WHEN you get to the top of the highest peaks and take a look across the vast white landscape that is the World’s largest ski area – The Trois Vallees – it is hard to believe that’s it’s been created in little more than a generation or two.

Turn the clock back to the 1950s and families in the largest of the three valleys – the Belleville – lived simple, often hard lives.

A visit to the new museum at St Martin de Belleville gives a fascinating insight into a lifestyle long gone. It was time when families headed to the hills in spring and summer with their livestock and stayed in “montagnettes” – small, basic dwellings – and then headed back to the valley floors in winter.

While the winter temperatures dropped into minus figures and the snow fell, the families would share their living quarters with the cattle and the workhorse donkey to take advantage of the warmth.
People eked out a living by making cheese and selling livestock, such as goats. One elderly farmer recalls: “Traditionally, the mountains produced Beaufort. We used to leave for Maurienne to sell the cheeses, each weighed 50 to 60 kilos. We went several times during the course of a summer. We had 15 to 17 cows and a few goats.”

People’s lives may have seemed idyllic to the outsider, but villagers were becoming disillusioned and were worried for the future. There were fears the valleys would become a wilderness as people left, seeking better lives.

The authorities recognised something had to be done to revitalise the region and it was argued that the answer was to latch on to a growing new tourism trade - skiing.
Men with vision realised the time had come to create what was to become the largest ski area the World had ever seen.

They set about overcoming the seemingly impossible challenge of developing three international ski resorts at high altitude – Les Menuires (1800m), Val Thorens (1800m) and Saint-Martin (1400).
The book “Portrait of an Alpine Valley” describes their creation as “an epic adventure covering a 30-year period from 1955 to 1985”.

Despite people working in often treacherous conditions, the first structures began to grow out of the landscape. The first electricity and running water arrived in homes in the Belleville valley in 1953.
The first skiers arrived in the winter of 1963/64 and were taken up the mountain by three chairlifts.

A publicity poster of the day proudly boasted: “Une station sportive – Les Menuires – altitude 1800m. 1963: Ouverture du premier teleski.” A cartoon character skier is shown being hoisted up the mountain on a draglift.

A black and white photograph captures the first apartment block in Les Menuires being built. An advertisement hoarding reads: “Un centre commercial – 25 boutiques. 200 studios et appartements. Prix – 22,000 a 98,000 frs.”

Les Menuires was officially opened at Christmas 1967. Four years later, the link with Meribel marked the real beginning of the Trois Vallees.

Higher up the valley, work began on Val Thorens in 1971 when the first diggers moved in at an altitude of 2300m. By 1972, six new lifts and the first buildings were completed. The Val Thorens-Maurienne link finally opened in January 1996.

It seems odd when you look at these major resorts today and realise that only a few decades ago they were just ideas in people’s heads and a few squiggles on paper.
But the move into the winter ski market signalled the end of the exodus of families from the valley.

It’s reported that, by the 1950s, the Belleville Valley had lost two-thirds of its population and was down to just over 1,000 in 1960.

Today, the valley has more than 3,000 permanent inhabitants with the majority earning a living through skiing – whether as ski instructors or pisteurs, or working in the many hotels, bars and shops.

The valley’s future is no longer on a slippery slope.

Judging by the speed at which the Belleville Valley ski resorts were created, it was inevitable the designs would come in for criticism.

While Saint-Martin has maintained its beautiful village charm, Les Menuires’ architecture has had more than its fair share of critics.

But steps are being taken to smarten up the resort and upgrade the accommodation.

One of the old, towering apartment blocks has gone and attractive chalets built. The tourist office no longer handles bookings for one ibex star rated accommodation – as a way of encouraging owners to take up grants to upgrade their lets. Pressure is being put on to persuade people to upgrade to at least two to three ibex standard.

Les Menuires is a great, reasonably-priced, family resort, which boasts friendly ski schools and an almost new leisure centre with pool, plus loads more activities aimed at youngsters.
The resort also has an early booking discount system – simpy, the earlier you book, the cheaper it gets.

Les Menuires does have a real mix of accommodation – apartments, chalets and hotels of various ratings – with real pearls such as the three-year-old, ski-in ski-out Kaya Chalet, which richly deserves its four stars.

A beautifully designed hotel, it has rooms and suites of various sizes, plus a magical spa with sauna and pool. A real pampering sessions awaits. And the food, yes that is something special, too.

Down in Saint-Martin, you will find a traditional alpine village with a lift system, which whisks you into the main ski area.

Stone buildings give clues to the village’s simple farming past, but there is also a good mix of accommodation and restaurants – ideal for those wanting to holiday at a more leisurely pace.
The village boasts a very special gem – the two star Michelin restaurant Le Bouitte.

Run by Rene Meilleur and his son Maxime, it offers not only a memorable meal, which will tantalise the taste buds, but also very special surroundings. It’s a real Hansel and Gretel alpine building made of traditional wood and stone. It also has individually decorated accommodation, which look as though they have come straight out of a fairy tale, plus spa facilities.

Dining at the restaurant is a special affair. I enjoyed a three-hour, eight-course meal with four different Savoie wines specially chosen by the sommelier.

The appetiser was a black slate holding various glass shapes, containing a cheese emulsion, artichokes and pigs’ trotters, langoustine veloute, crème brulee with fois gras and finished off with a mouthwash of green lentil water.

Other courses included: a farmhouse egg with grated smoked trout and mushroom tea; langoustine cooked on a hot stone with rice and vegetable ‘coal’; duck fois gras with a julienne of black radish, green shoots, and oven-baked filet of lamb with chard gratin and tyme infusion.

My desert was entitled “Enchanted Forest” and comprised nut crème brulee, chocolate powder, crumble, brioche and blueberry sorbet. An absolute work of art, it “painted” a forest scene, which was rounded off by a small Christmas tree made out of dark chocolate – almost too good to eat.

With just a handful of two star Michelin restaurants in the French Alps, it’s the kind of treat you deserve on holiday. It’s not cheap, but it is an amazing experience. And, I suppose, it puts down a marker of how far the whole ski area has come from its humble days.

Yes, Les Menuires and Saint-Martin have climbed from the low days, when people were leaving in droves, to become part of the World’s largest ski area. Give it a try.

The skiing was always great, but the place is getting better all the time.

Factfile:
St Martin :
Resort opens December 12 to April 25.
Tourist office – www.st-martin-belleville.com
Resort height – 1,400m

Le Bouitte – www.la-bouitte.com
Les Menuires:
Resort opens December 5 to April 25.
Tourist office – www.lesmenuires.com
Resort height – 1,800m
Highest lift 3,200m
Total pistes – 600km
Nursery areas – three
Pistes: beg/inter/adv – 121/114/33

Hotel Kaya – www.hotel-kaya.com