Author: Roger Moss Page 1 of 2

Owner and Editor of MountainPassions, Roger is a journalist and photographer with more than 30 years’ professional experience producing illustrated ski and travel editorial features for magazines and location photography for travel guides, both in the UK and overseas. He regularly writes resort reviews for other ski websites and tour operators as well as ski and mountain features for newspapers and magazines worldwide.

Summer in Châtel

Châtel lies in the vast Franco-Swiss Portes du Soleil ski & mountain-biking area. Proximity to Geneva international airport plus TGV rail stations, has transformed this once-remote border village. One of the best ski resorts near Geneva, summer in Châtel is a must-do destination for challenging downhill mountain-biking coupled with an authentic Alpine experience.

Take a summer holiday in Châtel, Portes du Soleil

We’re no strangers to the Portes du Soleil, having skied from Châtel, Les Gets, Morzine and Avoriaz, but we’re intrigued to see how everything looks and feels in summer. We get a foretaste when we pass through Abondance and La Chapelle d’Abondance, both of which look relaxed without the disturbance of ski season traffic.

It’s a similar story in Châtel, although all three villages are year-round working communities. This time rather than skis we’ve brought bikes, so after checking into our apartment accommodation at Les Chalets d’Angèle, a few minutes from the village centre, we check over our bikes before stowing them in the secure bike room.


Châtel village in summer

The full Châtel summer resort review offers lots more insight and inspiration. Find ideas for things to do, places to visit, plus our tips to make the most of your summer holiday in Châtel.


La Belle Dimanche Alpine Festival

Alpine cattle line up for judging at the belle Dimanche festival, Châtel
Alpine cattle lined up for judging at la Belle Dimanche festival held in September.

The next morning we head out early and drive over to the car parking area serving the Pré la Joux and Pierre Longue chair-lifts. Spaces are already fast being taken by those planning to head up the mountain for the ‘Belle Dimanche’. Celebrated for over 40 years, this is a colourful celebration of traditional mountain life held in August.

Alpine horns
Crowds gather to hear the Alpine horn players.

Originally centred on the judging of the livestock breeds which play a key role in the economy of mountain communities, the event now encompasses a food and craft producers’ market, music and folklore plus demonstrations of traditional crafts, including cheesemaking, wood turning and artisan iron working.

Local traditions and livestock

Abondance cow with bell
Abondance cattle
Shepherd with sheep
Sheep mingling with the crowds

At the sheltered plateau of Plaine Dranse we join the crowds moving among the stallholders’ displays and sampling an assortment of local produce. After a brief pause to hear some authentic Alpine horns we continue our tour, swerving momentarily around some slightly confused-looking sheep being herded through the crowds by a shepherd and his dogs.


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We check out the Fantasticable zip-wire

After a quick look at the nearby Bike Park trail map showing green-, blue- and red-graded routes (along with some gnarly-looking black detours) down to Pré la Joux, we flee the crowds by riding the chairlift up to the Crête des Rochassons (1930m), the transition from Châtel’s terrain to that of Avoriaz. The onward views are dazzling.

The prominent ridge is also the launch-point for the Fantasticable, which fires zip-wire fans on two-stage flights of over 2.5km at heights of up to 240m while reaching speeds of around 80-100km/h. With lots of weekend riders it’s impressive, so we watch them for a while before heading off with the intention of walking back down to Plaine Dranse.

Cyclist looks at Trail Map, Châtel
Checking out the Trail Map at Plaine Dranse
Launching off on the Fantasticable, Châtel
Released and off on a high-speed flight on the Fantasticable

Downhill mountain biking: a steep learning curve

As it turns out, the most obvious route, a wide path shared by walkers and mountain-bikers, is steeper than it had looked, and strewn here and there with unstable scree. We’re about to get some timely insight. After a few minutes of being passed by experienced riders blasting their way down fearlessly it dawns on us that if we’d imagined tackling even tamer downhill trails here on our hybrid bikes then we were badly mistaken. That particular thought is reinforced during the chairlift ride back to the car when we glimpse groups of bikers tackling forest trails far below. We’ll put that one down to experience.

Mountain biker, Chatel, French Alps
Mountain biker descends from Plaine Dranse in Châtel, Portes du Soleil
Mountain bikers on forest trail, Châtel
Riding on the forest trails near Pré la Joux, Châtel

Skier on tree-lined piste, Châtel

Love to ski?

Read our Châtel ski resort review. Part of the fabulous Portes du Soleil ski area, we give you our unique insight on what it’s like to stay and ski in Châtel.


Walks and rides from Châtel

We ride a riverside trail over to Abondance

The Sentier des bords de Dranse is a 20km riverside trail down the valley from Châtel to Abondance. Equally accessible to walkers, it could be just the kind of terrain our hybrid bikes were built for. That lifts our spirits, so the very next day we ride down to join it and find out. Once on the trail we pass a few walkers, a lone runner and a couple of other bikers, but mostly it’s just us and the broad, shallow river.

When we’re level with La Chapelle d’Abondance we turn off for coffee and croissants at Le Fournil, whose range of fresh-baked breads and pâtisserie is mind-blowing. Below the village the broad valley narrows noticeably, with vibrant green pastures bounded by larch and pine forest. The track, though, remains relatively flat, until up ahead we glimpse the familiar Savoyard ‘onion’ spire of the historic Abbaye d’Abondance.

