Wednesday 23 May 2018

French Alps... The mountains turned up to 11

European getaways

The French Alps in summer, gazing toward Mont Blanc from near Chalet Pelerin
The French Alps in summer, gazing toward Mont Blanc from near Chalet Pelerin
Deborah Spillane takes in the sights from the Alps

Deborah Spillane

Strapping on crampons, near the top of Mont Blanc on the Italian border with France, was, to say the least, a little disconcerting.

It slowly dawned on me, as I was being roped to the rest of the group, that, while this glacier was certainly spectacular, it mightn't be entirely safe.

At 3,500m, you could feel the altitude in your lungs, and the cold was a startling contrast to the glorious warm weather we had left behind in the Courmayeur valley - which now stretched out far below us.

The journey up Mont Blanc in the Skyway cable car had given us spectacular views. Now, as we set off slowly looking out for hidden crevasses, I was beginning to become anxious. The weather around us changes constantly, from the bluest of skies to snow-laden storm clouds. Walking wasn't easy in our spiked crampons, and the deep snow made our progress slow and painstaking. This is, however, the perfect pace to absorb all the wonderful ice formations and snow covered peaks.

Suddenly one of our party disappeared into a crevasse, its blue depths seemed to fall away endlessly below her. Her legs splayed out like Bambi's, but the speed of our guides' reaction ensured that she was safe within seconds. Pushing yourself to try this type of experience is something you are constantly encouraged to do in the beautiful Chalet Pelerin. A group called Eleven owns and runs this stunning hideaway buried deep in the French Alps. The company claims to base its ethos on the film Spinal Tap, in particular the scene where the guitarist shows his amplifier goes one step beyond the maximum volume of 10 - all the way to 11.

Members also quote that cult movie The Big Lebowski, regularly.This alone makes them worthy of serious consideration when planning an action-packed vacation. If you are looking for the unusual and unique, then you need to check them out.

Deborah Spillane takes in the sights from the Alps
Deborah Spillane takes in the sights from the Alps

Chalet Pelerin is well known as a spectacular winter ski destination, but we were visiting to see what it had to offer in late summer.

We flew into Geneva, and were met by Jean Noel, who was our guide throughout our stay. En route to the chalet, we passed through Annecy - a pretty town with an amazing lake. It seems that the glacier's meltwater refracts the light to give it a highly unusual turquoise hue. The snowy mountains and alpine air made a bracing and dramatic backdrop as we grabbed a great cup of coffee on the boardwalk.

Then we set off to drive high up into the looming mountains. Looking down, we could see a surging river, which Jean Noel told us we would visit later for a spot of whitewater rafting.

The roads continued to climb and twist as we approached the chalet in the Tarentaise Valley. The lush valley meadows are beautifully cultivated and I have seldom seen cattle looking more contented. The overall effect conveys a sense of great peace and tranquillity. The last hairpin turn revealed Chalet Pelerin - which, of course, means "Hawk" in French, and is the 'mot juste' for it.

Its traditional exterior sits well and unobtrusively in the pretty hamlet of Le Miroir. We were invited inside and made welcome. The interior was luxurious, but also typical of the region. The chalet compares favourably with the glamour of the best ski lodges worldwide, and the views were impossibly romantic. Champagne and canapes of fresh fruit, cold meats and cheese were the start of what was to be a wonderful gastronomic few days.

The chalet's friendly relaxed atmosphere is specifically created to make you feel as if the place is your own. Jean Noel is a local, and lives right next door. His wife Julie is the properties manager, and their evident pride and delight in the place adds hugely to the experience. It is designed for groups and families rather than individuals or couples. The house is let on a group basis, and could make the most remarkable and memorable holiday for any family or band of friends. It is no exaggeration to say that your every need will be catered for in an easy and relaxed manner.

As I unpacked, I looked around my room. It came with its own balcony - and glorious views - a comforting fireplace, a gorgeous bathroom, with a huge roll top bath and just what anyone would want in their boudoir - great bathroom products. There was also some wonderful scented candles and vintage Paris Match and Vogue magazines. I would have been happy to have stayed in that room for all of my four-day break.

However, other plans were afoot!

I dragged myself away to explore the chalet's other facilities. These included a stunning swimming pool, with a counter current that creates a wave that would test the strongest of swimmers. There was also a huge sauna, and an outside Jacuzzi with views to soak up while you enjoyed its bubbles. There was an embarrassment of riches, and I felt spoilt for choice.

Then, I realised it was fast approaching dinner time, and the mountain air had whetted my appetite. The food was prepared by the chalet's own chef.

We started with scallops and bacon in a delicious cream sauce, then succulent organic chicken. This was followed by a delightfully sinful chocolate brownie with creme anglaise sauce. The wine was a lovely Bourgogne Aligote which went down very well.

