Samoëns is a delightful, traditional ski resort in the French Alps that has an exceedingly attractive and perfectly preserved medieval village centre. It is not difficult to understand why it is so popular with the Brits.
Many Alpine ski resorts these days are far too bling. Visitors to those places often seem far more interested in parading up and down in designer coats and watches than actually skiing.
That is certainly not the case at Samoëns. This beautiful French resort is old-fashioned in all the right ways.
Samoëns is located in the heart of the Savoie Mont Blanc region, just 57 km from the centre of Geneva. It is an hour and a half’s drive from Geneva airport, making it easily accessible for visitors from the UK. It is in the middle of Le Grand Massif, the fourth largest linked ski area in France. Although perhaps not as well-known as Les Trois Vallees, the domain provides a variety of skiing across five different resorts.
Unlike many resorts plonked in the middle of the Alps, like out-of-place moon bases in the 1960s, the village of Samoëns has a real heritage. Now classified as a “Monument Historique,” it dates back to the 6th century A.D.
The skiing is terrific in Samoëns – most of the runs are tree-lined and very easy on the eye. But you could have an exceedingly pleasant time there without ever clipping on a pair of skis.
Why go to Samoëns
Immense skiable domain: Le Grand Massif is a large ski area, encompassing 265 km of pistes across five interconnected resorts – Samoëns, Flaine, Les Carroz, Morillon, and Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval.
The domain provides terrific runs for skiers of all levels. The resort caters for expert skiers looking for highly challenging slopes, such as the world-renowned and utterly terrifying off-piste Combe de Gers run, which drops 800 metres through a vertiginously steep powder bowl in alarmingly quick time.
But less experienced skiers can also find lovely runs in Le Grand Massif. For instance, La Marvel piste offers beginners a beautiful five-kilometre run through a centuries-old forest.
One of the longest runs in Europe: Also, Le Grand Massif boasts another globally celebrated run, La Piste Des Cascades. It stretches for 14 km from the 2480-metre summit of Flaine down into Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval.
En route, you pass through the Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval Nature Reserve, an untouched wilderness without a single ski lift. The run is home to an abundance of wildlife, including chamois, bearded vultures and Ibex. At the bottom, you can take the free shuttle bus back to Samoëns. The round trip takes about three hours
And the best news of all? La Piste Des Cascades is a blue run, so none of the skiing is terribly taxing.
Street art in Flaine: We would particularly recommend a day trip from Samoëns to the neighbouring village of Flaine, which is very different from your average modern ski resort.
It was built in the 1960s and noted for its stunning architecture designed by the Bauhaus master, architect Marcel Breuer celebrated for iconic buildings as the Palais de l’Unesco in Paris and the Whitney Museum in New York. That has helped Flaine become the only ski resort constructed during the 1960s recorded in the French Historical Monuments Survey.
Modern ski sculpture: Perhaps even more importantly, Flaine has the most exceptional contemporary street sculpture of any ski resort in the world. There is no other ski station on the planet where you can wander down the main street, taking in the delights of sculptures by Pablo Picasso (“La Tête de Femme”), Jean Dubuffet (“Le Boqueteau”) and Victor Vasarely (“Les Trois Hexagones”).
History: For a day away from the pistes, there is plenty to do in the historic centre of Samoëns. Based on a medieval village, classed as a Monument Historique, Samoëns has a small traffic-free centre where you can wander the beautiful pedestrianised streets of the medieval quarter.
The main square, which features an exquisite 10th-century church and a covered market, is especially appealing.
A huge linden tree dominates the square. It was planted in the 1430s to celebrate the Duke of Savoie, giving the people of Samoëns the right to hold a market every Wednesday. It still happens today.
Also worth a visit is the Jaÿsinia Botanical Gardens built as a gift to the village in 1906 by the local benefactor, Marie-Louise Cognacq- Jaÿ, who made her money from the very successful Paris department store, La Samaritaine in Paris. Designed by the architect Jules Allemand, the gardens’ steep slopes contain waterfalls, rockeries, the ruins of an old castle destroyed in 1470 and 2300 species of plant.
Where to stay in Samoëns
Samoëns has seven hotels and eight residences. We stayed at the very cosy four-star Neige et Roc Hotel that seems designed for winter.
Where to eat in Samoëns
There are several excellent restaurants in Samoëns – well, it is in France, after all! On the slopes, the Au Pre d’Oscar restaurant at the top of the Grand Massif Express cable-car comes highly recommended – if only for its terrace commanding dazzling 360° views of the surrounding mountains.
In the evening, we very much enjoyed La Mezzanine, just off the main square. In its delightful wood-panelled dining room, we had such delicious local dishes as braised beef cooked in Mondeuse red wine and a chocolate fondant pudding to-die-for.