Cycle route along the banks of the Dranse river, Châtel
This cycle route from Châtel to Abondance is perfect for families.
Abbaye d'Abondance
The ‘onion’ spire of the Abbaye d’Abondance.

Along the way we pass a few walkers, a lone runner and a couple of other bikers, but mostly it’s just us, the river – more a broad, shallow stream, really – and a perfect summer day.

The bike-carrying shuttle bus

We emerge in the heart of the village of Abondance, looking picture-perfect with the extravagant summer floral displays that skiers never get the chance to see. It’s clear, though, that things are winding down for lunch and restaurant terraces are filling up. We’d planned a picnic so we pick up some cold drinks, a fresh baguette and a wedge of tasty local AOC Abondance cheese.

After an unhurried lunch with a view, we await the first of the afternoon’s shuttle buses. The driver hangs our bikes on purpose-built racks and we enjoy an effortless ride back up the valley to the market place in Châtel. It’s just a few minutes’ down to the Chalets d’Angèle, where we store the bikes, head up to our luxury apartment and enjoy a cool beer on the balcony.


Mountain pastures and trees, Collombey, Valais
Mountain pastures at Collombey, Valais.

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Walking the cross-border trails above Châtel

Next morning the bikes remain in their store, the idea being to find out how summer walkers benefit from the lifts which remain open. The Portes du Soleil are huge, and we know from experience that getting around takes time, even for winter skiers, so we’re surprised by just how much distance we manage to cover on foot. Unlike mountain-bikers, we can begin in the heart of village by riding the Super-Châtel gondola up to the Franco-Swiss border. At the top we follow a trail signed to the peaceful Lac de Conche, beyond which the trail winds its way through silent forestry plantations, with occasional glimpses of surrounding peaks.

The sense of remoteness from everything except nature intensifies when we make out the town of Montreux on the shores of Lac Léman through the heat-haze. Finding the Chalet Neuf mountain restaurant mysteriously closed, we make the final climb to the Portes de Culet. The views from the 1788m pass are truly magnificent but we look in vain for a potential picnic spot offering shade from the heat of the midday sun, so end up retracing our steps back to the cool of the forest. Most of the return walk to Super-Châtel amounts to little more than a gentle downhill stroll, and the blissful near-silence remains with us almost until we reach the gondola lift.


Abondance cattle graze the Barbossine Valley, Châtel
Abondance cattle graze in the Barbossine Valley

The Barbossine Valley

Chalet d'Alpage Barbossine mountain dairy and restaurant.
Lunch at the Chalet d’Alapge Barbossine

If you fancy tackling something on foot with an interesting lunch stop, head for the Barbossine Valley. Taking the cable car then chairlift to Morclan, follow the signposted footpath that will lead you to a descent through Alpine pastures with fabulous views. There’s a great lunch stop at a traditional dairy farm, after which, there’s an easy walk back to Châtel through the forest.


People at the foot of the Cascade des Brochaux
The cooling torrents of the Cascade des Brochaux.

Cascade des Brochaux

The next day we go considerably further, following a well-conceived succession of chair-lifts, starting from Pré la Joux. At Plaine Dranse we take the Rochassons six-seater up to the Crête des Rochassons (1923m), for a ride down to Les Lindarets on the bi-directional Chaux Fleurie, another six-seater. Finally, after riding the Linderets four-seater up to the Crête d’Avoriaz (1874m), where the ski village looms a short distance ahead of us.

From Avoriaz, we turn left to follow a footpath which takes us on a winding route down to the Cascade des Brochaux, a spectacular reward for almost an hour’s ramble.

Beyond the falls we follow another wayward path, this time following the stream from the falls through woodland and down the valley to Les Brochaux, where we break for lunch beneath a parasol on the terrace of l’Abricotine mountain restaurant.


Pointe des Moissettes

View from the Pointe des Moissettes

Having come this far, we can’t resist taking one of our favourite chairlifts all the way to the Pointe des Moissettes (2277m). Summer or winter, it’s an epic haul and the panoramic views from the Pointe des Moissettes are pretty spectacular.

How do you follow that? The following day we find out, by driving across the Swiss border above Châtel, heading round to Champéry, and taking the vertiginous cable-car up to the 1936m Croix-de-Culet and looking back across the valley towards the Pointe des Moissettes.


Châtel village in summer

The full Châtel summer resort review offers lots more insight and inspiration. Find ideas for things to do, places to visit, plus our tips to make the most of your summer holiday in Châtel.


Where to stay

We stayed in a 2-bed apartment sleeping 4-6 people costing from £789 per week (summer 2020). Prices per accommodation (not per person) including standard midweek ferry crossing with P&O from Dover to Calais, self catering.

More information, special offers and booking:
Peak Retreats
023 9283 9310(UK)
reservations@peakretreats.co.uk


Lac du Chevril, Haute Tarentaise

The Réserve Naturelle de la Sassière

If you’re in the Haute Tarentaise in summer, perhaps based in Saint-Foy Tarentaise, Tignes  or Val d’Isère, you’ll have access to a network of  footpaths whose well-signed routes will take you away from the man-made landscapes of the resorts and into some truly magnificent mountain scenery. In these wild places there’s a strong possibility that along the way you’ll see wildlife, and in the height of summer there are spectacular displays of wild flowers.

