Summer in Châtel
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 CGH Les Chalets d’Angèle we spend a few minutes mounting wheels and checking things over before stowing our gear in the secure bike store.
La Belle Dimanche Alpine Festival
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 colourful celebration of traditional mountain life originally centred on the judging of the livestock breeds which play a key role in the economy of mountain communities.
Now the event also encompasses food and craft producers’ market, music and folklore plus demonstrations of traditional crafts, including cheesemaking, wood turning and artisan iron working.
Alpine horns, and not following the herd
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.
When we’ve done the full circuit we pause for lunch at the food and drinks hut, noting a surprising lack of vegetarian options for an area renowned for cheese-making. For us it means a lighter lunch than we’d planned.
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, and 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.
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.
We ride a riverside trail over to Abondance
Since our road-bikes are back home we look again at the trail map, and spot the Sentier des bords de Dranse, a 20km riverside trail down the valley to Abondance. Equally accessible to walkers, it could be just the kind of terrain our hybrids 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.
The bike-carrying shuttle bus
Minutes later we emerge in the heart of the village, 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 midday closing, so we pick up some cold drinks, a fresh baguette and a wedge of tasty local AOC Abondance cheese.
After an unhurried picnic lunch on a lone bench we’d spotted beside the trail (a bit of shade being just too much to hope for) we return to the village and await the first of the afternoon’s shuttle buses. When it arrives we hang the bikes on purpose-built racks and enjoy an effortless ride back up the valley to the market place in Châtel. From there it’s just a few minutes’ downhill run back to the résidence, where we store the bikes, head up to our apartment and enjoy a cool beer on the balcony.
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 Châtel by riding the gondola lift up to the Franco-Swiss border at Super-Châtel.
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.
Heading even higher
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. Fortunately, most of the return walk to Super-Châtel amounts to little more than a gentle downhill stroll, but the blissful near-silence remains with us almost until we reach the gondola lift.
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 village looms a short distance ahead of us. We turn left, though, to follow a footpath which takes on a winding route in perfect peace down to the Cascade des Brochaux, a truly spectacular reward for almost an hour’s downhill ramble.
Beyond the falls we follow another wayward path, this time following the stream from the falls through some 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
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, taking the vertiginous cable-car up to the 1936m Croix-de-Culet and looking back across the valley towards the Pointe des Moissettes. A fast-approaching thunderstorm threatens to add even more drama to the visit, but we make it down again safely and head back to Châtel, still dry and with a satisfied glow of achievement in the face of unsettled weather.