A summer dose of Alpine air
Date Posted: 20/09/2011
Patrick Daly introduces the Rhone Alpes region of France for the summer months, with sharp deals to be had and less crowds.
Normally linked with winter sports, the Alpine resorts of the Rhone Alpes region of France are still very much open for business in summer - but it seems that precious few holidaymakers realise this. However, the enlightened know that the crowded ski pistes become lush, flowery meadows, complete with chocolate box cows sporting large, clonking cowbells. The chair lifts still operate but have no queues and the bars and restaurants now charge realistic prices.
There are all manner of extreme sports to scare yourself with if you wish, but simple pleasures such as walking or cycling through the meadows enjoying the clean mountain air or a picnic in the sun are often all that is required. In areas such as the Portes du Soleil (Morzine, Les Gets, Avoriaz, Chatel and eight more resorts) you can buy a pass that gives you access to the facilities in every resort (swimming pools, tourist trains, ice rinks, tennis courts, museums, buses) plus unlimited use of all the chair lifts. Sounds expensive? Actually, it costs just one euro per person per day - and that includes all 12 resorts, and the transport between them.
For groups this area has many well known but often overlooked attractions. Yvoire, is one of the ‘Most beautiful villages in France’ (one of only 155 throughout the country), and sits on the banks of Lake Geneva - or Lac Leman as it is known on the French side. It has ample coach parking and several large restaurants geared up for groups. Evian, or Evian Les Bains to give it the full title, enjoys international name recognition thanks to its bottled mineral water. When you are in the town you can enjoy this water for free at one of the two places where it gushes directly from the spring. Accommodation is varied but amongst the best is undoubtedly the luxurious Hilton Hotel, just a short step back from the shoreline. The rack rate prices are suitably eye watering but negotiated ‘group’ rates are refreshingly realistic, despite the luxury afforded by the rooms and their surroundings. Thonon Les Bains is another fantastic spa town on the same lake, with an historic and unique funicular railway.
Moving from one spa town on a crystal clear lake, to another, can be achieved after a short drive to the lakeside environs of Aix Les Bains. Once the favoured haunt of Queen Victoria (always a sucker for the thermal baths) the link with Britain is strong and there is even a bust of Victoria in pride of place in the town. Anyone feeling lucky should visit the magnificent art deco casino, even if it is just for the period fixtures, fittings and architecture. The spa Hotel Adelphia occupies a prime location next to the marina of the Lac du Bourget, France’s largest freshwater lake. Once again, seemingly scary ‘rack’ rates can be discounted for groups.
Visiting a trilogy of gorgeous lakes can be achieved by stopping in Annecy (pictured), a real group travel destination, with numerous hotels and restaurants equipped for parties of all sizes and abilities. The lake was once one of the most polluted in France due to localised industry but thanks to a major clean up the waters are now the embodiment of crystal clear, teeming with fish and other aquatic life.
Another natural asset of the Rhone Alpes is the mountains and Chamonix is one of the most famous resorts. The high altitude means that you can ski on glaciers all year round should you so wish, but the resort itself is sunny, warm and welcoming. A 15 minute ride up the historic funicular railway to the ‘Mer de Glace’ glacier may result in the temperature dropping by a few degrees but seeing the magnificent ‘Sea of Ice’ at first hand is awe inspiring. It may look resolutely solid but according to my local guide, these glaciers move downhill at between 60 to 90 meters per year. Items that were lost at the summit, including mountaineers, planes and more start re appearing at the bottom several decades later. Gruesome, but fascinating nonetheless.
Another ‘Must see’ in Chamonix is the Aiguille du Midi, a spectacular viewpoint just below the summit of Mont Blanc. Two large cable cars whisk you up to 3,842 metres so you are looking down on the snow-covered peaks of the surrounding mountains. It’s not for the faint hearted though. The altitude means the air is thinner and the temperature is almost always below freezing, but the experience and views will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Chamonix’s reputation is global and it buzzes with numerous nationalities in summer. However, it doesn’t feel crowded. There are spare tables at the pavement cafes, shopkeepers are happy to chat and there seems to be no evidence of the elitist air that seems to pervade some ski resorts when the white stuff blankets the ground. Hotels of all grades are plentiful and Chamonix in the summer is a warm and inviting place to spend some time.
If organising a group trip to this spectacular area seems daunting, contact Rondo Travel, a fully bonded tour operator with over 25 years experience in bespoke group travel. They will help with the management of the trip and if anything goes wrong, they are the ones who will sort it out. In addition Rondo will negotiate rates from the hotels and airlines making it financially realistic for your groups to explore the gorgeous lakes, cities and mountains of the Rhone Alpes region.
01423-526800 (John Bullock)