Footpath to the Lac de la Sassiere, Haute Tarentaise

Footpath to the Lac de la Sassiere, Haute Tarentaise

La Sassière lake lies at the head of a wide valley which is a popular destination for walkers who can reach it easily on foot via the main path (about 40 minutes walk) from the car park. However, there’s a more interesting higher footpath with much better views making a more satisfying circular route (allow 2 hours). From the lake, there’s a possibility of continuing on a footpath to the foot of the glacier. Protected as a natural reserve, the valley is an area being used to study the Marmotte – in summer you will almost certainly have sightings of these creatures or hear their calls.

Lac de la Sassiere, Haute Tarentaise

Lac de la Sassiere, Haute Tarentaise

To reach the start of the valley, turn left off the D902 just after Tignes on a road signed to Le Franchet and La Sassière. It’s a long climb with splendid views back to Tignes. Eventually you reach the Barrage de Saut where there’s ample parking. To follow the upper path, ascend to the right above the barrage (you’ll need good walking boots and plenty to drink). This footpath is narrow and often rocky, with some steep sections.  If this sounds difficult, follow the main path – an easy walk suitable for all ages though the track steepens towards the lake.

 

 

Wide view of cycle and footpath with mountains and village of La Chapelle d'Abondance in distance

Sentier des bords de Dranse, Châtel

We’re no strangers to the Portes du Soleil, having skied from Châtel, Les Gets, Morzine and Avoriaz. All the same, we’re intrigued to see how everything looks and feels in summer.  Our apartment accommodation at CGH Les Chalets d’Angèle in Châtel holds happy memories and overlooks the Dranse valley. It’s just a short ride downhill from there to join the Sentier des Bords de Dranse, meaning Dranse riverside trail.

Bike route and footpath sign between Chatel and Abondance, French Alps

Bike route and footpath signage shows both times and distances

Cycling les Bordes de Dranse

The Sentier des Bords de Dranse is a 20km trail which follows the course of the river down the valley to Abondance. Equally accessible to walkers, it’s an easy trail and the perfect way to get right back to nature with the minimum of effort – just the kind of thing our hybrids – ‘VTCs’ – were built for. The initial quick run down through a tract of forest is about as steep as it’s likely to get, and we’re soon onto a near-flat path with the river dancing and flashing on our left.

Bike rider beside cycle route and footpath with river

The cycle trail runs alongside the river Dranse.

Coffee & croissants

On our right is a now-grassy expanse which we’d previously crossed in glacial temperatures behind a team of sled-dogs. Today, though, we’re glad of some tree shade as we roll with little effort and in near-silence beneath a cloudless sky. The relaxed run continues, with a few photo stops, until we’re level with La Chapelle d’Abondance, where we turn off, stand on our pedals and power our way up to the village in search of an unhurried coffee and croissant break.

We don’t have to go too far to find just what we’re looking for: Le Fournil. The service is friendly and the range of fresh-baked breads and pâtisserie mind-blowing. One coffee and pastry later and we reluctantly leave the shady outside table and hop on our bikes to get back on the trail.

Wide view of cycle and footpath with mountains and village of La Chapelle d'Abondance in distance

The riverside trail passes the village of La Chapelle d’Abondance

The only way is down. And then…

We’re around the halfway point along the route (altitude 970m), so after rejoining the path back at the riverbank we resume our leisurely, slightly downhill run towards Abondance. Along the way we pass a few walkers, a lone runner and a couple of other bikers, but mostly it’s just us, the river – more a broad, shallow stream, really – and a perfect summer day. We’re still in the mountains, though, and to prove the point we eventually round a bend, part company with the Dranse and meet a short, steep climb which defeats even our lowest gears. After a quick push we’re on the flat again, re-mounting and gazing around us at a changing landscape.

Distant view of the Abbaye d'Abondance and mountainside, French Alps

The onion spire of the abbey church in Abondance

Alpine cheese, and an onion spire

By now the once-broad valley has narrowed and the surrounding peaks feel as if they’re closing in. Everything is vibrant green, however, and spread across their billowing contours are fertile Alpine pastures bounded by dense tracts of larch and pine forest. The track, though, remains relatively flat, and ahead of us we glimpse the familiar Savoyard ‘onion’ spire of the Abbaye d’Abondance, founded in the early 12th century. The track passes farm buildings, a few chalets and the local garage before emerging in the heart of the village. It’s an attractive spot, but is already starting to wind-down for midday, so we pick up some local AOC Abondance cheese, a fresh baguette and cold drinks.

Summer view of cyclist and walker on track near Abondance, French Alps

The final stretch of the Sentier des Bords de Dranse near Abondance

Abondance: a cheese-lover’s paradise

Things move at a relaxed pace, as summer visitors ahead of us get the full cheese dégustation experience, but once we’re provisioned it’s time to look for a picnic bench. Experience has taught us that a shady one can be a big ask in the mountains, so we try riding up to the nearby Esserts gondola ski-lift, currently in summer hibernation, which might just offer some welcome shade. It’s a pleasant but ultimately fruitless detour, so we decide to head back to a bench we’d spotted beside the track which brought us here from Châtel. Again there’s no shade, but it’s vacant and a great spot in which to reflect on the trip.

We’ve covered some distance, the easy way

The Sentier des bords de Dranse probably won’t suit most of the riders who come here for a white-knuckle challenge. Instead it offers the perfect way to ease into the most natural of surroundings, with plenty of time and distance to enjoy them. Getting back to Châtel is undemanding, too, with the option of a shuttle bus return ride if time is tight or weather conditions suddenly deteriorate. We’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Starting Young On Skis

Start skiing early enough and the benefits will remain with you for life. That’s one theory which makes perfect sense, so when our granddaughter turned three years old ahead of another ski season, we wanted to give her the kind of start on snow we never had. Like families everywhere, we then began pondering which resort to choose for a ski break to satisfy both her and the adults in our party, who were already seasoned skiers.

