Category Archives: France

5 great reasons to spend your summer holiday in the mountains

1. Get active…
Instead of lazing on a crowded beach, discover lots of fun activities for the whole family to enjoy (and they’re free).

Le Lac de Tignes, canoes

Tignes is a great place to go if you love trying different activities. The SPORTIGNES card, free from your accommodation provider, gives you access to a huge variety of sports and activities, including tennis, trampolines, water jumps, archery, beach volley etc. You also get two entries to the Lagon swimming pool, one entry to the mini-golf, one to the multimedia centre plus free use of chairlifts for walkers. There’s also a weekly programme of events with music, contests and demonstrations.

Even if you’re not sporty, there’s plenty to see around the lake, not least a gentle stroll around the circumference, with picnic areas and restaurants along the way. Oh, and a renowned golf course.

2. Pull on your boots and go for a real walk…
There are well-signed trails for all abilities, including long-distance routes for experienced walkers (with mountain refuges for overnight stops).

Beaufortain, mountain view Areches The Beaufortain walking tour would delight anyone who adores Savoyard picture-postcard chalets and lush Alpine pastures, turquoise blue lakes, flower-filled meadows and herds of cows, bells-a-tinkling… a timeless image of the Alps. Join a guided tour with an experienced leader for an unforgettable Alpine holiday.

3. Let the train (and the tram) take the strain…
It’s easy to travel to the Alps by train from the UK, but the Tramway du Mont Blanc will take you to the top of the mountain too.

Tramway Mont BlancIn summer the world-famous mountain tramway remains as sensational as when it opened in 1913, and climbs all the way to the Nid d’Aigle (2380m), an epic journey of around 1hr 15min. There are two main departure points – Le Fayet and Saint-Gervais, with six stops en route, enabling walkers to follow varied signed itineraries.

4. Fnd out what a mountain bike is really for…
There are testing downhill trails where you can seek white-knuckle thrills in most Alpine resorts, with chairlifts specially adapted to take you and your bike to the summit. Those of a gentler disposition can enjoy cycling in stunning scenery around Les Saisies in the Val d’Arly where a bike-carrying bus service transports you back to the village.

Mountain-biking, Les Saisies,  Val d'Arly5. Discover real Grand Touring…
The scenic Route des Grandes Alpes runs for 684km from Lac Léman to the Mediterranean – an amazing Alpine experience, including many of the classic climbs and descents made world-famous by the Tour de France.

Lac de Roselend, Beaufortain

The Route des Alpes, as it was originally known, was conceived by the Touring Club de France in 1911, and during the 1920s soon became one of Europe’s most celebrated touring itineraries. The Route was finally completed in July 1937, with the opening of the 2770m Col de l’Iséran, the highest pass in Europe. Col de l’Iséran isn’t opened until early June and many Cols will close after the first snowfalls in October so plan your journey accordingly.

Summer Walk: Sainte-Foy Tarentaise to Le Monal.

Side view of chalet-style apartment developments in Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise, with La Rosière visible on the mountain side beyond.

This worthwhile walk begins at an altitude of 1550m in the ski village of Sainte Foy Tarentaise (above), which has a generous  visitor parking area which is signed as you enter the village. Clearly visible in the distance is the neighbouring ski village of La Rosière. The departure point for the start of the walk is indicated not far above the parking area by a rustic painted sign.

MP-Saint-Foy-Tarentaise-28558The initial gradient is quite steep but soon settles into a more or less steady climb through pine and larch forest, with occasional glimpses of the mountains – the ski areas of Villaroger and Les Arcs lie just across the valley. So far there’s plenty of shade to keep things pleasantly cool on a sunny day, and you’ll have the sound of birdsong for company.

Keep going eventually after a few steeper zigzags the path leaves the forest beside a much smaller unsurfaced parking area. This can be reached by car by following the road through St Foy and turning right above the main ski village onto a winding mountain track, although there’s no guarantee of finding a vacant parking space at the top – and of course by doing it this way you’ll miss the magical, near-silent world of the lower forest section.

MP-Saint-Foy-Tarentaise-28559

From here things open up and the path broadens into a track cut into the mountainside. For now the dense forest still hides the views, but bursts of wildflowers hint at what might lie ahead.

Sure enough, before long the gradient eases, levels off and then begins a gentle descent. Visible in the distance are the rooftops  of a tiny hamlet set among mountain pastures, although what really focuses the attention are the long-anticipated views which have suddenly opened up across the Haute Tarentaise valley.

