The Alps have been a wintersports favourite with British visitors since the early twentieth century and Haute Savoie has some of the best ski slopes in France with 50 resorts offering a variety of runs, great lift networks and facilities. The resorts of Chamonix, Argentiere and Les Houches, and La Vallee Blanche are in the popular Chamonix domain (1000 – 3842m) with good conditions and a variety of slopes for all levels including great off-piste runs for experienced skiers. Guides are a must for the high mountain descent of Mont Blanc Massif and the very special 22km descent past the glacier and ice cliffs of La Vallee Blanche. Make for Megeve (1000 – 2600m) if scenery is as important as easy and intermediate skiing. Traditional Massif des Aravis (1200 – 2600m) is the place for families with intermediate skiing at La Clusaz and Le Grand Bornard. Resorts in Le Grand Massif domain are Les Carroz, Morillon, the pretty village of Samoens which has plenty to do but no direct ski access, Sixt, and car-free Flaine with its 1960s Bauhaus architecture where you can ski from your door. Purpose-built Avoriaz is in the heart of the world’s largest linked ski area – Portes du Soleil (900 – 2350m) a 400 hectare domain covering French and Italian resorts. A pedestrianised resort perfect for young families, it has a superb children’s village and plenty of activities apart from skiing. Other traditional family resorts here are Morzine and Chatel-les-Gets with great skiing for all levels and plenty of other winter sports activites.
A full range of winter sports awaits you in Haute Savoie, including not only mainstream activities such as snowboarding, telemark, tobogganing and ice-skating but also more unusual ones – dog-sleighing, igloo-building and night skiing (by full moonlight). After a busy day of sport, there are plenty of opportunities for spa treatments and après ski activities.
Find easy links from the ferry ports of Caen/Ouistreham and St Malo to fast motorways making driving to Haute Savoie a hassle-free option.
Take the Montenvers rack railway from Chamonix offering great views of the famous Mer de Glace glacier (rises 871m in 5.7km). The Tramway du Mont Blanc from St-Gervais is popular with climbers and hikers who use it to reach the start of their trails.
You don’t have to be a skier to enjoy the thrills of riding in a cable car with bird’s eye views of mountains and lakes. Many resorts like Morzine and Les Gets stay open in summer to lift hikers and mountain bikers out of the valleys. One of the highest cable cars in the world goes from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi (3842m), rising almost 3,000m by the Mer de Glaceglacier. Tickets are expensive and the drop is awesome but worth it for breathtaking views. Take another cable car from Aiguille to Helbronner (3462m) in Italy for the closest views you’ll get of Mont Blanc. Ask at Chamonix Tourist Office, tel: (00 33) 4 50 53 00 24, for details including a Mont Blanc multipass which also gives discounts to the Chamonix Amusement Park for children.
Remember to take warm clothes (even in summer) and suntan lotion.
Treat yourself to rest and relaxation at one of Haute Savoie’s thermal spas which offer everything from mud wraps to underwater massage. Evian-les-Bains and Thonon-les-Bains are both located on the banks of Lac Leman (Geneva). The contemporary centre at Evian in the Parc Thermal specialises in mother and baby treatments whilst water from the Versoie spring at Thonon is used for rheumatic and nutritional problems. Hot mud treatments are a feature of the spa by the park at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains which offers both health and relaxation treatments. www.thermes-st-gervais.com
Gardeners and botanists can have a field day in Haute Savoie. Not only do many Alpine resorts such as Annecy, Yvoire, Evian and Thonon-les-Bains put on wonderful floral shows beginning in June but high meadows are alive with colour in July and August, and the region has a range of very special gardens to visit.
Walled Labyrinth-Jardin des Cinq Sens (Garden of the Five Senses) of Chateau d’Yvoire has been laid out formally according to the art and symbolism of the Middle Ages with fruit trees, roses, aromatic healing plants, fountains and aviaries. Open Apr – Oct.
The lakeside water gardens of Pre-Curieux beside Evian have ecological messages and an exhibition on wetlands. Book a place on the solar powered boat which takes you there at Evian Tourist Office. For more see www.precurieux.com, tel: (00 33) 450 70 15 44.
The remarkable rockery garden of Jardin Alpin La Jaysinia in Samoens in the Giffre Valley is a mountain in miniature. 250 gardeners took 3 years to complete this gift from Marie-Louise Cognacq-Jay - a local girl who founded La Samaritaine department store in Paris. Free and open daily.
Visit the precious collection of Alpine plants in Chanousia Botanical Gardens, at an altitude of 2,000m close to Little St-Bernard pass on the Italian border. The Secret Gardens at Lagnat-Vaulx, Rumilly, spread like a mosaic over 7000sqm in a world of fantasy pagodas, water and flowers. The latter is open each day Apr - Oct with music nights in summer. www.jardins-secrets.com Tel: (00 33) 4 50 60 53 18.
