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The Alps' Best Kept Secret
St Sorlin d'Arves (France)
Member Name: grahamt
St Sorlin d'Arves (France)
Date: 16/02/04, updated on 16/02/04 (2859 review reads)
Advantages: Superb skiing, Very reasonable price, Mostly short lift queues
Disadvantages: Too many drag lifts, Slow chair lifts, Weak critical links
St Sorlin d'Arves to give it its full name. No shame in not knowing where this is. Most people in the UK will not have heard of it, not even most keen skiers. It's in a region of the French Alps called Les Sybelles. Les Sybelles is in the southern Alpine region, south of the motorway through the Albertville valley rather than north as most of the famous regions are. St Sorlin is reached by following the road south from St Jean de Maurienne.
St Sorlin is new to the UK package trade. We found it in the Crystal brochure and were intrigued. If it was new to the brochures then maybe we could get in before it became too popular.
Les Sybelles is a new ski region. It consists of four French alpine villages, St Sorlin d'Arves, La Toussuire, Le Corbier and St Colomban des Villards which, in their own right have been popular with French skiers for many years. However, to break into the Big Time they realised that they would need to settle their local rivalries and band together in order to challenge the Big Boys the likes of Les Trois Vallees, Les Portes du Soleil and Les Arcs.
In previous years each of these villages were essentially self-contained with very little communication between them, at least of the kind that enabled skiers to easily reach one from the other. Probably the only practical link was between La Toussuire and Le Corbier.
For beginners that isn't a problem. Each village had a reasonable range of skiing in its own right but for experienced skiers it would become restricting before a week was out.
Last year the villages got together to build the links that would enable visitors to cov
er the entire area from any location. Les Sybelles now advertises 310kms of pistes for prospectives guests. This, however, only tells part of the story. Along with the marked pistes there is also more superb off-piste than anyone has a right to expect.
St Sorlin is where we were based. It is a small French Alpine village though not of the type normally found in the Alps. Most are little communes huddled together in the bowl of a valley.
St Sorlin is strung out along the road that rises up the valley to cross over into the next over a pass that will be very well-known to any Tour de France fans, Le Col de la Croix de Fer (Iron Cross Pass). At this time of year the pass is closed. The French do not bother to clear the pass for road traffic.
The village still contains many of its original buildings although there has been much new development in recent years. Les Fermes de St Sorlin, where we were staying, is right at the very top of the village, just before the road starts its zig-zags up to the top of the pass.
Strictly speaking, Les Fermes de St Sorlin isn't actually in St Sorlin as the "You are leaving St Sorlin" sign is passed before you get to it. It's actually in a district called Les Sybelles, which lends its name to the entire region.
The road is steep even through the village and it's a twenty minute walk down into the centre and a good half hour back. Fortunately there is a free bus service from one end of the village to the other but unfortunately it ends early in the evening. For those venturing down from the top into the centre to visit a restaurant or bar, a long hard walk back is the only option.
The village contains a number of ski shops where
equipment may be bought or hired. There are also a few restaurants, some souvenirs shops and a few convenience stores though only one of these could be considered to be large enough to merit the term supermarket, that one being the one situated within Les Fermes complex where we were staying.
The absence of a real supermarket does mean that choices are limited. We were astounded to find, for instance, that a bottle of Cognac was almost impossible to
obtain. "Too expensive" was the excuse. Too expensive! French brandy, in France! The mind boggles.
Mostly the resort consists of chalets, hotels and apartment complexes. There are also evidently, many private homes, many, I'm sure, holiday second homes.
I have to say that the option to invest in such a property is very tempting. Les Sybelles is not yet well enough known to command the sort of prices for property that could be expected elsewhere in the Alps. However, I have no doubt at all that this area will become the next great ski destination and getting in now on the ground floor would prove to be a good decision.
Les Fermes de St Sorlin
This complex is built at the very highest point overlooking St Sorlin and immediately opposite another complex on the other side of the road called Odalys Les Sybelles, which appears to have been there somewhat longer.
Indeed, Les Fermes is clearly brand new. It is built as around 15 separate chalet-style blocks, each given names in alphabetical order. Our block also had an apartment for disabled guests, though how they would have reached it is a mystery. The only access was either down a flight of steps or over rough ground. I suspect that the rough ground will eventually be concreted over but as it is only able-bodied guest coul
d possibly get in and out.
It soon became clear that we were the first ever occupants of our apartment. The evidence was the incomplete state, lights not working because no bulbs installed, the dishwasher with instruction booklet and sample tablets still unpacked and builders debris on the balcony! However, once fixed and cleared up our accommodation was very enjoyable, benefiting from sun in the mornings and views over the village.
In the Reception block there is also a swimming pool. This is only open from 8 until 12 in the morning and between 4 and 8 in the evening. There is a main pool around 25 metres long alongside which is a children's pool. There are also two jacuzzis.