MP-Le Monal-28562

Ahead, tucked away out of sight in a valley below a hydro-electric barrage is the village of Les Brevières and beyond it the world-famous ski area of the Espace Killy, shared between Tignes and Val d’Isère. For walkers it’s a rich reward for the climb from Saint Foy, and at the approach to the hamlet is another, in the form of an opportunity to fill a water bottle from a refreshingly cool mountain spring signed as ‘eau potable‘.

MP-Saint-Foy-Tarentaise-28571

The hamlet looks and feels in every respect like an idyllic spot far removed from worldly concerns, but in winter the sense of remoteness is heightened, to the point where getting here after heavy snowfalls means making a rather longer trudge up from the ski village in snowshoes. We know exactly how much more physically demanding that can be, because we’ve done it ourselves – but there again the sense of achievement is correspondingly greater.

Beyond the hamlet the track continues its gentle descent and briefly enters a wooded area. After curving to cross a fast-moving stream strewn with boulders. In fact, this is more than no mere stream but turns out to be the Ruisseau du Clou river, which now flows alongside the path for a while, before making a steep descent into the valley far below.

Wide view of shallow valley with mountain stream beside footpath.

Once across the river the track enters a sheltered valley setting, with more coniferous plantations beyond pastures which are ablaze with wildflowers during our mid-July visit.

Visitors walking towards the village, showing the beauty of the mountain landscape.

A few minutes later, after a couple of lazy, sweeping arcs, the track passes between rows of upturned stones and passes a tiny limewashed chapel set beside a huge boulder. Visible behind it are two huddles of stone chalets roofed, as is the local tradition, with flat riverbed stones known as ‘lauze’. Welcome to Le Monal.

Tiny chapel, with chalets behind, in a sheltered clearing with trees and mountainsides.

Even in summer there’s a refreshing sense of remoteness here, a quality which means that things shut down completely soon after the first snowfalls of winter begin to make things impractical for habitation. For now, though, it’s a magical and privileged location.

Cottage garden with chalte and snow-capped mountains

That thought is not lost on the fortunate chalet owners, who manage to pack a lot into the brief summer period, including some cheerful cottage-style gardens and productive vegetable beds. While you’re here you can picnic or enjoy a drink or meal in a choice of two cafes, while resting your feet for the return trek and taking in the dazzling scenery.

Exterior of chalet-style cafe, showing larch roof timbers and restored stonework.

As you’ll discover if you decide to follow this path, the route itself is every bit as enjoyable as the destination, and serves up a succession of varied landscapes destined to change forever the perceptions of anyone who has yet to fall in love with the mountains in summer.

Return walk, showing track, river and conifer forests.

A final bonus is the sight of Sainte-Foy Tarentaise as most skiers will never have seen it, resplendent in summer mode. It’s the kind of revelation which draws us back to places we’ve come to love as skiers, and which have inspired a desire to discover the mellower side of their dual personalities. We’ve yet to be disappointed.

Stone chalets in the heart of the ski village, with summer flower displays and a mountain backdrop.

Puy Saint-Vincent: don’t tell everyone…

Skier on piste with Puy Saint-Vincent 1600 visible below
Even the highest pistes filter safely back onto sheltered tree-lined return runs.

Why do I love skiing in France – apart, obviously, from having some of the world’s greatest mountain terrain from which to choose? Well, after having visited around fifty French ski resorts (and counting) I’m still surprised at what I discover along the way. A couple of seasons ago we decided to head over to the Southern French Alps, to discover just what most mainstream skiers, who tend to set their sights rather further north, might be missing. Great snowfalls, clear blue skies and unpressured pistes were just some of the things which bowled us over and convinced us that we’d stumbled upon a huge but relatively undiscovered area which deserves to be much better known among leisure skiers.

Places like La Joue du Loup, Superdévoluy, Pra Loup, Foux d’Allos, Les Orres, Orcières, Vars, Risoul, Montgenèvre and Serre Chevalier all revealed to us their own distinct characters, and we’d still only scratched the surface. Obviously it’s just not possible to press on and do it all at once (but we can dream..) and in any case we try to maintain a balance in our resort review coverage. So our first trip of this season would take in just two ski visits in the Hautes-Alpes area: one involved returning to complete unfinished business in Serre Chevalier, and the other would take us to somewhere much smaller nearby, and which had so far eluded us.

