The French Alps are home to iconic snow-capped peaks and the highest mountain, Mont Blanc, in western Europe. The combination of charming old towns and impeccable ski slopes cater to every traveller who wants to spend quality time in this scenic wonderland. Explore the Roof of Europe from the picturesque Chamonix region, winter walhalla Val d’Isère or the unspoiled Mercantour National Park. Expect an outdoor playground with perfect slopes, thrilling activities and plenty of time for relaxation.
Icy pyramids seem to guard Chamonix, with Mont Blanc being a snow-capped Optimus Prime. Cable cars glide through the air around the highest peak in western Europe. On the way to drop people at one of the splendid, razor-sharp ridges the cable cars seem to dissolve into the elements. Snow, ice, and rocks rule in this desolated kingdom of Natura. There’s no way you’ll visit this snowy region of the French Alps without tying on your skis and exploring the slopes of France’s major peaks and their crisp blankets of snow. The white hills attract a diverse crowd, ranging from the ultimate tenderfoot to soaring snow masters. Chamonix region is known for its perfect slopes and excellent snow quality. Hit the hills!
Besides skiing yourself, watching others from a private hot tub might be one of the ultimate joys in alpine life. Overlooking the white world and dramatic mountainous backdrops one can dream away in a steaming bath in Õ des Lauzes Spa in the village of La Léchère. This lush wellness retreat offers delightful massages, soothing pools, and an outdoor jacuzzi with Alp views. The water used is said to have therapeutic effects. Most of all, a dip into the balmy swimming pools is more than enjoyable after a day of skiing.
In case the legs need some relaxing after wandering around in ski boots, there’s always shops around to revel in luxurious projects. Make a grand appearance on the slope by purchasing good quality winter gear and clothes in the Ogier store. Skilled or not; all eyes on the skiing tracks will be on you with purchases from the local Swarovski branch or gorgeous accessories from Zanetta.
The inevitable consequence of a lively time at the mountain drops is a belly calling for nourishment. Step inside the rich establishment Albert 1ER in central Chamonix and become part of a glorious food experience. This culinary fairy tale has been rewarded with two Michelin stars. Decorated with classy wooden roof beams and ritzy sofas, this diner is a serenade to marvellous style. Crab ravioli, white truffle and aged French wine never tasted better than after a full-on snowy enterprise.
“Feast on the plate, feast for the eyes” seems to be the formula of Restaurant La Cabane. Uncorking your French champagne surrounded by snow might be the most enjoyable winter delight. The restaurant is entirely made of timber components and has classic silver chandeliers. Stunning views of Mont Blanc are on the house.
From a distance Flocons de Sel may look like a simple wooden cabin, but truth tells this retreat has a golf course, an indoor and outdoor pool and a hammam. Gourmet goodness is served in an attractive dining area with large windows and natural light. Authentic clocks and unpolished woodwork gives this valley residence a hint of vintage.
The alpine scenery never gets old, and therefore Hotel Mont-Blanc is potentially your new getaway of choice. Dream away in the lush suites, while enjoying your favourite playlist with the Bose sound system or getting the pores to work in the private sauna. From the spacious balcony, one can gaze upon the white alpine peaks, including Mont Blanc itself.
Taking a cable car is one way to get close to some of Europe’s highest mountains. For a jaw-dropping meet and greet with the gentle giants, it’s rewarding to opt for a helicopter ride. Tours offer bird’s eye views of the triangular summits, the Mont Blanc Massif and the Roof of Europe itself: Mont Blanc, standing at 4810 meters. Travelling any closer to the soul of Mother Nature is barely possible.
Welcome to the off the record winter capital of France: the Val d’Isère region with its same-named town and Courchevel. Everything in this villages revolves around the great sports activities. Restaurants rewarded with Michelin stars, art galleries, boutique shops and Courchevel’s own airport make for an even greater appeal. Thanks to the air connection, one can exchange the jam-packed alleys of Lyon for a winter wonderland in the Alps within the blink of an eye. Downtown Val d’Isère is different from Courchevel but equally divine and precious to winter sports lovers.
An open buffet for ski enthusiasts might be the most accurate description for this flawless area, for there are over 300 kilometres of ski slopes surrounding the French town. Val d’Isère is part of grand Tarentaise Valley, a monstrous ski universe. Thanks to its endless well-prepared ramps this lowland is known as one of the best skiing hotspots around the globe. All slope categories can be found in this winter paradise; skiing dummies can kick their experiences off on easy green hills and daredevils can feast on nearly toxicant black drops. Packing your bags for a winter holiday in Val d’Isère is a no-brainer. With summits up to 3500 metres, you won’t ever be disappointed by grassy slopes during winter.
Fancy a lustrous après-ski party? The M-Bar, in the heart of Val d’Isère, manages to mix the joyous vibe of after-sports entertainment with a classy open fire and an endless champagne card. Spend some private quality time with loved ones in M’s intimate room, and get the hang of the alpine lifestyle.
Buzzing Val d’Isère is an authentic mountain town dotted with many old churches and charming stone houses with wooden windows. You’ll find splendid eateries, where you can regain energy after an active day in the open air. Dining at L’ Atelier d’Edmond isn’t just about grabbing a meal. It’s a sensation, a captivating experience that refuses to untie its grip on the senses. The atmosphere is as magical as the menu. L’ Atelier d’Edmond breaths the air of an authentic workshop. Wood, hammers and chisels on the walls are illuminated by industrial lights. The bundle of light reveals the wizardry on your plate at the same time. It appears there are magicians in the kitchen of this culinary enterprise, crowned with two Michelin stars. Among other things, lovely game and refined fish come out the chef’s high hat.
