Semnoz, France: secret little ski hills

Living up in the skyscraping ski heaven of Chamonix, I’d barely noticed the smatterings of chair lifts, rope tows and occasional gondolas down the valley in the Savoy Prealps, between here and Geneva. Why would I be interested in skiing those foothills?

Semnoz

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Then, one summer, when Chamonix seemed too spiky, serious and touristy, I wanted a contrast so went exploring there, enjoying the way the terrain becomes gentle, rolling and agricultural. Curiosity piqued, I wondered if those mini Prealps would offer a similarly fun contrast to my home slopes in winter.

Research uncovered one lift-pass could access four lesser-known, traditional Savoyarde ski hills down there, all near picturesque Lake Annecy. Perfect! Then I read about quirky little tree-dotted Semnoz. It wasn’t included in the group lift-pass, even though it’s the lake’s nearest ski area; literally on a hill overlooking it.

Semnoz is just two chairlifts and a handful of drags. Something about it caught my eye, but I never expected it would provide one of my favourite ski days last year.

Why did I like it so much? Well, for a start, Semnoz doesn’t need to impress you or me. Annecy, below it, isn’t a ski resort: it’s a thriving, rustic-charming town with its own thing going on. The villages around it are farming communities at heart. In summer, cattle and sheep are grazed on Semnoz. In winter, it’s where local people ski.

Because ski-tourism isn’t required to keep the local economy afloat, Semnoz offers a taste of real skiing and real winter culture before the industry sold out and got samey.

Arriving in Annecy’s Old Town on a crisp evening, there was barely a ski shop in sight. Instead, winter wonderland cliches were trip-hazards round every snow-dusted, medieval corner. Annecy’s nickname, ‘the Venice of the Alps’ is corny but true. It looked like winter as you’ve seen it in rom-coms.

I remember crunching across a snowy park and standing on the Pont des Amours, gazing over this vast, icy lake. Behind us Lake Annecy narrowed to a river and led into town, dreamily reflecting hunched buildings, flower-decked balconies and colourful shutters. The Palais de I’Isle, an 11th-Century prison with fairytale turrets, formed a centre-piece on a little island.

Semnoz, nicknamed ‘Annecy Mountain’, is the town’s lungs. It rises up behind it, on the edge of the Massif du Bauges National Park. Before I get you too excited, I’ll admit the top lift drops you off at 1699m on a rounded hillside and the vertical drop is 250m.

Of course you can’t compare it to Chamonix’s top lift, the Aiguille du Midi, which leaves you teetering on a dramatic needle and snow-ridge more than twice as high – but Semnoz offers something different.

Walking across to the chair lift, there was a chilled-out vibe in the queue of local families, which I rightly-translated as not much competition to ski the untracked off-piste above. I’d never been anywhere you could pay to ski by the hour before. Prices start at 7 € for two hours; I’d paid 9,50 € for six. Beat that for a ski bargain.

Another chair and a drag later, the Cret de l’Aigle proved a perfect-height viewing platform over the bigger mountains all around: Mont Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi, Beaufortain and the Ecrins Massif to name just a few.

Looking around, I reflected that a dump in Chamonix gets chopped up within hours. Below us, meanwhile, there were clearly fresh tracks to be found, even though it hadn’t snowed for several days. Most people were calmly skiing the six red runs, seven greens and five blues. I tried not to look too excited as I edged off the piste onto windblown and chalky off-piste.

The most fun came from skiing powder stashes in the trees. Some passages were tight and testing; others wide, fast and fun with buried features to jump off; then we’d emerge in the sun and blast down to the lift, trying not to draw attention to how much fun we were having. Maybe I’m getting carried away, but something about the place reminded me of skiing trees in Japan.

I probably am getting a bit carried away. Small-ski-town quirkiness is addictive. I’ll certainly be back. I want to try snow-kiting – Semnoz is famous for it – and the world’s only bungee ski jump (another opens at Tignes this winter) at another tiny resort in the region: St Jean De Sixt. You basically ski off a ramp then plummet, leaving your stomach behind, I imagine.

Don’t go to Semnoz for a week, of course not. But if you plan a trip to Chamonix or the Trois Vallees this winter, why not stop-off here on the way?