The phrase “small is beautiful” could have been penned with Puy Saint-Vincent in mind. The original village, clinging to the sides of a deep valley, is nothing if not authentic, with centuries’-old chalets at every turn. Continue up to the ski villages at 1400, 1600 and 1800m altitude, however, and things begin to look more like a serious ski resort should. Even so, first impressions give little hint of the vertical drop on offer: 1350m or around 4430ft, much of it below the tree-line, where safe glade-skiing opportunities beckon among silent larch and pine forests.
True, the lower villages have much of their accommodation in large units, but in their respective settings they’re not unattractive. Skiers staying in the 1800 village, though, have not only chalet-style architecture but also the welcome bonus of ski-in/ski-out convenience.

We enjoyed our time here, as you’ll see just as soon as our full Resort Review goes live. For now, though, I’ll merely say that while big-league Serre Chevalier grabs all the media attention, its near-neighbour Puy Saint-Vincent quietly gets on with offering great, high-value skiing in a truly beautiful setting…

Our base in Puy Saint-Vincent 1800 was a cosy piste-side apartment in La Dame Blanche, for which we thank SARA and our friends at French Ski Specialists Ski Collection.

Skiing another side of Serre Chevalier…

Skier on piste above mountain backdrop
The Parc National des Ecrins creates a dramatic backdrop to skiing in Serre Chevalier.

If you’ve seen our Resort Review of Serre Chevalier then you’ll know that although the stats, etc., are all there, my first visit (a great Press Trip kindly hosted by British ski operator Erna Low) had only allowed time to discover part of this vast ski area near Briançon, in the Hautes-Alpes. But I’d already seen more than enough to want to get back as soon as possible and see just what else I’d missed.

It took awhile, but a few days ago we finally drove cautiously over the windswept Col du Lauteret (freshly reopened after the huge snowfalls which had swept in during our stay in l’Alpe d’Huez) and dropped down through le Monêtier-les-Bains to the village of Chantemerle.

I’ll recount the story in more detail in our forthcoming update of the Review on mountainpassions.com , but I can tell you that we’re more than glad we came. Snow conditions had held up well, thanks to low temperatures, as we joined both new arrivals and locals alike and headed up the mountain for our own Ski Sunday. Nothing compares to being there, with the wind in your hair and the skis running smoothly beneath your feet.

Our plan was simple: head up above Chantemerle and work our way westwards across to the sector above Briançon. Getting around proved equally straightforward, thanks to clear new signage and a capable modern lift system. There’s even a smartphone app (for both iOS and Android, for once) to help you find your way, map your progress and more besides.

As it turned out, our route would be influenced by the steadily-strengthening winds blowing in from the southeast (Provence and le Mistral are not far away) which discouraged us from hanging around on higher, more exposed sections – just long enough to shoot some images of the literally breathtaking panoramas spread enticingly before us. So, while the weather held we took a bracing plunge down to join Le Chemin, a Green-graded cruise (one of the best scenic runs we can recall) all the way round to the Prorel gondola lift which hauls skiers smoothly up from one of our favourite French towns. So before heading back up and working our way back to Chantemerle we enjoyed the perfect overview during a relaxed lunch from the sun terrace of the Pré Loup restaurant, right beside the lift mid-station.

Our base in Chantemerle was a spacious 4* apartment in the Résidence L‘Adret, for which we thank our good friends at Ski Specialists Peak Retreats.

Epic snowfalls in l’Alpe d’Huez

View of exterior after heavy overnight snowfalls
The accumulations of twenty-four hours' snowfalls make the Cristal de l'Alpe an even more handsome addition to the heart of l'Alpe d'Huez.

If anyone tries to tell you that this season’s snowfalls in the French Alps are less than gratifying just point them at the live images from the various webcams dotted around les Grandes-Rousses (Isère). In fact, conditions were already good when arrived in the major-league ski station of l’Alpe d’Huez to fulfil an invitation to join the press launch of MGM Constructeur’s latest creation: the Cristal de l’Alpe. Both the elegant new self-catering apartment development and its high-altitude setting looked a picture beneath the kind of cloudless skies which tell skiing photographers to make the most of conditions while they can.

So it was that we climbed aboard the cable-car and headed up to the windswept summit of the Pic Blanc to take in the surroundings from a heady 3320m. The Pic also provided us and a steady stream of other like-minded skiers with the launch-point for a truly unforgettable run on the legendary Sarenne piste. Sixteen km and almost 2,000m of vertical drop later, we cruised through the Gorges de la Sarenne with a sense of considerable  achievement. I’ll describe the adventure in more detail in due course, but in the meantime I can look at the images we shot along the way, in perfect conditions, to confirm that we really did do it.

