Friday 30 September 2016

Les Aravis, French Alps: Mountains of Alpine beauty

Summer in the Alps

Constance Harris

Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30

The hills are alive: La Clusaz, Haute-Savoie, France. In the winter the peaks are covered in snow, in summer wild flowers and greenery are abundant.
The hills are alive: La Clusaz, Haute-Savoie, France. In the winter the peaks are covered in snow, in summer wild flowers and greenery are abundant.
One of the group enjoying the 'via ferrata' mountain climb.

Constance Harris returns to the French Alps for a summer adventure.

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A good while ago, I went on a ski trip in Les Aravis range of mountains, which rest between the Haute-Savoie and Mont Blanc, in the French Alps.

Though skiing and I did not go together, I snow-shoed and fell in love with its mountains and streams, wild-life and big moonlit nights. My ultimate experience there, and one I will remember till the day I die, was a dog sleigh ride through mountains and forest. It was mystical and magical.

On that trip to the Lake Annecy region, which takes in La Clusaz and Le Grand-Bornand, we enjoyed the most fabulous local cuisine and met such interesting and lovely local people, I promised myself I would return.

Last year, I finally did. I can confirm that the mountains are even more stunning and that there is lots more to enjoy on them.

What were awesome peaks covered in snow in the winter, were in summer stunning green pastures with rocky tops, abundant in unique wild flowers and dairy cattle. The only sounds were the cow's bells softly clanking as they swayed their way up the mountainside in search of fresh grass, or the odd bee on the hunt for nectar.

One of the group enjoying the 'via ferrata' mountain climb.
One of the group enjoying the 'via ferrata' mountain climb.

I flew with Aer Lingus into Geneva airport, where I met the group I was travelling with. We collected a hire car and then drove for about two hours into the Alps arriving at the village of Le Grand-Bornand and our self-catering accommodation at Le Village de Lessy, booked through Peak Retreats, an accommodation specialist for the area.

Le Grand-Bornand is one of the least developed ski resorts in the region, which is probably why I like it. That night, we walked down the mountain and ate its size again in gorgeous food made by the couple that run the restaurant in hotel La Cremaillere (see hotel-la-cremaillere.fr). It was an amazing meal full of local delicacies of wines, meats, cheese and so on.

If you plan on holidaying in the Alps, some research is a very good idea, as well as deciding what level of activity you want to do. We discovered there are local festivals all over the region, including a children's one, and tons of activities. Websites such as en.frances-montagnes.com and lakeannecy-skiresorts.com, should be your first stop. Or Google a local tourist office, as there is one in every village in the Lake Annecy region.

I was travelling with a couple of men who really fancied doing 'via ferrata', a form of rope climbing on mountain faces specific to alpine regions and can be booked at laclusaz@guides-des-aravis.com, or the local tourist office. They absolutely loved it (even those who were a bit scared but did it anyway) and thought it was a great value experience (around €60) for an afternoon's excursion.

I just wanted to get to Restaurant Christainia (see hotel-christiania.fr) as soon as possible for the bang-up nosh I knew was coming. But, do you know, I was envious of the sense of achievement the men had from their via ferrata experience and their great appetites afterwards that were honed to demolish course after course of tasty, locally produced food.

The next day, we explored the area further, visiting La Clusaz and its environs. La Clusaz is a busy small town, with a bank, tourist office, some shops, restaurants, hair and beauty salons. The day was hot so we decided to take a dip in the local pool, which was in the open air and had several pools. Here we met most of the town's teenagers and discovered that the changing rooms were unisex and men had to wear Speedo-like swim shorts. As the eyes goggled, the mind boggled.

A highpoint of our trip was a night spent outside on the mountain, sleeping in a tipi; see compagnie-guides-aravis.com for booking. Our guide was local and answered all our questions as we walked up the mountain to our tipi. As the sun set, people wandered off through fields of wild flowers that reached as high as our chests. With not even cattle here, it was utterly quiet, just big sky and big land.

In the morning, we rose with the sunrise and enjoyed the myriad colours that dawn can bring. Once packed up, we walked down the mountain and stopped at a farm and breakfasted in their garden. We tucked into home-made-by-our-hosts bread, cheese and jams, enjoying one of the best views in the world.

From a totally rustic experience we then went to the opposite end of the scale and spent two days in Megeve, an exclusive small town near the foot of Mont Blanc. Made famous by the Rothschilds, who holidayed here in the early 1900s, Megeve has gastronomique experiences to thrill the most ardent gourmet. Its clothing shops carried labels we don't see in Ireland, they are so costly.

Of course, I loved Megeve. It was so absolutely AbFab; one could enjoy urban sophistication and have the Alps on your doorstep.

Megeve is a different sort of Alpine experience. Walking paths in the mountains are well laid out with surfacing on them which is easier on the knees. It has an exclusive golf club, though the restaurant is open to the public. It has the most incredible municipal sports centre. All round, Megeve was the business.

We stayed in the Hotel Au Vieux, a friendly hotel with its own pool in the heart of the town, which was ideal. We did two guided walks organized through guides-megeve.fr. A half-day hike as part of group costs around €15, or €120 for a private walk. We did a fascinating walk with guide Christophe Mongellaz, who was a font of knowledge on plants and animals. To book a guided walk with Christophe, email mongellaz_ch@hotmail.com.

We discovered Megeve had a small airport that specialises in flying people around la Vallee Blanche (Megève Altiport, tel: +33 (0)4 50-21-03-21).Though not keen on small aircraft, I couldn't not fly around Mont Blanc, even if it was to be the site of my death.The flight lasted about 15 minutes and it was amazing. We flew up the French border side of Mont Blanc and were within feet of its shard edges and steep fall.

Our pilot didn't do any loop the loops, just ensured we saw every scary, beautiful, awesome bit of Mont Blanc.

Readers, I lived.

Getting there

Peak Retreats (peakretreats.co.uk/summer) is the French Mountain accommodation specialist with options throughout the region.

For further information on holidays in the French mountains, see france-montagnes.com. Constance flew to Geneva with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), which flies three times daily to Geneva.

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