During our stay, which unfortunately coincided with the French school holidays, the pool was full of kids dive-bombing each other and seeing how many they could pack into the jacuzzis. It totally spoiled the enjoyment of those who simply wanted a relaxing swim after a day on the slopes. We used it once but no more.
There is also a bar and restaurant called Le Kalico. The big surprise that I found there was a beer font serving "Tarantaise Best Bitter". Although a keg, beer it was nevertheless a very good, tasty English style bitter. We also ate there on the night we arrived and enjoyed an excellent Fondue Bourgignan.
On site there is also the supermarket I mentioned before plus a ski shop, a newsagent, a bakers and a regional foods shop. Also here is an office of the French Ski School and somewhere where you can buy the lift passes.
Access to the Choucas piste down to the main lifts is just across the road, along a path that leads to the piste about 100 metres away. Not exactly ski in, ski out but acceptably close.
We found Les Fermes to be a pleasant base for our st
ay but I must admit that if we go back again I would be hopeful that the place is a little more "finished" than it was this time.
There are a few restaurants in St Sorlin but we only tried two.
The star of the village is without doubt La Table de Marie. This is situated towards the top of the village, about 10 minutes walk down from Les Fermes and sited on a hairpin bend.
We enjoyed it so much we ate there twice. On Tuesday evening they hold there Savoyard evening. The meal is set and the main course consists of a very tasty Fondue Savoyarde. We chose a local wine, a Gamay de Chuavagne, which was thin and unbalanced. I have often found the local Savoie wines to be unsatisfactory and over-priced. This one did nothing to dispel the impression. The bill was 52 Euros (£36).
Our second visit was equally enjoyable. This time we chose traditional dishes with wine (a Bugey red) to accompany. On this occasion the bill came to 92 Euros (£63).
On both occasions the service and attention to detail was good. The only complaint is that the ventilation is not always up to the job of removing the fumes from the Fondue pots and the Reblochons ovens. Nevertheless I can recommend this restaurant highly. You must visit at least once.
The only other restaurant we tried was L'Avalanche Pizzaria. Actually, it does more than just pizza, although the pizzas are traditionally cooked on the premises in a wood-fired oven.
This restaurant is also clearly very new and maybe still feeling its feet. Although the food was excellent the service was, once again, very slow. I gained the impression that they were inadequately staffed for the full house that they enjoyed. Hopefully the servic
e will improve with experience. The food could not be faulted in quality or quantity. The bill came to 48 Euros (£33).
Skiing St Sorlin
The full area ski pass is an extremely reasonable £85. This is exceptional value compared with other Alpine resorts and even with the new full area pass for Pas de la Casa and Soldeu in Andorra.
Although it is possible to ski right down to the centre of the village, effectively the starting point for your day's skiing starts about 400 metres up the hill where you will find three ski lifts, two of which will take you up onto St Sorlin's main ski area. Both of these are chair lifts, Plan du Moulin (1 on the piste map) and La Lauze (2).
The other is a local drag lift - Choucas (4) - which is great for beginners. It shares its name with the green run that runs parallel to the valley and enables you to ski from the highest point down to the centre. You can join this piste at various points.
Once you get up onto the main slopes you find exclusively drag lifts. If there is a criticism with St Sorlin and, indeed, with Les Sybelles in general it is the overwhelming preponderance of drag lifts. These are clearly part of the original infrastructure and many are long overdue for upgrade. Having said that, all of the drag lifts were faster than the chair lifts, with the exception of the very newest chair lifts installed last year.
The St Sorlin ski area is very open and consists mostly of red and challenging blue runs. There are just two black runs, Le Mur, a Moguls field and Bartavelle, which was closed throughout our stay. However, this entire area is south-facing and when the weather is sunny, as it was throughout almost our entire stay, skiing there is an absolute delight.
;here are, however, few bars or restaurants on the slopes. There is La Bergerie at the top of the Plan du Moulin (1) chair lift, which we tried and found to be a good place to take a break.
There is also Le Tetras at the foot of Trois Lacs (14) which was far less enjoyable. Apart from the fact that there were no panoramic view, it being located in the valley, the food they served was poor and the toilets unpleasant. I had a dried-up lasagne that had clearly been warmed-over for some time. We didn't go back.
The other was the bar and restaurant of the Hotel La Balme near the foot of the of Blanchard 1 (8) drag lift. This was very nice but somewhat out-of-the-way so we only visited once. However, the hotel would be a very good base, being situated right on the piste.
To go further afield you need to take the next phase of lifts up to La Balme ridge which enables connection via the Trois Lacs (14) chair lift to Les Perrons and from there to the other resorts.
Skiing Les Sybelles
The connection of St Sorlin to the rest of Les Sybelles is enabled by a brand new six man express chair lift - Eau d'Olle (17) - that starts at the bottom of the three mile red run down from Les Perrons.
