The Complete Guide to the Alps in Summer

Where to go when the snow melts in Europe's winter playground
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The Independent Travel

THE ALPS: NOT JUST FOR CHRISTMAS?

THE ALPS: NOT JUST FOR CHRISTMAS?

Europe's longest mountain range is a superb playground in summer as well as in winter. Many tourists think of the Alps only as a snow sports destination and then ignore them for the rest of the year. More fool them: there is a long tradition of holidaying in the mountains in summer, when you can expect clear, blue skies and warm temperatures to accompany a wide range of activities.

Switzerland first acquired a place on the tourist trail as a useful stopping-off point for 18th-century travellers doing the Grand Tour and working their way homewards from an exploration of Italy. During the wars that ravaged most of Europe in the 19th century, Switzerland remained largely unscathed. European travel became more available as the railways developed, and from 1863, Thomas Cook's Ten-Guinea Tours opened up destinations like the French Alps and Austria. By the 21st century, improved transport links make most parts of the Alps very accessible from the UK.

You can imagine the Alps pinioned at either end by Nice and Vienna. The range starts in the south of France, and spreads across Italy, Germany, Austria and Slovenia, a distance of 750 miles. The highest peak is Mont Blanc, at 15,771 feet; the main Alpine rivers are the Rhine and the Rhone; and the region is studded with lakes and glaciers.

The higher you get the more difficult it is to guarantee the heat, although during July and August there are usually plenty of hot sunny days. The Alps divide Europe into two climatic regions, so bear in mind that the southern slopes are likely to be milder than those on the northern side of the range.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

The most popular summer pursuit throughout the Alps is walking, which can mean anything from a gentle stroll through the flower-filled meadows for which the region is renowned, to a serious hike along mountain trails that can take several days. Among the best-known hikes are the Stubai Horseshoe in Austria, and the Tour du Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland.

To join an organised hike on one of these routes, contact a company such as Great Walks of the World (01935 810820; www.greatwalks.net). For example, its 10-day tour the "North Face Trail" in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland departs on 13 August and costs £895, including accommodation, some meals, admission prices and the services of a guide and a trek bag - but not flights (see box on page 18).

If this is too energetic or time-consuming, there are plenty of shorter footpaths, which are all well mapped and waymarked, although the markings vary from country to country. In Slovenia, for example, trails are marked by a red circle with a white centre, while in Switzerland there is a more complicated system of yellow, red-and-white, and blue-and-white markings, which are displayed according to the altitude of the path. Distances are usually marked in approximate walking times, rather than miles or kilometres.

The walking specialists HF Holidays (020-8905 9556; www.hfholidays.co.uk) offers holidays in a single resort, which can be used as a base for walks around the area, such as a seven-night walking holiday at Les Diablerets in Switzerland, starting from £625 per person including flights.

TWO FEET GOOD, TWO WHEELS BETTER

Mountain biking is increasingly popular in the Alps, especially in the Portes du Soleil region of France, where more than 300 miles of marked trails are accessible from the main centres of Morzine and Les Gets. Other good biking bases include Saas Fee and Zermatt in Switzerland, and Mayrhofen in Austria. Crystal Active (0870 888 0266; www.crystalholidays.co.uk) offers seven-night mountain biking itineraries from £600 per person, based on two sharing in Saas Fee, Switzerland, and including all meals. Alp Active (0845 120 9872; www.alpactive.com) can offer a week of mountain biking from £305 per person, based on two sharing on a half-board basis and airport transfers. Flights for both these holidays cost extra.

THIS IS TOO ENERGETIC

Try a gentler pursuit, like messing about in boats - or, at least, hopping on and off the steamers that chug around the larger lakes. The main Alpine bodies of water include the Swiss lakes of Geneva (Léman) and Lucerne; Lake Constance (Bodensee) which dips into Germany and Austria as well as having one shore in Switzerland; and the Italian lakes of Como and Maggiore. The small villages around these lakes are linked by a mixture of steamers, car ferries and hovercraft. Typically, timetables are displayed next to the landing stage, and tickets can be bought from the lakeside ticket office, if there is one, or on board the boat.

One of the best boat rides in the Alps is the short journey from the shore of Slovenia's Lake Bled, as far as the island in the middle. Gondolas - known here as pletna - leave from outside the casino. On the island is a chapel with a "wishing bell" outside; visitors can grab the rope and pull, making a wish as they do so. Lake Bled is the country's most popular tourist attraction, and the stunning mountain scenery makes it easy to see why. Larger and less developed is Lake Bohinj, 15 miles to the south-west and dominated by Slovenia's highest peak, Mount Triglav. No motor boats are allowed on the water, either here or on Lake Bled, but canoes and rowing boats can be hired from several locations around the lake, including the Hotel Pod Voglom (00 386 4 572 3461; www.alpinum.net).

Balkan Holidays (0845 130 1114; www.balkanholidays.com) offers several holidays in the area.