ESF children’s Piou Piou Club at Les Eucherts, La Rosière

France offers a mind-blowing choice of mountain resorts, whose ESF (Ecole du Ski Français) instructors are adept at welcoming raw beginners from across the globe and getting them off to a confident start on skis. Here and there, though, some teams and facilities had particularly impressed us, and not necessarily in big-name resorts. When we began to factor-in considerations like transfers from budget flights, dependable snow conditions and proximity of self-catering accommodation to debutante areas we opted for La Rosière. It’s a medium-sized, family-friendly resort with extensive cross-border skiing for the adults and the prospect of returning clinched it.

Toddlers learn to snow plough on skis at the ESF Piou Piou Club in Les Eucherts

As our trip would take in more than one resort rail travel wasn’t an option for us, so we drove across France to La Rosière while 3 year-old Edie and her parents flew from the UK into Chambéry airport and hired a car for the transfers. Both journeys went smoothly and our self-catering apartment at CGH Les Cimes Blanches was as spacious and well-equipped as expected. It also has an on-site SkiSet rental shop, whose staff knew exactly what Edie would need for the ESF La Rosière Piou-Piou Club.

Having mastered some basic skills the young skiers proudly receive their ESF certificate and badge.

We’d booked her into six days of morning sessions, and on Day One joined the other families arriving with their own youngest members. After an upbeat, smiley welcome and handing them over to the team of instructors we were asked to head somewhere  out of sight, so as not to be a distraction from what was planned for the session. We got that, and so did the kids, who simply trotted  off to meet their new friends.

Of course, “out of sight” didn’t stop us sneaking an occasional peep at how things were going between our own runs on the mountain, and while riding the nearby Roches Noires chairlift. The kids, though, weren’t in the slightest bit interested in what might be happening outside the dedicated Piou-Piou area – to them it was just a fun playgroup with added snow.

Reassured, we then spent each morning skiing further afield before returning to collect a hungry Edie and have lunch together back at the apartment. As for the afternoons, at first we just played around in the snow, but as Edie gained confidence on skis we were able to venture onto a nursery slope together.

Toddler in ski gear, La Rosière, French Alps

Free learner slopes and a play area make the most of the sunny aspect of La Rosière and provide fun activities for the whole family.

For the confirmed skiers it was a fun week, and for Edie and her fellow Piou-Pious it was a turning point. At the end of the final morning session  each new skier was awarded an ESF certificate and a medal as proof of her ability to move around on skis and descend a gentle slope unaided. It also means that next time she’ll be able to join an Oursons (Little Bears) group to learn to ski gentle green pistes and make mini-slalom turns. After that she can progress through another five levels if she wishes, and out-ski us all.

We stayed with Alpine specialists Peak Retreats at 4-star Les Cimes Blanches in Les Eucherts area of La Rosière. 7 nights self-catered accommodation includes return Eurotunnel crossing with a free upgrade to Flexiplus on most dates. Accommodation only packages available. Ski equipment, lift passes and transfers also bookable. Holidays are fully ABTA bonded.

Two skiers on cruising piste at Vars, French Alps

Time to ski the southern French Alps?

Lone skier on wide tree-lined piste in Les Orres

There’s a good reason why virtually all the media attention focuses on French Alpine resorts in the north, either in Savoie or Haute-Savoie.  They’re only part of a much bigger picture, of course, but for skiers flying to France, choosing a ski resort  involves factoring-in easy transfers from budget flight destinations like our old friends Lyon and Geneva.

No surprises there, except that recently our previously most-visited page – ‘Best Resorts Near Geneva’ – has been overtaken by its counterpart ‘Best Resorts Near Grenoble’. Hmm…

“Grenoble opens up all kinds of possibilities…”

Well-kept secrets don’t stay that way forever, and once you’ve discovered what’s on offer in more southerly resorts than you’re accustomed to skiing, you can’t help wondering what might lie even further south. I certainly did, which why I ended up putting a lot of mileage under my skis in fun places like Albiez, l’Alpe d’Huez, Les 2 Alpes, Chamrousse, La Norma, Orelle, Saint-François Longchamp, La Toussuire, Val Cenis, Valfréjus, Valloire, Vaujany, Termignon, etc.

It’s a long list (and there were others..) and got me thinking: ‘This is great – why don’t we just keep going..?’.

Lone skier on piste between Val Thorens and Orelle, French Alps

Late afternoon return to Orelle from Val Thorens.

“Over the Col du Lauteret and…”

So on my next ski trip I did just that. I headed over the Col du Lauteret and dropped in on Serre Chevalier, long considered as something of an alternative choice, since the name refers to the ski domain shared by a straggle of villages spread along the valley. That means you get big-mountain skiing with a choice of bases – friendly, year-round communities with their own individual personalities.

I’ve also stayed in neighbouring Briançon (France’s highest city, and probably the smallest) which has masses of character plus direct access to “Serre Che’” via a high-speed gondola lift.

Skier on tree-lined piste between Montgenèvre and Clavière

Leaving Montgenèvre’s own extensive terrain en-route for Clavière, Sestrière, etc.

“Lunch in Italy, anyone..?”