Val d’Isère stands out for its stores with luxurious winter sports gear. Planks Clothing is a local manufacturer of comfy winter clothes that make you look fashionable on the ski tracks.
The cosy streets in the town of Courchevel offer more than classy jackets and snow boots. Fashion brands like Hermes and Chanel comfort all vogue cravings during the holiday. Attire store Blu&Berry is a warm bath for fashion lovers, and has a wide selection of creative patterns.
Winter walking is an excellent way of exploring the vast white scenery in the Val d’Isère region. It may sound like a pointless exercise for those who don’t dare to tie on their skis, but words can be deceiving. What to bring? Shoes with metal pins, and a healthy portion of vitality. Wandering around enchanting landscapes not only is a grand sightseeing tour, it’s also a great way to lose some redundant après-ski pounds.
Courchevel, with its charming chalets and elegant mountain houses is the region’s best bet for overnight comfort. Praised for the location, Le Strato blows everyone who witnesses its grandeur away. Plush sofas, silky soft carpets, and magnificent woodwork make the guest feel like they rented their own billionaire’s mansion. When entering this accommodation you set foot into a wellness heaven with its very own sauna, fitness room, and a large pool. The menu of the one Michelin star restaurant will make everyone’s mouth water.
Somehow the grand Hôtel Le K2 Palace looks like a cave house carved out of the mountains. Stylish black and grey are the dominant colours in the spacious suites, with striking red accents in the furniture. The herbal tea room and large pool are some of the luxurious facilities on Hôtel Le K2 Palace’s menu. Fine dining is guaranteed in the luscious restaurant, awarded with two Michelin stars. Welcome to the European Himalayas!
Mercantour National Park
As a Promised Land for outdoor lovers Mercantour National Park is blessed with raging rapids, pointed summits and an overdose of mountain bike tracks. Climb arduous rock walls, test your guts while rafting through turquoise gorges and gaze upon the eternal galaxy during deep dark nights.
As the tip of the Alps’ tail, the National Park stretches almost as far as the Mediterranean Sea, with the city of Nice being an urbanised gateway. Colourful plastered houses, timber huts, and clock towers dominate the skyline of settlements cramped between narrow valleys.
Despite its lower altitude compared to Val d’Isère, during winter Mercantour National Park is always visited by snow clouds. Isola has about 120 kilometres of slopes and is the uncrowned winter sports king in this region. Twenty lifts cater ski and snowboard enthusiasts from all levels.
More trails are waiting to be discovered. Travel along raging rivers, snow-covered trees and fairy-tale villages. Poising on horseback, one can endeavour a journey into the innards of this French wonderland. This Fellowship of the Alps can last up to five days, displaying the glistening beauty of Mercantour National Park.
Riding horses definitely awakes the snoozing appetite. Secluded behind a heavy wooden door and aquamarine windows sets down Auberge Lo Robur Restaurant. The beautifully mortared building in the tiny alleyways of Roure municipality is just a sneak peek of what’s behind the timber gate. Turning the pages of the menu is an appealing journey across continents, time zones, and cultures. The exhilaration view from the outdoor dining area is – if possible – even more impressive than the extensive wine and seafood menu.
In the wildlife refuge, one can seek for encounters with the most iconic inhabitant of the French Alps. Drift through the woods together with a ranger during a breath-taking wolf tracking session. Find footsteps and perhaps a pair of pointy ears as well. If the wolfs fail to appear there’s a thrilling alternative; try to spot them from the sky. Paragliding is notoriously rewarding in this region, bathing in creamy sunlight for 300 days per year.
Hot, cold, covered in snow, or tanned by the Mediterranean sun; regardless of your physical condition after an animating day in the fresh air, an intimate home is what everyone craves for. Le Lodge Isola 2000 is the perfect getaway to rest the weary legs. Start your after-ski recovery in the lounge where you can dream away in the library and the dancing sparks of the fireplace.
At the foot of impressive rock formations Chalet Marano Hotel Restaurant & Spa stands out with its sauna and a full-service spa. The classy suites display an alpine atmosphere thanks to timber furniture and winter-themed artworks. After the complimentary breakfast and grabbing a cup of coffee from your personal espresso machine it’s time to hit the snow. An additional reason to stay here is the fabulous ski-in and ski-out access, for easy winter sports fun.
Have you ever dreamed about having a private villa with a large pool and a rooftop terrace with forest views? Pick Les Hortensias in Lantosque as a temporary home and wake up realising this place actually exists. An extensive selection of books, board games and dvd’s will make every winter evening a cosy affair.
Getting here from Paris
From the French capital, it takes about 6 hours to reach both Chamonix and Val d’Isère by TGV train, although the closest station to Val d’Isère is Landry at 29 kilometres. For Mercantour National Park a transfer in Nice is required. Fancy driving the scenic route on your own? There are several rental car options and several accommodations offer shuttle service.
Getting here from Nice
This sunny coastal city is an important gateway to the French Alps. Take a TGV or SNCF train in Nice and hop off 10 hours later in Chamonix or Val d’Isère. Going to Isola in Mercantour National Park only takes 55 minutes by SNCF train.◼
© This article was first published in Dec-Jan 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.