Travel: Shooting the rapids of the Isere, you're tossed hither and thit her through gorges, colliding with rocks

Out of season, Val d'Isere becomes a playground for the intrepid.
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The Independent Travel
Somewhere in that space which lies between the backdrop to Heidi and what must now be the crumbling set of Eldorado, is fertile territory for that most difficult of television genres: Eurosoap. No shortage of photogenic scenery, bronzed, oversexed ski instructors, and more pouting, giggling chalet girls than you can shake a ski-stick at. Add to that the constant flow of extras (the tourists), any of whom could be kept on should their walk-on part show signs of promise, and you're almost there. Almost. What happens to the storyline during those fallow months when the snow retreats to the high peaks? What actually goes on in a ski resort out of season?

In the case of Val d'Isere - a ragbag of Lego-block apartment buildings, cafes and sports shops in the Haute Tarentaise (1600m) - the surrounding moutainscape is turned into a summer playground for those hungry for several lungfuls of fresh air and a few short, sharp shocks to the system. The well-heeled crowd of the winter months is replaced by a distinctly less affluent (and predominantly French) clientele in the summer months. It is quite common to spend the week in a self-catering apartment, whiling away the days walking or cycling, and splashing out once on one of the many, but costly activities organised by ski schools, disguised as outward bound-type outfits for the summer.

To get an instant, intimate feel for the terrain, and to extend your handling of a 4x4 well beyond the local supermarket car park, you can spend half a day inching your way up impossible gradients, straddling the rocky beds of fast flowing streams or driving over giant wooden see- saws. There are usually five or six people to a Jeep, and each person takes it in turns to drive.

This being France, things are made more interesting half-way into the proceedings by jollying everyone along with a glass or three of wine and some salty, dried mountain sausage. The handling soon takes on a far more erratic quality as the Jeep slithers perilously down a shingle slope, or takes the see-saw too enthusiastically, causing it to land with a spine- jarring thump. A survey of the participants, admittedly somewhat unscientific given the sample size, reveals that women are far better at this than their "move-over-and-let-me-show-you", overly macho menfolk.

Those wanting to shoot the rapids of the Isere need to travel way down the valley, some 20 miles or so before it is considered practicable. Downstream from Val (as the expatriate British call it), the Isere is a mighty torrent, its flow regulated from higher upstream. The idea is that each inflatable rubber boat, and its crew of seven, navigates the rapids, being thrown hither and thither through gorges, colliding with rocks and all the time everyone paying heed to the instructor who sits at the back bellowing bilingual instructions.

If your idea of a good time is to get up at a ridiculously early hour, don a damp wet suit, a crash helmet, a life-jacket, and a thin plastic anorak reeking of someone else's body odour, then be drenched with freezing water while trying not to fall overboard, then whitewater rafting is probably worth a try, at least.

For those with even less regard for body and soul, hydrospeeding is a yet more reckless version of this sport: it consists of wearing similar apparel (though with extra padding in the wet suit to absorb the knocks) and gripping a surfboard while being tossed in the foaming current like a cork.

The skies you cavort beneath can be quite capricious; thunderclouds will come spilling over the mountain, and minutes later the whole valley will boom with thunder. This put paid to my parascending plans. The instructor with whom I was to run over the edge of a cliff and fall - parachute permitting - gracefully to earth several hundred feet below, announced that the strange gusts and currents of wind made the operation far too risky.

In fact a good deal of what you might plan to do is often a hit and miss affair. Those organising the fun and games are, in reality, little more than agents acting for self-employed instructors. If the Jeep, helicopter or inflatable isn't full, it is less profitable, and liable to cancellation, often at the last minute. The best advice is to be as flexible about what you plan to do as possible.

One thing that you can rely upon is that all this exertion will give rise to a more than healthy appetite, and that the Savoyarde cuisine is ready with substantial and delicious offerings. It is based around ingredients that have a long shelf-life, so expect an abundance of hams and sausages, salty and moreish especially with an aperitif. The cheeses range from the hard gruyere-style varieties, of which the best is the tangy Beaufort, to the soft, pungent Reblochon. The latter is the principal ingredient of tartiflette, in which potatoes, onions, bacon and a whole cheese, sliced into two rounds, are baked in creme fraiche.

After dinner activity is a shadow of its winter self, but the infamous Dick's Teabar - where you can enjoy the tackiness of a Seventies nightclub - does open for business. Better to get an early night, and save your energy for tomorrow.

Out of season alternatives

Skiing This is only possible in the mornings; in the afternoons the snow becomes too slushy. Go either to the Pissaillas Glacier near to Val d'Isere, or to the Grande Motte above the nearby and equally architecturally-challenged resort of Tignes.

Mountain biking You can go mountain biking in spring, summer and autumn. Bikes and equipment are available for hire locally, and you can spend a full or half day on an organised ride. You are taken back home by four- wheel drive vehicle.

Trial biking This more boisterous sort of biking takes place at a specially designated area. There are courses for beginners as well as for the more adventurous rider.

Canyoning A combination of climbing, swimming, slipping down natural water slides in the rock and jumping into deep water. This is probably the most demanding and exciting activity of all.

Rambling Either alone or part of an organised walk. The flora and fauna of the Alps are rich and varied. There is a myriad of footpaths you can take to look at the alpine flowers, or go marmot spotting.

Angling The lakes harbour rainbow trout, char, salmon, and other fish. Equipment and tuition available locally.

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