Just beyond Briançon is Montgenèvre, my all-time favourite medium-sized ski resort. Why? Well, apart from it having become just a nice place to be, since through traffic was consigned to a tunnel, there’s the killer bonus of being able to ski straight across the adjoining border into Italy, to enjoy the pistes of Clavière, Cesana, Sansicario, Sauze d’Oulx and Sestrière.

Down here, despite often epic snowfalls, the Mediterranean influence is already evident, with the same clear blue skies which characterize skiing further south in the Hautes-Alpes and Alpes d’Haute-Provence. Places like Le Dévoluy, Les Orres, Orcières, Pra-Loup, Puy Saint-Vincent, Risoul, Val d’Allos and Vars have all given me truly superb skiing among some of the most dazzling scenery I’ve ever encountered. You won’t hear their names dropped casually into conversation – or at least, not yet – but they offer fantastic, unpressured skiing to locals and others who take the trouble to discover them.

Private ski lesson, ski-lifts and mountains atVars, French Alps

One-to-one early morning ski lesson, Vars (Hautes-Alpes)

“I’ll be back…”

But the rewards don’t stop there. Away from the spotlight things are more down-to-earth, with lower prices plus a warmer welcome, from people who for the most part aren’t just there for the season. Oh, and let’s not forget those steely-blue skies.

I’ve recounted my experiences at all the resorts I’ve mentioned above in the Insight section of our detailed, independent resort reviews – take a look and I think you’ll understand why I’m a genuine fan, and why I plan to go back to ski them whenever I get the chance.

Skiers looking at mountain scenery above Les Gets, French Alps

5 Of The Best Resorts for Relaxed Skiing In The French Alps

White-knuckle skiing isn’t for all of us, so if you ski purely for pleasure where exactly do you go? After skiing over 60 resorts in France, I reckon I now have a pretty good idea. The French Alps attract countless skiers from all over the world, so most of them head for areas which attract media attention and get star billing in ski brochures.

For the rest of us that’s good news, since lots of ‘second-league’ resorts (in terms of skier numbers) are less-pressured and therefore perfect for relaxed skiing, outside French school holiday periods. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a quick rundown of some of the most memorable places where I’ve enjoyed laid-back, scenic skiing in the French Alps:

COMBLOUX

Rear view of skier on wide piste with forest and valley at Combloux, French Alps

You’ll find Combloux in Haute-Savoie below the Aravis Massif between Chamonix and the Val d’Arly – just across the valley from chic Megève, in fact. That means it’s easy to reach, either via a 1 hr transfer from flights into Geneva (or 15 min more from Chambéry Savoie Mont-Blanc) or by road from Sallanches or Albertville.

Combloux’s ski area and most accommodation are tucked away on the mountain, well-hidden from those driving through the valley en-route to Chamonix. They don’t know what they’re missing. When you get there it feels small-time and down-homey, but your very first chairlift ride tells you that there’s lots of fun to be had here, on sheltered, tree-lined pistes topped-off by wide cruising pistes with a dramatic backdrop of nearby Mont-Blanc. I reckon there’s something of the wild, natural spirit of Canadian skiing in the long forested runs over to neighbouring La Giettaz.

Here’s my full resort review: https://www.mountainpassions.com/winter/ski-resort-reviews/alps/ski-combloux/


LA TOUSSUIRE

Skier on gentle piste above La Toussuire, Les Sybelles ski area, French Alps

Just about the friendliest place I’ve ever skied, La Toussuire sits just above the Vallée de la Maurienne (home to Valfréjus, Valloire, Valmeinier and Albiez-Montrond) and close to the Franco-Italian border. La Toussuire is the largest of six linked villages of Les Sybelles, the 4th biggest ski area in France. Over the years they’ve worked hard to bring it all together, with a highly-capable, modern lift system serving lots of great, well-groomed cruising terrain. Just to the north are Val Thorens and the 3 Valleys, so Les Sybelles are in the firing line for frequent heavy snowfalls.

Getting there is straightforward via transfers from flights into Chambéry Savoie Mont-Blanc, Lyon and Grenoble airports, or high-speed TGV rails services direct from Paris into nearby Saint-Jean de Maurienne.

Here’s my full resort review: https://www.mountainpassions.com/winter/ski-resort-reviews/alps/ski-la-toussuire/


LES SAISIES

 

Wide view of young skier amid big-mountain scenery above Les Saisies, French Alps

I’ve no idea why the Espace Diamant, which unites the ski areas of the Val d’Arly and Hauteluce, remains one of the best-kept secrets in the French Alps. Thanks to the nearby presence of Mont Blanc it has a great snow record, and it’s one of the very few places where it’s possible to ski a satisfying full circuit. Along the way there’s a wealth of varied terrain, which passes through some pretty spectacular scenery.

Les Saisies is the largest of the villages, a year-round living and working mountain community, with a welcoming traditional appearance. But if you want something smaller and even more relaxed then you’ll love neighbouring Crest Voland. They’re both located between Megève and the Beaufortain valley, so enjoy quick transfers from flights into Chambéry Savoie Mont-Blanc and Geneva airports, plus a shuttle connection from Albertville’s  TGV high-speed rail services from Paris.