ANY POINT TAKING SKIS?

Yes, if you go high enough. Summer skiing (or snowboarding) is possible on a number of Alpine glaciers, and the resorts usually reopen after a break of a couple of months following the end of the winter season. Expect the slopes to open early in the morning, although they are likely to close around lunchtime: summer sun makes the snow too slushy for skiing later in the day.

Summer ski destinations include the Austrian resorts of Sölden and Hintertux; Saas Fee and Les Diablerets in Switzerland; and La Plagne, Les Deux Alpes and the Grande Motte glacier at Tignes in France. Crystal Active (0870 888 0266; www.crystalholidays.co.uk) offers one-week summer skiing itineraries in Saas Fee and Alpe d'Huez in France. Prices start at £520 per person based on two sharing, including full board and flights from London and Manchester.

Several of the resorts featured in Thomson's Lakes and Mountains programme (0870 606 1470; www.thomsonholidays.co.uk), including Kaprun in Austria, and Zermatt in Switzerland, are also suitable for summer skiing.

Instead of skis, though, you could bring the golf clubs. There is a strange Alpine synergy between skiing and golf, with many golf courses doubling as nursery ski slopes in winter. One of the best golfing resorts is Crans Montana, a classy Swiss village that hosts the European Masters Tournament from 2-5 September. Tickets for spectators start at CHF30 (£13) per day, and are available from the Golf-Club Crans in Crans-sur-Sierre (00 41 27 485 97 97; www.golfcrans.ch). For those wanting a game, the resort has an 18-hole and two nine-hole courses; the local tourist office is on 00 41 27 485 0404; www.crans-montana.ch.

A number of French resorts including Tignes, Meribel and Les Arcs, have good courses; for golfing packages in France, contact French Golf Holidays (01277 824100; www.frenchgolfholidays.com). It offers holidays from around £500 per person for four nights and £1,200 for seven nights including accommodation and flights from London, Manchester and the East Midlands.

I HAVE EARNED A DRINK

The countries you might visit during a summer in the Alps have one thing in common apart from the mountains: they all produce wine. The best-known region is the Alto Adige in northern Italy, whose pinot grigios owe their particular flavour to the high altitudes at which the grapes are grown. A variety of the dessert wine, vin santo, is also produced in this region. In Switzerland, you can try something less familiar, such as the wines produced in the Alpine foothills. The Valais region, across the north of the country, is renowned for the dry white fendant wine, and red dole.

WHERE CAN I STAY?

The choice of Alpine accommodation extends from mountain huts to old-style luxury hotels, with a good selection of family run places in between. At the luxury end of the scale, an unusual option is the Vila Bled (00 386 4 579 1500; www.vila-bled.com), in its own parkland on the southern shore of Lake Bled in Slovenia. It was a summer residence of the Yugoslav royal family until the Second World War, when it became the favourite of the many residences commandeered by Marshall Tito. Double rooms start from €235 (£180) with breakfast.

For a waterfront location, the best selection is at the other end of the Alps, in Geneva. Worth trying are the Hotel des Bergues at 33 Quai des Bergues (00 41 22 908 7000; www.hoteldesbergues.com), which has double rooms from 730 Swiss Francs or £330 without breakfast and the Hotel d'Angleterre at 17 Quai du Mont Blanc (00 41 22 906 5555; www.dangleterrehotel.com), which offers double rooms from £275 room-only.

One of the finest hotels in the Alps is the Palace Hotel (00 41 33 748 5000; www.palace.ch) in the Swiss resort of Gstaad. It is family run, with several restaurants and excellent facilities, including pools, tennis courts, and a wellness centre, offering massages and treatments. It is heavily involved in organising several festivals throughout the summer months, including the Menuhin Festival from 16 July. Double rooms start from €394 (£281) per room per night including half-board accommodation. For reservations call Mason Rose on 020-7235 3245 or see www.masonrose.com.

I NEED SOME PAMPERING

A spot of mountain air might set you up for the rest of the summer, but if not, there are several spas that are worth considering. The Clinique La Prairie, at Clarens-Montreux in Switzerland (00 41 21 989 33 11; www.laprairie.ch/eng) is a serious scientific institute, dedicated to the study of ageing, but once you have had a thorough medical check, the rest of the six-night programme is dedicated to relaxation and fitness, and the location, between Lake Geneva and the mountains, is the ideal place to unwind. This level of pampering doesn't come cheap though, a six-day "Revitalisation Treatment Package" starts from €12,534 (£8,500) per person on a full-board basis.

Both Thermalia Travel (0870 165 9420; www.thermalia.co.uk) and Erna Low (020-7584 7820; www.ernalow.co.uk) offer a range of spa packages throughout the Alps.