We never tired of this exhilarating run, despite it being always notably colder that the other ski areas, mainly due to its height (2240 metres). Starting off easily, it threw a number of challenges at you along the way although the marked piste area was always wide enough in the most difficult spots to avoid being truly dangerous.
Eau d'Olle terminates at L'Ouillon (2431 metres), the highest skiable point in Les Sybelles. From here you can reach St Colomban and La Toussuire but
Le Corbier can only be reached after first arriving at La Toussuire. From here also, you return to St Sorlin via the equally enjoyable blue Longe Combe run to the new four-man lift - Petit Perrons (16).
Actually, having said that, Le Corbier can also be reached from St Jean d'Arves lower down the valley from St Sorlin via La Chall (24) chair lift but there is no way to ski to there. You have to take the bus down from St Sorlin.
And this is my biggest criticism of Les Sybelles. The local authorities clearly have ambitions for there region but those plans have not been well thought out. Simply installing a few new ski lifts is all well and good. The problem is that they have not considered the stresses that the increased traffic places on the existing infrastructure. Quite simply, the existing lift systems are generally not up to the load placed on them.
There are a number of critical links between areas that are now severely under pressure. One prime example is the Tete de Bellard (9) drag lift up and out of La Toussuire.
This drag lift is the ONLY way back to St Sorlin and St Colomban. Consequently the queues for this lift starting as early as 2pm in the afternoon were horrendous. Goodness knows how skiers would be expected to get home if it ever broke down, as it will be likely to do at some time, considering its age.
There was a similar potential problem with the two three-man chair lifts - Liason (19) and Envers (12) - between La Toussuire and Le Corbier. These two antiquated lifts bear the entire load between the two resorts.
Indeed, during our stay Liason was being used to transport skiers up AND down due to the lack of adequate snow on the blue Renard r
un down from La Toussuire. This is another example of lack of forethought. This critical piste should have been one of the first to be equipped with snow-cannons.
La Toussuire also owns quite the nastiest drag lift - Grand Truc (15) - it has ever been my misfortune to use. This is sad because it takes you up to Le Grand Truc (2209 metres) from where the views are simply spectacular.
However, once reached, both La Toussuire and Le Corbier ski areas benefit, as with St Sorlin, from south-facing slopes where sunny conditions make skiing a delight. Indeed, we had so much good weather during our stay that some pistes even started to go slushy in the afternoon. Most, however, stayed in more or less perfect condition.
One run you must do is down from Pte du Corbier (2265 metres) above Le Corbier. But, before you do, enjoy the views from the top. They are truly staggering. I stood there for ages, looking and taking photos. That alone made up for all the inconveniences, well, almost.
La Toussuire is the largest of the villages. Here an good balance between the needs of a growing community and the environment. No unduly high-rise accommodation has been built and most consists of chalet style buildings.
We didn't have time to explore the village but it is clear that it does, of the four communities, enjoy the best facilities. Being the centrally located village, it of all of them is probably the best base. This would especially be true for younger skiers looking for a more extensive range of Apres Ski.
Access to La Toussuire from St Sorlin is best achieved via the Grande Verdette red run. This passes close to Les Cygales bar and restaurant which is situated right beside
the piste. This bar has a terrace overlooking the village and does a decent lunch. It also offers accommodation for the independent traveller.
There are several other bars and restaurants on the slopes but we didn't have an opportunity to try them.
Le Corbier is, without a shadow of a doubt, the ugliest Alpine village I have ever seen. Here there has been no restrictions on building styles and so the place is dominated by huge high-rise apartment blocks, some soaring at least 20 stories high. There appears to be no evidence of an original village. The only saving grace is that virtually all the accommodation is right on the pistes.
The front of the buildings that stretch the length of the base of the pistes feature shops, bars and restaurants. Behind the shops runs a covered arcade with even more shops. The only bar we tried was Le Yeti (why is there always a bar called Le Yeti?) where the service was slow but the food reasonable enough.
Up on the slopes above Le Corbier are a couple more restaurants. We tried one, the highest in this area, called Chalet 2000. The views from its terrace were stunning but the service was slow although the food decent enough but the toilet was absolutely disgusting.
We greatly enjoyed our stay at St Sorlin and Les Sybelles. As a ski area it does not yet measure up to the likes of its more famous neighbours in the Alps. However, the potential is enormous.
The biggest problem is the inadequacy of the ski area infrastructure. The creation of new lift systems has actually created more problems than it has solved. The fact that brand new drag lifts have been put in place rather than high speed chair lifts suggests that either the money ran out or that the aut
horities really don't have confidence in their own expansion plans.
I believe that these problems absolutely have to be resolved if the area is to realise its aspirations. As it stands, visitors will become disillusioned if they return to find no improvement.
Having said that, the actual skiing was superb. We only managed to cover about 50% of the pistes. We never made it to St Colomban.
I have rated this resort four stars for its potential and that of Les Sybelles area in general. I would otherwise have only rated it three but I feel that would be an unfair representation.