The stunning vistas of France’s Haute-Savoie a breath of fresh air, says Tess de la Mare.
The Aravis is part of the French Prealps, sitting just west of the main chain of the Alps, and has long been beloved by cross country skiers for its romantic ridges, valleys and fairytale forests.
Situated across the Savoie and the Haute-Savoie, and an easy transfer from Geneva, the region benefits from mountain villages, great food and a spacious ski area.
With 210km of slopes and modern ski lifts, downhill skiers are well looked after. It can sometimes feel like all of Europe’s snow lovers are trying to squeeze into the big resorts, but here outside of the school holidays there isn’t a queue for a ski lift in sight.The local restaurateurs are very proud to serve their regional cuisine.
You would find the usual resort fare of overpriced fast food, it is frowned upon if you don’t take the time to sit down and really enjoy your meal. You run the risk of being unable to stand, let alone ski, after a lunch of fondue, tartiflette or raclette with bottomless servings of salad.
The village of Le Grand-Bornand sits on the western slopes of the Aravis in the widest part of a wedge-shaped valley.
For centuries, before the tourist industry, it was home primarily to the dairy herds that make the region’s famous cheeses. The locals are as proud of their cattle as they are of their many gold medal winning winter Olympians, and in Le Grand-Bornand, every spare wall features a mural of their bovine friends.
Some of the chalets dotting the landscape date back to the 16th century and, in a bid to avoid any concrete eye sores, new developments must echo the area’s traditional style to get the go ahead.
One recent addition to the neighbourhood, by Le Grand-Bornand’s standards, is the Auberge Nordique. Built 40 years ago, but recently refurbished and extended, this hotel mix hostel aims to bring a little Scandinavian hygge to an otherwise strictly traditional French resort.
Located a few miles up the valley from the village, it’s rugged slopes are popular with cross country skiers and ski tourers, who want to escape ski lifts and groomed slopes and head into the wild.
It has partnered with French ski school ESF (Ecole de Ski Francais) to create touring packages for those new to the sport, as well as those not yet ready to head out into the backcountry alone.
Ski touring is known as the best exercise for the regions rich diet, as even a short session will get muscles you didn’t even know existed working. Guests can also try their hand at biathlon, a combination of cross country skiing and rifle shooting, with a practice range a few metres from the Auberge Nordique’s doorstep.
For those who want to stick to downhill skiing, a bus service is provided.
To soothe tired muscles and in keeping with the Auberge Nordique’s hygge ethos, the recent extension features a wellness area, spa and yoga space. But other than these touches of luxury, the Auberge Nordique is actually very stripped back; its simple rooms have lockable wardrobes, so solo travellers can reduce the cost of their stay by sharing.
All meals are included, with a packed lunch, and during our stay at the Auberge Nordique was filled with athletic looking French pensioners who would probably be a speck on the horizon by the time the average Joe had got their boots on.
While cross-country skiing and ski touring are still pretty niche, there is growing interest in the sport, which is likely to accelerate as global warming takes its toll on the downhill slopes.
Further south is the larger town of La Clusaz, filled with shops, restaurants and activities, and with direct access to the pistes.
While pristine powder days are a little rarer at lower altitudes, the resort ensures all its pistes are groomed to perfection with the help of more than 300 snow machines.
Like everywhere, it fills up during the school holidays, but during a late January, the runs are virtually empty. La Clusaz, like its neighbour Le Grand-Bornand, has also stuck to its local architecture, with its wooden chalets springing up around a beautiful stone church.
It is a holiday for those who like the hustle and bustle of resorts particularly families with children.
Nearby is the village of Manigod, which has on offer night skiing sessions for those who have not had their fill in the daytime.
It boasts the largest lit area for night skiing in the Savoie Mont Blanc, including plenty of blue runs for those looking to occupy their kids for that little bit longer.
Night skiing is not included in the regular ski pass, but Manigod restaurant The Happy Chalet offers a night ski session and meal deal for around E30 (£25) per head. During our visit, we see plenty of parents enjoying a leisurely meal while their offspring pop in and out to shovel down a few mouthfuls, before hitting the slopes again.
For the thrill seekers still looking for more, Manigod’s snow tubing run provides the right answer.
It’s either an exhilarating or terrifying experience, depending on your tolerance for adrenaline, and involves wedging yourself into an innertube before launching down a twisting run carved into the snow.
Think massive water slide, only instead of smooth plastic walls and a guaranteed soft landing. The operator assures us that no one has ever broken their neck, but as I go twisting through the tunnels, I find myself thinking ‘there’s always a first time’.
That said, fearless kids will love it and I am definitely up for another go.
After an evening of fun and good food, we are grateful for the large, comfortable rooms of the Hotel Alpen Roc back in La Clusaz.
Those who fancy a whole afternoon of pampering can head to the Deep Nature Spa the powerful massage jets, sauna and steam room. A break in the Aravis will definitely recharge your batteries, but with so much to feed the soul, you will find it hard to leave.
How to plan your trip
More information about the destinations mentioned in this piece can be found at en.france-montagnes.com, en.legrandbornand.com and en.laclusaz.com.