Here’s my full resort review: https://www.mountainpassions.com/winter/ski-resort-reviews/alps/ski-les-saisies/


LES GETS

Group of skiers beside piste above Les Gets, French Alps

Sited just south of Lac Léman (a.k.a. Lake Geneva), Les Gets is a mere 15min drive from the A40 motorway exit at Cluses (which has high-speed rail links from Paris) or around an hour’s transfer from Geneva airport, so it’s among the quickest and least-stressful ski resorts to reach. It’s also one of a dozen villages in both France and Switzerland which together produce the vast Portes du Soleil ski area. For distance-freaks, the attraction is near-limitless skiing on some 600 km of slopes amid fantastic scenery. Others, of course, just take it easy and enjoy the local terrain, set on both sides of the village.

Given such a wide choice of villages in which to stay, why go for Les Gets? Well, in many ways it’s a tough choice between here and Châtel (another firm favourite of mine, whose ‘Petit Châtel’ sector is great for relaxed, cross-border skiing) but ease of access, combined with a charming, traditional Alpine feel to the village and some superb hotel accommodation just edge it.

Here’s my full resort review: https://www.mountainpassions.com/winter/ski-resort-reviews/alps/ski-les-gets/


SAINT-FRANÇOIS LONGCHAMP

Ski village and mountains, Saint Francois Longchamp, French Alps

The name isn’t exactly stick-in-the-mind snappy, but bear with me on this one. Think of Saint-François Longchamp as the sunnier and more reasonably-priced sidekick of neighbouring Valmorel. Their combined terrain, known as ‘Le Grand Domaine’ sits on the either side of the Col de la Madeleine (a familiar name to Tour de France followers), which finds Saint-François in the Maurienne, while Valmorel is in the Tarentaise.

Things are always more relaxed in the sun, and sure enough, Saint-François feels friendlier, more down-to-earth and its lift system has the edge, too. Oh, and there’s plenty of varied skiing, with the emphasis on wide, blue-graded cruising. Getting there is pretty straightforward, too – it’s readily accessible by road from Albertville and Grenoble, with flight transfers from Chambéry Savoie Mont-Blanc (nearest) or Grenoble airports.

Here’s my full resort review: https://www.mountainpassions.com/winter/ski-resort-reviews/alps/ski-saint-francois-longchamp/

Chatel ski resort, Portes du Soleil, French Alps

Skiing the Portes du Soleil from Châtel

The Franco-Swiss Portes du Soleil ski area attracts legions of afficionados, thanks to a killer combination of near-limitless mileage, dazzling mountain scenery and short transfers from cheap flights into Geneva.

Despite having a choice of no fewer than twelve mostly traditional villages, most skiers from the UK will  base themselves on the French side in high-altitude, high-rise Avoriaz, family-friendly Les Gets or Brit-magnet Morzine. Recently, however, an alternative, lower-profile choice has joined the party.

Chatel ski resort, Portes du Soleil, French Alps

The village of Châtel, in the Portes du Soleil ski area, French Alps

Skiers love the traditional village feel of Châtel

Châtel appeals to traditionalists, who adore its low-rise, chalet-style skyline, vibrant year-round community and a location at the head of a valley on the very outer limits of French soil. So why hasn’t it shown up on more skiers’ radar? Well, that was largely down to a shortage of the kind of spacious self-catering apartment accommodation favoured by today’s skiers and by volume tour operators.

Les Chalets d'Angele luxury apartments, Chatel, Portes du Soleil

Les Chalets d’Angèle 4* self-catering apartments in Châtel

Châtel attracts skiers looking for premium accommodation

The game-changer was Savoyard developer MGM’s three sell-out releases of premium 4-star apartments (followed by seven smaller chalet-style developments) just below the village at what is now the Résidence CGH Les Chalets d’Angèle. Cue French holiday giant Odalys, who responded by adding its own 4-star Les Fermes de Châtel in the heart of the village. Further developments are under way, as a result of which Châtel’s tourist capacity is now looking very healthy indeed.

Gabelou chairlift, Chatel, Portes du Soleil, French Alps

The Gabelou and Portes du Soleil chairlifts make the important link between Super Châtel and the rest of the Portes du Soleil ski area.

Ambitious lift upgrades speed vital connections

Meanwhile, on the mountains ambitious lift upgrades have made getting around the Portes du Soleil ski area far simpler. Skiing over to Avoriaz and beyond used to involve a shuttle bus ride to alternative departure ponts along the valley, but now the Super Châtel gondola from the village centre up to Châtel’s local ski terrain also provides access to a blue-graded link piste (or a high-speed two-way chairlift ride) to the Lac de Vonnes. From here the Gabelou high-speed, two-way chairlift drops skiers onto a blue cruise down to another high-speed lift, the Linga chair. Perfect.

Link between Petit Chatel and Torgon, Portes du Soleil, French Alps

Remarkable scenery on the Franco-Swiss border above Petit Châtel.

Skiing the Swiss terrain from Super-Châtel

Most of Super Châtel’s other lifts head straight into the Portes du Soleil’s Swiss terrain centred around Morgins, Torgon, Champoussin, Les Crosets and Champéry. There’s some great skiing on offer, and it’s currently less-widely appreciated than the French sector, although that might all change when MGM’s new development La Ferme de Suzanne at Petit-Châtel opens in 2020. We skied an all-too-quick taster session last season, joining the Petit-Châtel chairlift, transferring to the Barbossine chair and skiing off at 1913m among startling scenery. It’s a different world up there, with panoramic views and a wealth of possibilities, none of which we had time to follow up, but the red-graded descent which took us back, via the two-way Petit-Châtel chair to our starting point was enough to convince us that we really must return to ski a lot more of this intriguing sector which lies right on Châtel’s doorstep.

