and canapé reception.
While traditional Alpine menus can be served in the evenings, Anna loves cooking Middle Eastern food, inspired by her favourite chef, Yotam Ottolenghi. Either way, everything has to be local. We sampled dishes including beetroot and apple soup with spiced seeds; Mediterranean salmon en croute with tomato pesto sauce, lemon and olive oil mash; chicken shawarma with butternut squash and tahini, bulgar wheat, cucumber and red onion salsa and zhoug; and passion fruit parfait with passion fruit ice cream and coconut caramel – all were equally delicious.
Each three-course meal ends with cheese from La Ferme des Roches Fleuries, a family-run local farm, which we were privileged enough to visit and view the cheese-making process during our stay.
More than just snow
While the chalet is, of course, a prime spot to base a ski break (the nearest ski lift is only five minutes away and the iconic ski resorts of Megeve, Chamonix and Les Contamines are all within 15 minutes), visiting outside of the ski season, as we did, provides the excuse to experience St Gervais’ other attractions.
You can swim in the ‘healing’ waters of St Gervais’ famous 200-year-old thermal parc at Le Fayet, take a trip on The Mont Blanc Tramway to the Bionnassay glacier, or simply soak up the 19th century architecture and watch the world go by at one of the many restaurants which flow out onto the town square. We loved Brasserie du Mont Blanc, for its huge burgers and speciality mountain dishes, and Le Serac Bistro (sister restaurant of the Michelin-starred Le Serac] for its excellent value set menu and mesmerising dessert counter.
There are plenty of walks to suit a range of fitness abilities. One of the more accessible routes we walked took in the pretty Notre Dame De La Gorge Church, while another, more challenging walk, saw us climb to 1365ft to visit the highest gin distillery in Europe.
Run by Scot James Abbott (if his accent doesn’t give it away then his kilt definitely will), Distillerie Saint Gervais sits in an unassuming old donkey shed on the side of a mountain. Its produce, Le Gin, is distilled, bottled, labelled and often delivered solely by the incredibly eco-conscious James, who sticks labels on with donkey milk and has renovated his hut entirely with recycled materials.
James, who worked with ‘gin guru’ Tom Nichol to perfect his recipe for the spirit (and even named the still ‘Brave Tom’ in his honour) has plans for a larger site in the valley to eventually incorporate a whisky distillery but for now, here is the only place you will get to see James passionately go about his work.
The route is by no means easy but well worth it and a soak in the hot tub back at Ski Chalet Mont Blanc – the backdrop of the mountains and a ‘Le Gin & tonic’ providing much-welcomed company – is enough to repair those aching muscles.
While Saint Gervais Les Bains has been on the tourist map for decades, with the help of Ed and Anna, you’ll get to scratch beneath the surface and find there’s much more to this place than meets the eye.
Need to know
Ski Chalet Mont Blanc sleeps up to 12 people. 2019 prices for a three-night catered break start from £4,011. The chalet is also available on a self-catered basis. Call 020 8123 5433 or visit skichaletmontblanc.com for more information or to make a booking enquiry.
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