Golf courses are known for their fine surroundings and some of the most beautiful are to be found in Haute Savoie. Mont d’Arbois 18-hole golf course at Megeve is one of the oldest mountain style courses with an average altitude of 1,320m. Tel: (00 33) 4 50 21 29 79. Golf Club de Chamonix (18-hole) in the shadow of Mont Blanc began as a 4-hole course in 1934, www.golfdechamonix.com. Golf de Morzine, Avoriaz (9-hole par 36) on the edge of a pine forest and 18-hole Golf des Gets in the heart of the Portes du Soleil are both in amazing settings. The celebrated Evian Masters Golf Club, played by the best lady golfers, hosts international tournaments. Find great courses around Lake Annecy at Golf Club of Lake Annecy/Talloires, www.golf-lacqannecy.com, tel: (00 33) 4 50 60 12 89. And Golf de Giez/Lake Annecy www.golfdegiez.fr, tel: (00 33) 4 50 44 48 41. A golf tournament held on snow is played on Mont d’Arbois plateau.
You may be in the mountains but Haute Savoie has a range of level cycle routes suitable for families and leisurely rides. Rent bikes and find trails along valley floors, around lakes and along the old Annecy-Albertville railway track. Follow the Rhone wine route starting south of Geneva at Frangy and passing little wine towns beside the river like Seyssel where wine has been produced since the eleventh century. Sample Seyssel’s light, fragrant white AOC wines and continue on through the lovely Chautagne vineyards to Ruffieux across the border in Savoie. For the more adventurous, many resorts like Avorias, Chattel and Les Gets arrange for their lifts to carry bikes to higher levels in summer. Morzine, close to steep Col de Joux-Plane, has often been chosen as the finish for the Tour de France. Downhill mountain biking in the Portes du Soleil domain is some of the finest in Europe with 650km of signposted trails. (Ask about a cycle chair-lift pass). For fantastic views of the Alps cyclists and motorists can follow a re-creation of La Route des Grandes Alpes initiated by the Touring Club de France in the early 1900s starting at Thonon-les-Bains and ending on the French Riviera. Find details of trails at local Tourist Offices.
Rivers are highest in May and June from snow and glacier melts and lower but warmer as summer progresses. The River Dranse near Lac Leman is great for canoeing and rafting and the Giffre at Samoens and Arve at Chamonix. Maison de la Montagne de Chamonix, tel: (00 33) 4 50 53 55 70, has plenty of information on rafting, canyoning and hydrospeed. Contact Alpo River Rafting, www.alpovive-rafting.com, close to Thonon-les-Bains, A7 Aventures www.7aventures.com and Haute Savoie Nature Aventure www.rando-rafting.com .Passy also has several rafting centres like Ecolorado Rafting, tel: (00 33) 4 50 78 18 76. Equipment like wet suits and crash helmets are provided and trips are with qualified guides and instructors.
There are sailing clubs around Lac Annecy at Annecy, Annecy-le-Vieux, Plages de Talloires, Port de Menthon-Saint-Bernard, Port de Doussard, St-Jorioz and Sevrier.
Evian and Thonon-les-Bains are both sailing resorts on Lac Leman (Geneva) and there’s a sailing school at Talloires. Be aware the lake can be rough on occasions due to high winds. Contact local Tourist Offices for more details on sailing schools and marinas.
Walking is one of finest ways to enjoy the fantastic scenery of Haute Savoie’s high peaks, mountain lakes and Alpine meadows once the snow has melted. Listen for the whistling of marmots, spot golden eagles circling above and ibex on distant ridges, and delight in orchids, lilies and gentians at your feet. But be aware some routes above 2000m can be snowbound until July! Mont Blanc (4807m) is ever present in the Chamonix Valley which captivated Wordsworth and Dickens. Explore the Aiguilles Rouges Reserve on the Lac Blanc and Grand and Petit Balcon Sud trails. Buy a TopoGuide and follow parts of the Tour du Mont Blanc classic mountain route climbing mountain passes and weaving through the 7 beautiful valleys surrounding the whole Mont Blanc range spreading into Italy and Switzerland. The GR96 leaves Samoens travelling south to d’Entremont-le-Vieux in Savoie via Sixt Fer-a-Cheval, the Plate Desert, Passy and southern tip of Lake Annecy. Follow the GRBL Balcon de Leman above the shores of Lake Geneva. A plaque in St-Gingolph marks the start of the GR5 long distance Alpine hiking trail to Menton on the French Riviera.
Find more details in French TopoGuides and at local Tourist Offices. Unless you are highly experienced, go with a professional leader on more difficult routes for your own safety and enjoyment and be advised on suitable clothing and equipment - see www.guides-du-montblanc.com
British Mountaineering Pioneers were coming to Savoie Mont Blanc as long ago as the 1740s. Today you need a trained mountain guide to tackle Mont Blanc on foot. Experienced climbers can go cragging out of the Chamonix Valley and enjoy climbs graded from 4 – 8 in the Middle Arve Valley. Visit the Tourist Office in Chamonix, tel: (00 33) 4 50 53 00 24, and Maison de la Montagne, www.ohm-chamonix.com, for current weather and safety conditions. They can also advise about mountain guides and climbing expeditions.
Why not try your hand at climbing on the indoor climbing walls of the Chamonix sports complex, www.guides-du-montblanc.com, tel: (00 33) 4 50 53 27 05, has information on climbing schools for adults and children at various levels on rock, snow and ice.