Embracing life in the slow lane on a summer holiday to the Alps

Is it possible to find lazy-paced mountain fun? An out-of-action Mary Novakovich swerves the adrenaline-inducing activities and embraces a gentler kind of holiday

Monday 24 July 2023 10:11 BST
Lake it easy: Immerse yourself in the water of Lake Annecy
Lake it easy: Immerse yourself in the water of Lake Annecy (Adam Batterbee)

Every summer, it seems, those resourceful people in the French Alps come up with more adrenalin-boosting ways of having fun in the mountains. Until earlier this year, I would have joined them. But thanks to an out-of-control skier who ploughed into me in March, I’ve been hobbling around with a damaged knee. Still wanting to get a summertime mountain fix – all that lovely clean air, mind-blowing scenery and fabulous food – I decided to find ways to take things more slowly and see how people with limited mobility can get the most out of a summer Alpine holiday.

I was in the Annecy Mountains, where I could combine bijoux ski resorts with one of France’s most beautiful cities of the same name and the country’s third-largest lake. My first base was the small village of Talloires, which, along with more than a dozen spots along Lake Annecy, has its own beach. Swimming was just what the doctor ordered, and the wooden bathing deck in front of my hotel, Abbaye des Talloires, gave easy access to the water. What a joy it was to plunge into those incredibly clear waters and give my knee a very gentle workout.

Unable to join the cyclists making their way around Lake Annecy’s 33km Voie Verte circuit, I took a boat ride with Florent from Blue Diamond Taxi Boat instead to get a closer look. Talloires sits on its south-eastern side under the cliffs of the Roc de Chère nature reserve, under which the atmospheric Smugglers’ Cave was cut into the rock. Everywhere we looked there was seemingly a grassy bank, sandy stretch or bathing platform from which to launch yourself into the water.

Annecy's Pont des Amours
Annecy's Pont des Amours (Adam Batterbee)

We motored to the southernmost tip for a waterside view of one of the lake’s protected areas, the Bout du Lac nature reserve, heralded by a wall of tall reeds. I returned the following day to wander the accessible raised wooden walkways through this lush landscape of marshes, meadows and woods where two river sources, the Ire and Eau Morte, fed into the lake. The reserve’s beavers didn’t make an appearance, but it was a peaceful and soothing way to spend a morning.

Just up the road from the reserve was La Cuillère à Omble restaurant, a sublime lakeside spot to try some of the fish caught by the lake’s two remaining professional fishermen. Omble (Arctic char) and féra (whitefish) are among the most popular, the latter ending up deliciously grilled on my plate. Normally in the Alps, this particular cheese addict would have been gorging on comté and the like. But I decided to make the most of Lake Annecy’s gorgeous bounty before the second half of the trip higher in the mountains.

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Before I had to wrench myself from the lake’s shimmering waters, I headed up to Annecy’s Vieille Ville, as irresistible as ever. Here, the vivid blue of the lake contrasted with the turquoise waters of the tree-lined Canal du Vassé and the green canopy of trees in the Jardins de l’Europe. On this warm day, most of the population seemed to be sunning itself on the town’s lakeside beaches. Everyone else was sitting on the café terraces along the Canal de Thiou, leaving Annecy’s most photogenic landmark – the medieval Palais de l’Île, on its own island – relatively quiet. It was only €3.90 to visit, so I popped in for a crash course on the rich history of the building and to see the art in its upper gallery.

Bout du Lac nature reserve
Bout du Lac nature reserve (Adam Batterbee)

After this thoroughly enjoyable lakeside interlude, it was time to gain another 600m in altitude and follow the twisting road towards my next base at the ski resort of La Clusaz. But first there was Les Fromages du Fermier in Manigod, otherwise known as my idea of heaven. Here in this land of reblochon, tomme de Savoie, abondance and beaufort, I joined the weekly Thursday cheese tasting and tour of the cheese caves (€8). My French could just about keep up with the commentary, but my taste buds were already fluent.

I soon discovered how surreal it can be to visit a place you know only when it’s covered in snow. La Clusaz was at its greenest on this sunny June day, the unfrozen waters of the nearby Lac des Confins reflecting the surrounding mountains. Abondance cows ambled around the meadows, their cowbells adding music to the moos.

I soon discovered how surreal it can be to visit a place you know only when it’s covered in snow

The footpath’s terrain was a bit too difficult for my unstable knee, but I had better luck the next day on the Col des Annes, where a handful of restaurants and cheese farms formed a mini hamlet at 1,721m. After a tartiflette lunch at La Cheminée, I followed one of the tracks that fanned out from this mountain pass, whose moor-like landscape was dotted with the occasional herd of cows. I clocked the signpost for a four-hour hike to Lac de Lessy and added it to my wish-list for the future.

Back in La Clusaz, I found a museum that paid homage to two of the region’s most vital elements: cheese and skiing. In a lovely Savoyard-style chalet, Le Hameau des Alpes (€7) tells the story of reblochon on its ground floor, while its upper level explores in fascinating detail (especially old film footage) the history of skiing in the area. The museum’s farm outbuildings, including an old communal bread oven and exhibits of farming life over the centuries, reminded me how rustic and rural the region still is.

Mary at Col des Annes
Mary at Col des Annes (Adam Batterbee)

Rustic and rural were certainly on the menu on my final dinner at the convivial Chalet Savoyard on the Col des Aravis at 1,498m, near the border between Haute Savoie and Savoie. It was the summer solstice, and there was still a dusky light on the mountains when we emerged from the restaurant. Elsewhere in France, people were celebrating the Fête de la Musique, when everyone makes music on the longest day of the year. Annecy, I was told, was where the big party was happening. But here on the empty D909, where the Tour de France would come rolling along in a few weeks’ time, there was only the loud, joyous sound of cowbells, our own Fête des Cloches. I didn’t need an adrenalin-boosting Alpine adventure – just the midsummer magic of the mountains.

The ski resort of La Clusaz has a whole different look come summer
The ski resort of La Clusaz has a whole different look come summer (Adam Batterbee)

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mary Novakovich travelled with Annecy Mountains and Le Shuttle, which has Folkestone-Calais crossings from £87 each way.

Staying there

In Annecy, the historic Abbaye de Talloires has played host to celebrities from Mark Twain to Paul Cézanne. Individually designed rooms and suites are complemented by a gourmet restaurant and brasserie, vaulted bar and 200sqm spa; abbaye-talloires.com

In La Clusaz, the four-star St Alban Hotel & Spa combines Art Deco-inspired style, cosy rooms, a trendy bar and a spa, complete with indoor swimming pool, sauna, herbal tea room with a salt wall, sensory shower and ice cave; hotel-st-alban.com

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