Why? Because the following day things changed dramatically, as a weather front moved in, bringing with it heavy and sustained snowfalls for the next twenty-four hours or so. Needless to say, Sarenne closed while the grooming crews prioritised the more-frequented terrain closer to the village. So, a classic case of ‘use it before you lose it…’

Oz-en-Oisans: a heart of pure snow…

You can walk peacefully or even ski through the car-free heart of Oz-en-Oisans.

There’s something very special about ski resorts through which you can ski, rather than drive. In Oz cars are parked discretely out of sight, leaving the the village blissfully uncluttered and free to do what it does best: look good and provide a very pleasant base for skiers keen to explore the huge ski area around l’Alpe d’Huez.

It owes much of its attractive appearance to the fact that it developed after the initial wave of purpose-built ski village construction, which means, among other things, that the scale of chalet-style apartment accommodation is reassuringly human. Then there’s the odd colourful touch here and there, creating an ambiance which puts us in mind of better-looking Canadian resorts like Tremblant or Sun Peaks. The similarities are reinforced by plentiful tree-planting on the surrounding mountainsides.

Which brings us to the skiing. A couple of small draglifts serve one of the safest and most centrally-located debutante areas we’ve seen, but heading up the mountain is a civilized affair, with a choice of two high-capacity gondola lifts. Whichever one you choose, the ride will be steep and the views satisfyingly dramatic. When you finally emerge the possibilities in this huge ski area are near-limitless, despite which getting around is refreshingly straightforward (you’ll struggle to get lost here).

Which isn’t to say that the local runs aren’t well worth exploring. When you do you’ll find the Blue- or Red-graded return plunges back to the village stimulating, with a few steeps here and there if you want them (we did, and had a great time powering our way down determinedly). And since the valley is deep the morning and afternoon shade helps preserve the snow cover and quality.

Downsides? None. really, unless you’re a party animal (in which case you’ll already be in ‘Alpe d’Huez), apart from a puzzling lack of free wifi access points in the bars (even the Tourist Office network carries a charge). All in all, a solid choice for family skiers.

We stayed in a self-catering apartment at the Chalet des Neiges – our  thanks to our good friends at award-winning ski operator Peak Retreats: www.peakretreats.co.uk

Vaujany: the model French ski resort?

Skiing back to Vaujany on Chalets piste.

Why haven’t we been here before...?” I have a feeling we won’t be the only ones asking themselves just that question as they begin to look around and get their bearings in this relatively little-known corner of the French Alps. It also occurs to me that if any ski resort Directors out there are searching for inspiration as to how best to create a great first impression, they could do a lot worse than look right here.

How does ample free underground car parking for visitors sound? Pretty good, to anyone who has had no choice but to fork out for the exorbitant parking fees often charged elsewhere – we know exactly who does this, and so do you.

Okay, how about discretely-sited escalators to get between different levels in the resort? After all, if you’re in a ski resort then there’s a good chance that you’ll be clumping around in ski-boots, wouldn’t you think? An escalator or two makes life off the snow a whole lot more bearable. Touches like these tell you that the commune of Vaujany not only understands the needs of its visitors but has catered for them. That’s what I call a welcome – the kind you’ll appreciate during every day of your stay here, and which is likely to draw you back again for more.

So, what about the skiing? Speedy access to the near-endless terrain of Alpe d’Huez is a tempting prospect, but until we came we, like everyone else, imagined that to ski here meant taking a giant cable-car up and down the mountain. In fact, that’s only partly true; right now good skiers can ski back down again on a Black-graded piste, and soon there will be a less-challenging descent for intermediates, too. And there’s already plenty of skiing for all levels closer at hand in the Montfrais area (which for some reason is regarded locally as being a beginner area). And all you need to do is hop aboard a high-speed gondola lift which even has a mid-station to pick up those who want to ski back down on Vaujaniate – a beautiful larch-lined cruising piste.

Sadly we’ve now moved on, particularly so as it meant leaving the 5* comforts of our apartment at the Grenier de Germain – heartfelt thanks to our good friends at award-winning ski operator Peak Retreats: www.peakretreats.co.uk

On the upside, our transfer this morning took us just along the valley to Oz-en-Oisans, where first impressions are encouraging, to say the least…