Equally spoiling is the Beauty Farm at Les Fermes de Marie (00 33 4 50 93 03 10; www.fermesdemarie.com), in the French resort of Mègeve. Accommodation here is in chalet-style rooms, and a stay can be combined with a number of spa sessions, offering a choice of therapies and treatments, starting at €114.34 (£76) for a 90-minute introductory package. Double rooms at the hotel start from €312 (£204) with breakfast.

The Park Burgenstock Hotel (00 41 41 612 9010, www.lhw.com/parkburgen), perched above Lake Lucerne, is part of a resort complex in one of the finest locations in Europe. Facilities include not only a fitness centre offering, among other things, a Turkish bath and underwater massage, but also indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, and a nine-hole golf course within the grounds. Double rooms start £270 per room per night with breakfast and use of the spa facilities.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

The fastest way is to fly to one of the gateways listed on the right. This summer there is wider range of flights from the UK to the Alps than ever. But you do not need to take a plane. By car, there are plenty of options for drivers taking one of the short-sea crossings to Boulogne, Calais or Dunkirk. You can cross from the north side of the Alps to the south by means of a series of mountain passes and tunnels; prime routes include the Mont Blanc Tunnel, linking the Haute Savoie region of France with Italy's Aosta Valley, and the St Gotthard Tunnel - a 10-mile-long tunnel that connects the German-and Italian-speaking areas of Switzerland.

The Venice-Simplon Orient Express train stops in Innsbruck on its way from London to Venice. One-way journeys from London to Venice or from Venice to London start from £1,310 per person based on two sharing a double cabin, including all meals; contact VSOE on 0845 077 2222 or see www.orient-express.com.

You can make the same journey much more cheaply on ordinary trains. There are connections in Lille, Brussels or Paris from Channel Tunnel trains operated by Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com). For schedules Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk) or Trains Europe (0900 195 0101; trainseurope.co.uk). When you get to the Alps, you are unlikely to need a car. Public transport is well-developed in the region, and services - even the post buses and cable-cars - are designed to dovetail. In most Alpine resorts, the main cable-cars, chair lifts and mountain railways continue to operate throughout the summer months.

SUMMER CULTURE

SALZBURG FESTIVAL 24 JULY-31 AUGUST

One of the most important arts festivals in Europe, the six-week Salzburg festival includes concerts, opera and drama productions. Tickets start at about €50 (£35) for drama and €100 (£70) for opera. Call 00 43 662 8045 500, or go to www.salzburgfestival.com.

GENEVA SUMMER FESTIVAL 29 JULY-8 AUGUST

The events in Geneva's annual summer festival include lakeside parades, free concerts, an air show, and a daily firework displays. Call 00 41 22 909 70 70 or go to www.fetes-de-geneve.ch.

LUCERNE FESTIVAL 13 AUGUST-18 SEPTEMBER

Lucerne's Summer Festival started in 1938 with a concert given by Arturo Toscanini. This year the programme will include a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio. Tickets are available from the Ticketbox, PO Box CH-6002 Lucerne; 00 41 41 226 44 80 or www.lucernefestival.ch.

FLYING THERE Rebecca Matthews



Fares quoted were researched this week. They are the lowest available this week for peak departures on Saturday 7 August, returning a week later. Off-peak flights may be cheaper, though all fares are likely to increase closer to departure.

AIRLINES

Adria (020-7734 4630; www.adria-airways.com); Air France (0845 359 1000; www.airfrance.com); British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com); easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com); FlyBE (0871 700 0535; www.flybe.com); Lufthansa (0870 837 7747; www.lufthansa.com); Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com); Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com)

GATEWAYS

GENEVA

From Gatwick (BA, easyJet); Heathrow (BA, Swiss); London City (Swiss); Liverpool (easyJet); Luton (easyJet); Manchester (BA); Nottingham (easyJet); Southampton (FlyBE). Specimen fare: Luton £131

GENOA

From Gatwick (BA); Stansted (Ryanair). Specimen fare: Stansted £93

LJUBLJANA

From Gatwick (Adria); Stansted (easyJet); Manchester (Adria).

Specimen fare: Manchester £618

LYON

From Birmingham (BA); Heathrow (Air France, BA); Stansted (easyJet); Manchester (BA). Specimen fare: Birmingham £183

MUNICH

From Birmingham (Lufthansa); Bristol (BA); Gatwick (BA); Heathrow (BA, Lufthansa); London City (Lufthansa); Manchester (Lufthansa); Stansted (easyJet).

Specimen fare: Gatwick £122

NICE

From Bristol (easyJet); Gatwick (BA, easyJet); Heathrow (BA, BMI); Luton (easyJet); Stansted (easyJet).

Specimen fare: Bristol £218

SALZBURG

From Birmingham (FlyBE); Southampton (FlyBE); Stansted (Ryanair); Specimen fare: Southampton £189

ZURICH

From Birmingham (Swiss); Heathrow (BA, Swiss); London City (Swiss); Luton (easyJet); Manchester (Swiss).

Specimen fare: London City £164

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