Words by Matt Hampton
If there was a capital of the great outdoors, the Alps could be it. The longest mountain chain in Europe stretches more than 1,000km across eight countries – but its heart lies in France, where some of the world’s best ski resorts have welcomed generations of visitors. From historic mountain towns such as Chamonix or Megève to modern, high-altitude resorts like Val Thorens or Les Arcs, there’s a holiday here for everyone.
The Alps for skiers
For most visitors the Alps are all about the snow, and there are more linked ski areas here than anywhere on earth – which means more variety. Keep everyone happy with a traditional Alpine village such as Les Gets in the Haute-Savoie, from where you can access the giant Portes du Soleil area – even crossing the border into Switzerland on your skis. Other linked areas include the Paradiski (La Plagne, Les Arcs and Peisey-Vallandry) the Espace Killy (Tignes-Val d’Isère) and the biggest of all, the Trois Vallées (Courchevel, Méribel, Les Ménuires, Val Thorens).
The Alps for non-skiers
The Alps are a playground even for those who don’t ski: ice skating,dog-sledding and snow-shoeing are popular alternative activities and most resorts have lift-accessed toboggan runs. In La Plagne you can even ride on the Olympic bob sled run with a professional driver. Fat biking trails are also springing up everywhere, or if you want to take to the sky, try paragliding or parapenting – soaring down from the snowy peaks to the valley below is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. What’s more, before skiers came to the Alps, visitors sought spa towns such as Evian-les-Bains and Brides-les-Bains and wellbeing is still a focus across the region.
The Alps for nature lovers
Come the spring sunshine you can combine your skiing with some wildlife watching: the Alps are home to two national parks and countless nature reserves. You can easily spot marmots and the deer-like chamois, and sometimes even golden eagles and bearded vultures. You’d be very lucky to see a wolf or a lynx but they are nevertheless there in small numbers.
The Alps for foodies
You will, of course, work up an appetite doing winter sports... and mountain food is haute cuisine in the most literal sense. There’s more to the Alps than cheese, but without their cows they’d be a very different place – the farmers who built the first dairies here, centuries ago, carved a living from the mountains that still exists. Their legacy: the astounding variety of cheese we enjoy here today. Reblochon, Beaufort, Tome des Bauges, Chevrotin, an abundance of Abondance… such is the stuff of life in the mountains.
Try Reblochon in a tartiflette – the hearty mix of potatoes, cream, lardons, onions and lashings of the mild, milky cheese. Raclette is the name of the cheese and both the method of scraping it, melted, over potatoes and charcuterie. Beaufort is the prince of Gruyères, its name quite literally meaning ‘good and strong’. Of the two varieties (winter and summer), winter is stronger, reflecting the herd’s switch from meadow grass to hay in the winter months.
And what good is all this cheese without a little ham? Saucisson, typically made from pork but also from wild boar, venison or even rabbit, is a speciality of the Alps. These hard sausages are flavoured with local herbs, garlic, pepper, fruit or nuts or anything else that takes the chef’s fancy. Slices are often served as hors d'oeuvres or simply as an accompaniment to a meal. So too are the cured hams such as jambon de Savoie, which must be air-dried for at least a year at altitude.
But these are not the only local treats. This tough but rewarding terrain also produces wonderful fruit: apples, pears and berries in particular, plus mushrooms including ceps and chanterelles which grow in the forests and are harvested before winter. Shop for them in resort and even if you miss market day, Carrefour and smaller supermarkets stock a wide variety of local produce.
It’s not all high living and l’art culinaire in the Alps – the French have embraced the street food trend like everywhere else, and if you want a quick bite before getting back on the piste, you’re well catered for. Food vans are starting to pop up and casual delis with snacks to go, such as the Epicerie du Midi next to the Aiguille du Midi cable car in Chamonix, are a growing trend. And trust the French to bring a gourmet twist to the humble hamburger. Picking up on the posh burger trend from around the world and running wild with it, choices now include a reindeer with girolle mushroom option at the Caron Freeride Café in Val Thorens and an outrageous Rösti Burger at Les Crozet in Val d’Isère. This is made with horse steak on a potato base and must be ordered a day in advance.
The Alps for wine buffs
Producing wine in the mountains, where vines may grow at a gradient of 30%, is as much an indication of Alpine stubbornness as anything else. But why should the Alps let Burgundy or Champagne take all the viticultural glory? There are some outstanding wines here, even if their producers do have to work a little harder than their cousins on the plains.
There are around 20 varieties of French Alpine wine, all produced in small batches compared with mainstream varieties. Very little is exported, so whatever you try is likely to be a new experience. The Jacquère grape is one that thrives around Savoie, producing a pale fresh and floral white which is lovely with light dishes and fish. Also look out for Altesse and Roussanne varieties which may be fuller in flavour and are sometimes aged in oak to bring out their richer character. Red wines are less common, but look out for the Monduese variety, which is full of berries and spice.
The Alps for partygoers
If there’s one thing mountain folk love, it’s a party. Make your trip to the Alps truly memorable by visiting for one of the special events hosted throughout the winter.
Don’t miss these upcoming events…
SIX STATIONS RUGBY SEVENS TOURNAMENT, February 13-19 Rugby on snow? Yes, you read that right. Six Stations is an epic rugby sevens tournament played by legends of the sport, across six resorts, on frozen lakes or fields of snow. 2017 hosts are Valmorel, La Clusaz and Val Thorens, Châtel, Les Menuires and Contamines. Previous star players include Wales’ Shane Williams, England’s Simon Shaw and Iain Balshaw, plus Serge Betsen from France.The 2017 edition promises to be a big hit, full of big hits!
- SKICOLOR,Les Gets, March 11
Inspired by the international Colour Run event, Skicolor is now in its third year in the Alps. The white of the mountains is the perfect backdrop for the explosion of powder paint. Participants ski down a run through clouds of technicolour powder, the goal being to cross the line as colourfully as possible!
- SUBLI’CIMES, La Plagne, April 5-18
Seeing out the season in style, La Plagne decks out its seven summits in a remarkable range of themes in time for the Easter holidays. Expect bungee jumping, reindeer, saunas, jacuzzis and beach bars at the top of the mountains across La Plagne’s vast ski area!