The Great Beyond: Savoyard Secret

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The Vallée de Belleville is the third valley in France's vast Trois Vallées (Three Valleys) ski area¿the largest inter-linked ski region in the world. Reached by a separate approach road than Courchevel and Meribel, the two more famous valleys in this super-ski kingdom, the traditional Savoyard village of Saint-Martin (pictured above) is the first resort you encounter as you drive up the Belleville Valley. Beyond it are Les Menuires and Val Thorens (the highest ski area in Europe, with a base altitude of 7,546 feet). As recently as 1950, St. Martin, which is the administrative headquarters for the entire valley, had neither running water nor electricity. During the past couple of decades, however, it has more than caught up with the times and is now linked to the Trois Vallées piste and lift network. Today two efficient chairlifts take skiers from the center of the village up to Tougnete summit (8,049 feet), from where there is easy access to the Meribel Valley and the Belleville Valley toward Les Menuires and Val Thorens. The runs back to Saint-Martin make for easy cruising, especially the trail called Jerusalem.

Dominated by its huge Baroque church, Saint-Martin has an Alpine village feel and boasts a remarkably varied selection of small hotels, bars and restaurants, as well as quite a bit of recently constructed self-catering accommodations. Vacations here are on the whole much cheaper and quieter than those taken in the swankier resorts of Courchevel and Meribel, and provide access to exactly the same amazing ski region. In a good snow winter such as last year, the Trois Vallées can offer skiing all the way down to 4,265 feet and up to glaciers as high as 10,827 feet¿one of the largest vertical drops on the European continent.

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