I’m sitting in an outdoor hot tub on a still-warm early autumn evening in the French Alps. In front of me, up high, clouds drift across the Mont Blanc range and the slopes of Les Houches-Saint Gervais, the other side of which lies the hugely popular mountaineering resort of Chamonix. Behind me, accessed via a lift just minutes away from where I lie, is the Évasion Mont Blanc ski area, which includes the glitzy gastronomic village of Megève.
It sounds like I’m in tourist central, but in fact I’m not. Like the eye of a storm, all is calm in the little village of St Nicolas de Véroce, where my hot tub belongs to the Armancette Hôtel, Chalets & Spa, the village’s new (and only) five-star spa hotel. With its smattering of chalets, Baroque church, épicerie and permanent population of just 250, St Nicolas doesn’t have the glitz of Megève nor the international reputation of Chamonix, and that’s precisely its charm. Spectacularly located up a winding mountain road from Saint Gervais, which has road and rail links to Geneva, Annecy and beyond, it’s both accessible yet pleasingly removed.
Opened in 2019 on the site of a former bakery, it was important to the owners of the Armancette that the hotel fit in. As a result, though built from scratch, its architecture mirrors the chalet style of the rest of the village, and the building includes a new bakery which keeps the locals, as well as hotel guests, in croissants and madeleines. The hotel accommodates just 49 people in 17 rooms, while groups of up to 14 people can hire one of three luxury ski-in, ski-out chalets up the hill. A further property, Mont Joly, is set to open opposite the Armancette in 2021. All this brings new life to the village (and a quality restaurant) but doesn’t swamp the place with tourists, either. And with easy access to two mountain resorts, allowing visitors to sample everything the area has to offer while residing away from the crowds, it’s beginning to look like a canny place to stay – particularly right now.
Of course, hotel stays in the time of Coronavirus aren’t quite as they were. The Armancette has adapted smoothly. Masks must be worn in all communal areas, the mini bar is empty, with items available to order instead, and room service is handed over at the door, rather than staff entering the room. I’m also gifted two masks and a bottle of hand sanitiser, just in case I missed the memo.
Once in my room, it’s thankfully easy to shut away thoughts of COVID-19. The spacious double is contemporary yet in keeping with the chalet feel of the building – ‘modern mountain’, if you will – with rustic wood panelling, muted colours and plain fabrics (cosy touches such as plush throws and rugs have been removed under current hygiene rules). This style flows harmoniously throughout the hotel, though each room has unique elements – padded headboards in different fabrics, quirky light fittings, coloured marbled bathrooms – and the layout varies, with duplexes and family rooms as well as suites on the top floor. The only perplexing thing about my room is the digital Japanese-style toilet, which springs to life unbidden, the toilet lid automatically lifting every time I step into the bathroom. Its remote-controlled bottom washing facility is a luxury too far for me – but some guests may appreciate it.
Much more welcome is the large spa and outdoor pool. Massages and hot tubs are thankfully still permitted in Covid times, though the sauna and steam room are shut for now. With mountain views from the pool, it’s a wonderful place to while away the time before dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, La Table d’Armante. Designed by Michelin starred French chef Antoine Westermann and prepared in an open kitchen, the food focuses on local, seasonal ingredients (there’s an emphasis on mushrooms during my autumnal stay), with accompanying wines recommended by the sommelier. A brasserie with a more relaxed vibe (and most probably lower prices) is due to expand the hotel’s food offering when the Mont Joly building opens in 2021.
The next day I head up the mountains I’ve been gazing at. Hiking is, of course, a hugely popular activity in these parts, with the most intrepid tackling the 170km multi-day Tour du Mont Blanc hike, or even climbing to the summit of the famous white mountain itself, the highest peak in the Alps. But thankfully there is an easier option. Built in 1909, the Tramway du Mont Blanc takes visitors from Saint Gervais to the foot of the Bionnassay glacier in about an hour. Stops along the way give access to hiking routes and, in winter, the slopes of Les Houches-Saint-Gervais, but the top station – the Nid d’Aigle (eagle’s nest) is the railway’s crowning achievement, allowing anyone able to walk for 15 minutes the privilege of standing in the shadow of the Aiguille de Bionnassay mountain and its glacier. Set off the minute you jump off the train and you might have a precious few minutes alone there, too.
The tramway is set for major refurbishment in the next few years, with a new top station due to be built at the end of a slightly extended line. It’s a sign that, despite all the upheaval in the travel industry in 2020, optimism remains that crowds will flock back to tourist attractions like these once Covid is – hopefully – manageable or in the past. And when they do, a luxury hotel in a small village expertly perched between two larger resorts seems like the perfect place to stay.
Armancette Hôtel, Chalets & Spa, 4088, route de Saint Nicolas, 74170 Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, Haute-Savoie, France.
Tel: +33 (0)450 786 600
The hotel is a 15-minute drive (by car or hotel shuttle bus) from Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains, for trains to Geneva.
Type of Hotel: 5 Star Hotel
Number of Rooms: The hotel has 17 rooms including complimentary Wi-Fi.
Price Band: Medium to high, with prices starting at €390 for a double room including breakfast for two.
Insider Tip: Pick up fresh pastries from the on-site bakery to take on a day trip.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
Caroline Bishop is a freelance journalist who swapped city life in London for outdoor adventures in Switzerland where she writes about travel, food and culture. Her debut novel, The Other Daughter, which is partly set in Switzerland, will be published in February 2021.
Photographs courtesy of Armancette Hôtel