Wide rear view of skiers descending piste between forests above Chatel, French Alps

Skiers enjoying the beautiful descent through the forest above Chatel, Portes du Soleil, French Alps

More information

You can read our in-depth Châtel ski resort review with our unique insight, recommendations and things to do in our Practical Information section. You’ll also find links to the other Portes du Soleil ski resort reviews.

on our website. The official Châtel website offers you all the latest information, piste maps and webcams plus offers on ski-passes and loads more.

Book your ski holiday in Châtel

Interior, Chalets d'Angele apartment, Chatel

The spacious interiors at the CGH Les Chalets d’Angèle in Châtel, Portes du Soleil

Award-winning French Alps specialist Peak Retreats offers self-catering luxury apartments in the lovely traditional-feel village of Châtel.

Résidence CGH Les Chalets d’Angèle

This 4* residence offers luxurious ski apartments, combining traditional architecture with high standard modern facilities. See our thoughts about the apartments where we’ve stayed on several occasions on our Châtel ski resort review.

The company also book the conveniently situated Les Fermes de Châtel

For more details and booking visit Peak Retreats
023 9283 9310
reservations@peakretreats.co.uk

 

Roger Moss with mountain bike in front of Tunnel du Parpaillon

Riding The Lost Alpine Route by Mountain Bike

Not far south of Briançon lies the beautiful Vallée de l’Ubaye, accessed today via the 2109m Col de Vars, a classic climb in the Tour de France. However, further along the mountain ridge lies an earlier, much higher pass created by the military to service the garrisons of French troops which for centuries defended the valley against attacks from neighbouring Italy. Long since abandoned, the lost Alpine route scaled the wild, rugged Massif du Parpaillon and still appears on larger-scale maps. Was it, I wondered, still possible to follow the Route du Parpaillon from end to end? Attempting it on a mountain bike seemed like the ideal way to find out.

Mountain track between stone chalets, with steep-sided valley in Massif du Parpaillon, French Alps

The final stretch of tarmac, above Sainte-Anne-la-Condamine.

The route begins as a gravel track among lush wildflower meadows high above the village of La Condamine-Châtelard at the eastern end of the valley, and soon enters dense, echoing forest. An uphill slog on this wooded section brings me to the Pont du Bérard, beside a craggy cascade, followed by a steep hairpin climb. It doesn’t ease until I finally emerge from the forest to confront Buvette Grill le Petit Clausis – a cheerful cabin-style refreshment bar for walkers following the GR 6 footpath. Resisting its temptations, I press on over a rugged stone and timber bridge spanning the Ruisseau du Parpaillon, a mere stream until the winter snows melt.

Slate tablet beside mountain stream in Massif du Parpaillon, French Alps

Key information for travellers in an idyllic, sheltered spot on the route.

Now things really open out, the rough track ahead laid out like a dull grey ribbon following the contours of the steep valley sides, and there’s an surreal feeling amid a landscape of dull, bleached-out shale showing through grass struggling to thrive beneath the burning summer sun. The relentless climb makes progress painfully slow, but the scenery becomes ever more startling, with few clues as to the route’s former importance.

Wide view of unsurfaced mountain track with hairpin bends above steep-sided valley

The hairpin climb to the tunnel – from now on things get even rockier.

Higher still the route tightens into a seemingly endless hairpin ascent, repeatedly crossing and re-crossing a deep gully gouged by torrents of rain and melt-water. Spanning it are primitive timber bridges with gaping holes and sagging, time-worn timbers; in these exposed conditions nothing has an easy life. I press on, though, and eventually rounding the final bend of the climb, to glimpse the legendary Tunnel du Parpaillon, looking insignificant amid the vastness of the surrounding landscape. My final burst of energy produces a stirring round of applause from a large group of Italian hikers.

Old timber bridge with mountains and valley in background

An air of abandonment adds to the sense of remoteness.

After the tough climb I dismount thankfully and begin to take in the incredible surroundings. The tunnel entrance records its constructors and the altitude: 2643m (almost 9,000ft) almost certainly makes this Europe’s very highest road tunnel. Looming above it, the Col du Parpaillon sits on highly unstable terrain, and keeping the pass open during winter proved impossible, so the tunnel was bored through the rock 60m or so below the ridge and opened in 1901.

Rocky mountain track leading to tunnel, below the Col du Parpaillon

A first glimpse of the tunnel, below the Col du Parpaillon.

Beyond a pair of huge steel doors lies total darkness, with an eerie sound of water dripping from the rocks of the tunnel roof, but I’m determined not to turn back, so don a thermal fleece from my back-pack, along with an LED head-light, then climb back on the bike and select a low gear. After launching off into the tunnel I ride at a steady pace, to keep moving through the deep pools of water I can barely see and to aid stability if and when I hit the expected sheet ice.

View into interior of unlit stone tunnel du Parpaillon

A few metres in it’s total darkness, with glacial temperatures.

The cold inside is intense and the darkness becomes total, and since the tunnel curves throughout its 468m length, the exit is hidden until you’re some way in. Eventually, though, I focus upon a  tiny white dot, block out thoughts of what might be hanging in the darkness overhead and manage to keep moving when I hit patches of ice.

Wide view of mountain track with warning road sign and deep valley in background

The northern descent from the tunnel is much gentler.

I finally reach the warm sunshine with a sense of elation and personal achievement. A young Italian cyclist and his girlfriend, looking doubtful, ask me if its safe to ride through, but decide against it. For me, though, it’s all behind me, and I focus instead on the beauty of the very different landscapes which are now unfolding ahead.

