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The Chamonix Valley, an hour’s drive along the Autoroute Blanche from Geneva, is arguably the world’s best-known ski destination. Tourists have been coming since 1741; it hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and in 1955 debuted what was the world’s highest cable car. Today the valley attracts more than 2.5m visitors annually, and every winter is the setting for numerous ski movies, World Cup races and extreme skiing competitions.
So strong is Chamonix’s draw, in fact, that most foreign skiers wouldn’t dream of turning off the autoroute a few miles before it. The few who do so will find themselves at the gateway to another valley, the Giffre, a place overlooked by ski movies, forgotten by mainstream tour operators and distinctly in the shadow of its celebrated neighbour. Which is just how its devotees like it.
Driving along the floor of the valley, beside the River Giffre, the first resort you come to is Morillon. “Resort” is scarcely the right word – Morillon has just two hotels (Chamonix has at least 60), a pizzeria and a couple of bars. On the main street, halfway between the ski lift and the church, a sign outside a farmhouse advertises “chickens, eggs and rabbits for sale”. It’s quiet, an unfashionable backwater of the ski world, liveliest on a Wednesday evening, when the street is taken over with stalls selling cheese, sausages and wine.
Morillon is not really pretty – a long way from the chocolate-box villages of Switzerland – and it’s low, just 680m above sea level (meaning that precipitation might well fall as rain rather than fluffy snowflakes). But this is real rural France; it’s cheap even in high season, great for children – and that lift takes you up into the Grand Massif, a ski area linking five resorts and giving access to 254km of pistes – 81km more than Chamonix itself.
A few minutes’ drive further along the Giffre is Samoëns, a large, characterful village that traces its history to the 12th century. It is proud of its award-winning chocolate shop, alpine flower garden and le gros tilleul, a 575-year-old lime tree which forms the centrepiece of the square. Here, après-ski isn’t downing shots and dancing on tables but a slice of cake and a stroll through the pretty winding lanes, pausing to look at the puppet shop and the numerous sculptures that are testament to the village’s centuries-old tradition of stone masonry. The hot ticket here is a table at La Fandioleuse, a tiny restaurant in a 16th-century building, where gourmet crêpes are washed down with bowls of fine Breton cider.
It’s a gentle, family-friendly place but, like Morillon, it has a lift that connects up into the Grand Massif, offering skiing to satisfy hardcore off-piste enthusiasts just as much as children.
Just like the Chamonix Valley to the south, the Giffre stretches on towards the Swiss border. But whereas the Chamonix road continues over a pass into Switzerland, ensuring a constant flow of traffic, the Giffre ends in a dramatic dead end, the Fer-à-Cheval (“horseshoe”) – a semicircular wall of rock up to 700m high. In summer, when some 30 waterfalls pour from the cliffs, it’s a popular tourist attraction but in winter Sixt, the final village in the valley, feels cut-off and serene. There are just a couple of restaurants (including the excellent new Le 27), some nursery slopes, a medieval abbey and a handful of chalets to rent, spread out around the surrounding fields.
The drawback is that to get up into the Grand Massif you need to drive or take the bus back to the lift at Samoëns. The reward, though, comes at the end of the day: you ride the lifts to the highest point of the ski area, above the modern resort of Flaine, where you enjoy views of Mont Blanc. From there you take the Piste des Cascades, a 14km blue run – the longest in the Alps – that weaves down an empty valley, past forests and waterfalls, until it ends beside a tiny bar on the outskirts of Sixt. The nightclubs, sushi restaurants and champagne bars of Chamonix are just 15km away, but as the sun sets on the sleepy Giffre Valley, you probably won’t miss them.