By Rachel How
What makes the downhill skiing at St-Luc such a joy is the fact that during the week you often literally have the slopes to yourselves. For such a small, idyllic village (there are only two other hotels besides the Bella Tola), St-Luc has an unusually large ski area, so the few skiers there are find they never have to queue for the lifts and rarely have to avoid other people on the runs. It also helps that St-Luc so far remains a well-kept secret – we saw just one other British couple during our stay.
Once you’re kitted up (we had no difficulty hiring equipment from the friendly ski shop 200 metres from the hotel), accessing the skiing is easy – you take the shuttle bus to the funicular station (the energetic could walk it in 5 minutes, but be warned that it’s all uphill) and 5 minutes later you emerge at the start of the drag lifts. I don’t mind drag lifts, but it does mean that you are on your feet all day – if there is one downside to the skiing at St-Luc (and I can only think of one), it is this. Nevertheless, it’s a well organised system that links to neighbouring Chandolin, and we were able to make the most of the fantastic skiing. At lunchtime, we would head to one of the huts, where you can choose from filling dishes such as onion soup, rösti, toast with egg and ham or goulash soup. (As a treat on the last day, we skied down an idyllic 2-kilometre run to a hut well known locally for its fondue, which I can confirm is delicious – all the more so when washed down with a bottle of chilled Fendant wine, the local tipple.) After relaxing on the terrace for a little while, we would then return to the slopes and ski until the late afternoon. This meant that we missed afternoon tea at the hotel (complimentary Tarte Tatin is served at 5pm each day) but we discovered that at the bottom of the superb (and surprisingly slush-free) 7-kilometre run to St-Luc is a cosy bar, where we got into the habit of stopping for a refreshing beer (definitely to be recommended!) before catching the shuttle bus back to the hotel.
While there is a wide enough range of slopes for beginners and intermediates at St-Luc to ensure a varied week of skiing without venturing further afield, as more advanced skiers, we were tempted by the superb red and black runs at nearby Zinal and Grimentz. Both villages are just a short bus ride away, and their ski areas are covered by the same ski pass as that for St-Luc. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Zinal, it had started snowing, which obviously spoiled it a bit for us, but in better weather the skiing must be really exhilarating. We had better luck a couple of days later at Grimentz. Here, the vertical range is greater, so most slopes are very long, making for some excellent skiing. It was slightly busier than we had grown accustomed to (though still nowhere near as crowded as the well-known resorts), so it was a pleasant contrast to return to St-Luc.
The 4-star Romantik Hotel Bella Tola makes a fantastic base. It is both elegant and stylish, with lots of lovely furniture and well chosen pictures and ornaments. There is lots of space to relax – in addition to the lounge area on the ground floor, there are a couple of salons upstairs where several guests often gathered to play cards, and there is a superb spa complex, too. The bedrooms (of which there are about thirty) are reasonably large, and all face south, with views across the valley to the mountains beyond. The bed was one of the most comfortable that I have ever slept in. In fact, the pillows and duvet were so fluffy that my husband and I joked that it was like sleeping in a cloud! Dinner, a five-course menu with choice, was served in the first-floor restaurant with its polished wooden floors and crisp white linen. My sister, who is vegetarian and used to getting a somewhat raw deal abroad, was amazed to find a separate menu, again with choice. Each evening, a small card on the table would describe a different local wine, and we tended to go along with their suggestion. Half way through the week, all the guests gathered round one long table for a raclette. It may be a simple idea – strong local cheese served with boiled potatoes and gherkin – but genuine raclette really is fantastic.
The high standard of the food and accommodation make it a lovely hotel, but what makes it such a special place is the hospitality and attentiveness of hosts Claude and Anne-Françoise. Claude was particularly helpful, and has the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. (And we certainly saw it a lot during our stay – I would go as far as saying that he simply never seems to stop smiling.) So would I go back? Yes, definitely – in the words of my sister, it’s the loveliest place in the world (and the skiing is great, too!).