The Best of France's Alps
The light on the Aravis Range changed minute by minute with the setting sun. Seated on the chalet's terrace this August day, we looked across the valley at the rugged peaks and at the village of La Clusaz below. "What a week!" exclaimed my wife, as we sampled the local white wine and creamy Reblochon cheese. We agreed that we had been fortunate to find this chalet, Les Granges, surrounded by alpine meadows and forests in France's wonderful Haute-Savoie region. The beautiful, authentic Savoyard valley was only thirty minutes from Lake Annecy, and an hour from Geneva and Chamonix/Mount Blanc.
Local Savoyard Color
General and Madame Bulkeley, Les Granges's proprietors, offer a separate apartment on the ground floor of their chalet. They are extremely helpful and interesting hosts. We enjoyed how they spoke from time to time in two languages at once -- General in his native English and Madame in her native French. Madame recounted the history of the valley and the special customs of its people. She told us the incredible story of how she and the General hand-built their chalet over a twenty-year period.
The General is incredibly fit, and although he has 30 years on us, he kept us puffing on a descent from Mont Beauregard. He had led us via telecabin to the peak from La Clusaz. Along the way he told us some "war stories" from the British Army. The General also excitedly pointed out his favorite extreme-skiing spots in the surrounding mountains.
There is an abundance of mountain trails and rock-climbing possibilities in the Aravis range. Some of the 90 ski lifts in the region are open in summer to provide quick access. Parasailors favor the highest lift, since it provides a descent of over 4,000 vertical feet to La Clusaz. My wife and I used the lifts for mountain bike explorations. We discovered meadows filled with dairy cattle, alpine bells clanging from their necks. We also found two isolated chalets where they produced the famous Reblochon cheese.
The colorful villages of La Clusaz, St. Jean de Sixt, Grand Bornand, and Thones are filled with shops, restaurants, and cafes. Thones is particularly worthy of exploration due to its town square, old church, and deep Savoyard roots. The Thones street market runs twice a week in summer. Barkers in their lively stalls sell local products and handicrafts. There is also a park nearby where locals play boules, similar to lawn bowling, for hours on end.
Fantastic Lake Annecy
Lake Annecy claims the title of France's most beautiful lake. We took a boat from Annecy for a round trip down the lake. Neighboring Alps towering around the lake overwhelmed us with their grandeur. Colorful parasailors filled the sky near several of the higher peaks. A group of windsurfers sailed the mid-lake waters at the village of Talloires. We could not resist debarking here to rent boards for an hour of pleasant sailing. We then explored the beautiful village's narrow streets before catching the return boat.
Annecy is the Haute-Savoie's largest city with 120,000 inhabitants. It has an incomparable old town section which borders canals flowing from the lake. The buildings in this area date to the 12th century, including churches such as Saint Francois and Saint Maurice and an island prison at Palais de L'Ile. Restaurants and cafes line the main streets. A large park along the lake provides excellent views, pathways, biking trails, and quick access to town. We enjoyed exploring Annecy during two days, wishing we had even more time there.
Mont Blanc and Chamonix
Mont Blanc at 15,771 feet tops the Haute-Savoie and all of Europe's Alps. The telecabin which leaves from the valley floor at Chamonix rises over 8,000 feet to the spires of the Aiguilles du Midi. From there Mont Blanc looms an additional 3,500 feet. The Mont Blanc range is one of the world's most majestic, with peaks that are virtually needles (aiguilles). During the two-stage lift ride, the telecabin hovers hundreds of feet above sheer slopes. That is adventure enough for most people, but guided glacier climbs to Mont Blanc are available from Chamonix or Aiguilles du Midi. The telecabin also continues over the Alps into Italy on a steep descent to the town of Courmayeur.
Chamonix is not an authentic Savoyard village. However, this world class resort town has much to offer -- unparalleled views, flower-lined streets, and many lodging, dining, and sporting alternatives. This is an excellent place to rent mountain bikes for flat-terrain cycling along the ten-mile valley floor. A ski lift on the opposite side of the valley from Mont Blanc provides summer access to excellent hiking trails and an impressive parasailing launch site.
Pick your season
On our first summer trip to the Haute-Savoie a few years ago we based ourselves in a Chamonix hotel. On this return summer trip we enjoyed lodging in an authentic Savoyard valley chalet. Regardless of lodging preference, the Haute-Savoie's variety of sites are within reasonable proximity of each other. We have decided to take our next trip here to enjoy the winter environment. The variety of skiing terrain and lifts at Chamonix and the Aravis range near La Clusaz and Grand Bornand should provide a great ski vacation. We are looking forward to another voyage on-high in the Haute Savoie!
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