Summer colours in valley at foot of the the Route du Parpaillon, on the approach to Crevoux.

The softer side of the Route du Parpaillon in summer, just above the village of Crevoux.

Now it’s all downhill on a stony, unsurfaced track swirling between mountain pastures filled with Alpine wildflowers. Things are much softer on this side of the mountain, the picture-postcard mountain imagery adding a whole new dimension to an epic journey. Eventually, I cross a fast-flowing stream, pass a few rugged stone cabins and enter silent conifer forest. Minutes later the gravel gives way to tarmac before crossing the Torrent de Crévoux above a broad valley above the authentic-looking hamlet of La Chalp. After a streamside descent to the village of Crévoux I pause beside a faded plaque recording the completion in 1891 of a major section of the Route Militaire du Parpaillon by the 6th Group Alpin. Their great adventure made it possible to undertake mine.

Wide view of group of walkers looking at mountain scenery

Italian walkers take in the startling scenery below the Col du Parpaillon.

Skiers on Marvel piste, Morillon, Grand Massif

Riding out the storm

Like all skiers, our pulses quicken when the snow begins to fall, but you can have too much of a good thing. Dont believe me? Try skiing in near-blizzard conditions, when you can’t read the surface of the piste you’re negotiating, thick mists have blotted out even long-familiar features and the wind is strengthening by the minute. When you get assailed by all three, then it’’s time to do the unthinkable and head back down the mountain to sit out the storm.

Chalets de Layssia, Samoens

Village centre self-catered apartments with pool and spa – a cosy refuge from the storm.

It’’s at times like these that you really get to appreciate that premium ski apartment you thought twice about booking. That was brought home to us forcefully during the past week, when Samoëns received its fair share of the record 5.9m of snow which have fallen on the French Alps so far this season. For us it would have been worse, but for the sheltered location which permitted the muscular Grand Massif Express gondola lift linking the stylish town to its ski terrain, to remain open for most of the time. What finally defeated it, though, was the arrival of severe gale force winds which made things unskiable above the tree-line (so it wasn’t even possible to get over to the sheltered forest trails above nearby Morillon and Les Carroz). For once, watching a motionless ski lift through our apartment window didn’’t fill us with a desire to be riding it up the mountain.

While somewhere up there a storm raged mercilessly, we were safe and snug in a roomy, self-catering apartment at one of two developments created in Samoëns (with a third currently under construction) by Savoyard developer MGM and now owned by CGH Residences. We love ski-in/ski-out locations as much as anyone, but when our uncanny run of good luck with mountain weather conditions finally ran out we were more than happy to be based in a traditional village.

We passed on the option of fresh bread and croissants delivered each morning, and instead looked forward to short strolls to drool over dazzling creations by artisan boulangers, patissiers and chocolatiers, with a little idle window shopping en route. Faces became familiar, we began to focus on details we’’d previously missed and in the space of a few days began to feel quite at home in Samoëns.

Boulangerie Tiffanie, Samoens, Grand Massif

Daily breakfast time temptations in Samoëns village,

When conditions finally cleared we got to ski in glorious deep, fresh snow and in breathtaking surroundings, low temperatures allowing the forests of noble pines and firs to retain their magical snowy transformation. And when we’’d finally skied our legs out we sorted out tired limbs and tense muscles with an extended soak back in the Jacuzzi, followed by an expert massage in the in-house Ô des Cimes Spa. Quality accommodation really pays off when you get around to making to most of the services which it offers.

Fact Box

Roger & Julia stayed with Peak Retreats at Chalets de Laÿssia. 7 nights self-catered from £247p*, including Eurotunnel crossing with Flexiplus upgrade.
*Above prices based on 5 people sharing a 2 bedroom apartment (sleeps 6) for low season.
(Subject to availability, T & C’s apply. Accommodation only holiday packages also available. Ski packs, insurance and transfers also bookable. Holidays are fully ABTA bonded.)

Liaison between Samoens and Les Carroz, Grand Massif

It’s Snowing in Samoëns…

The latter part of this month’s sustained snowfalls in the French Alps seem to have bypassed the Grand Massif, but there was more than enough to make our first couple of days’ skiing from Samoëns very enjoyable. It felt good to be back – as long as we avoided the icy lower runs. Fortunately, time spent sharpening our edges back home more than paid off on the mountain when we hit the occasional patch of the hard stuff and managed to find much-needed grip.

Samoëns taking change in its stride

It’s been awhile since we were last in Samoëns, and we can see lots of changes. They’re still happening, in fact, with several construction sites adding to the already impressive choice of premium accommodation in and around the village. In fact, Savoyard developer MGM is currently completing its third development here, the Résidence Alexane.

Snack bar, Samoens 1600, Grand Massif

Snack bar, Samoëns 1600

Snow adds a touch of magic to Samoëns

On days like today you can see why. Overnight the snow finally swept in, along with high winds which closed the upper lifts. Down here, however, we’re completely sheltered from the hostile weather, and the steadily-falling snow has given a touch of magic to the traditional heart of one of our favourite Alpine villages. It’s just a nice place to hang out, so the mood while waiting for the weather front to clear is upbeat.
Tomorrow we’ll be heading back up the mountain, enjoying the fresh accumulations of snow and taking a look at the development, the most immediately obvious of the many changes at Samoëns 1600.

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