Over dinner the plans for the next day were impressive, in a sort of stomach churning way. We were to start off with some brisk mountain biking, followed by a picnic then 18km of whitewater rafting. We would all be definitely pushing the dial up to 11!

Now, I have loved rafting since I first tried it and had always wanted to try mountain biking. After a hearty breakfast from a bountiful buffet and fortified by some strong coffee, I was intrigued to learn that our bikes would be electric. If the truth were told, I was also more than a little relieved since I felt I could do with all the help I could get.

The bikes had small engines that actually kick in by themselves to help you up steep inclines. You still have to pedal, but you do feel a bit like a superhero as you head up whatever incline presents itself with new-found ease! Adding to this amazing feature were big soft bouncy tyres, as well as an option for adjusting your seat height as you cycled. All we had to do was flick a switch to lift our backsides. When the suspension kicked in, it felt a bit like riding a horse.

After the climbs, we benefited from a cooling breeze as we spun down the hairpin mountain roads towards the bottom of the valley and the river. Our picnic lunch awaited us there. Those happy Alpine cattle help to make a great tasting cheese called Beaufort. We gorged ourselves on it and a crumbly sheeps' cheese called Brebis. There was also a selection of charcuterie and fresh bread that went well with a delicious Bandol Les Baumes rose.

The soundtrack to this wonderful meal was the burbling sound of the river on which we were about to paddle down. I couldn't help notice that it was running very fast, and I suspected that it was also very cold.

I dislike wetsuits intensely. For me, getting into one is like struggling into a demented pair of highly restrictive super-small tights. But I was really glad of mine when I strode into the river to climb aboard our raft. The water was even colder, and faster, than I had thought. Eleven is super mindful of its guests so we were given a serious safety talk before pushing off into the spectacular rapids. We hit them straight away, and our screams and screeches were a good indication of the severity of the falls.

We worked hard in pairs following the lead of our guide. Instructions were given, and we repeated and put them into action immediately. The underlying fear of capsizing does wonders for one's ability to paddle - and paddle hard! I turned into a limpet on the raft as we bounced down the river. To put it mildly, it was an exhilarating experience.

The river is used for generating electricity, and is harnessed to a dam for most of the day, but between midday and late afternoon, it is allowed to run free, creating a torrent perfect for rafting. I had been told about a famous spot where you could jump 10m from a Roman bridge into the canyon. Good wine and plenty of it the night before had encouraged me to agree to make this jump. Strangely, when we arrived at the location, it didn't seem such a good idea. However, in the spirit of our hosts I decided to turn the dial to 11, and jump. It was such a good feeling that I did it again.

Getting out of the wetsuits was exhausting, but the promise of homemade pizza kept us going. And, when we arrived back at the chalet, a rigorous massage helped to restore our tired bodies. The night was clear and star-studded, and I slept like a top with my balcony door wide open to let in the fresh mountain air as I snuggled under my warm duvet. Already this felt like my second home.

Another delicious breakfast set us up for our trip up through the Col du Petit St Bernard into Italy, and a hike across its glacier. We descended to Auberge de La Maison in Courmayeur where we devoured homemade pasta with prawn tails and basil pesto and divine tiramisu. Needless to say, we felt the need to try a 2013 bottle of Grosjean from the Vallee D'Aoste as recommended to us by the ever-encouraging Jean Noel and Alex.

For our last evening, we hiked for 90 minutes up to another auberge - this one in a lovely mountain hamlet. It has been restored but there is no electricity and it has retained its original rustic beauty. A fire pit, candles and torches were burning comfortingly as we quaffed Champagne and local wine and ate fondue, followed by cote de boeuf and a delicious plum compote with local liqueur. The sensational evening concluded with a truly impressive and very surprising fireworks display.

I loved the whole Chalet Pelerin experience and hated leaving, but true to Eleven's mission statement on our final morning we hiked for two hours into a deserted mountain valley. The local fauna and flora are unique to the area, and are a source of great pride to Jean Noel and Alex. They genuinely love this place, and who can blame them? Eleven has certainly cracked the mould with its stunning and unusual retreats, and I would recommend everyone who can should take a trip to one of these lovely homes.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Cormet de Roselend

Try the rope bridge at the Cormet de Roselend. This involves a hike to the bridge and some serious rock climbing, but it is spectacular. The chalet can also organise paragliding, high ropes courses with zip lines and horse riding.

Fine cheese and wine

If thrilling activities are not your thing you could visit the Beaufort Cooperative to watch them making the wonderful cheeses that we indulged ourselves on. Wine tasting is another tour the chalet regularly organises. 

Get there

Rates at Chalet Pelerin start from €365 per room per night (based on two people sharing). The price includes pre-arrival planning with an Eleven experience manager, breakfast, apres and dinner, and house alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages www.elevenexperience.com

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