Through Slopes, Snow and Sun
France holds different gifts for different people. One traveller’s boulevards and pâtisseries are another’s stone villages and lavender fields. For many, however, the country is at its finest in the east, in the Alps and in winter. It’s not hard to see the charm. Mountain sunshine, fresh pistes and snow-cloaked landscapes make for a heady combination. The sense of space and freedom is tangible. There’s rarely far to go to reach a log-fire chalet or mountainside café. You’re left with a holiday culture that draws its goggle-clad, fondue-fueled devotees back year after year.
On a north-to-south car trip in France, from Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) to the Trois Vallées, you’ll experience this appeal first-hand. The route takes in some of the continent’s greatest winter sports resorts, from Chamonix to Courchevel. Of course, everything gets dwarfed by the Alps themselves – the restaurants, the roads, even the lakes – but then sometimes, feeling like a speck in the landscape is what a memorable road trip is all about.
Mountain sunshine, fresh pistes and snow-cloaked landscapes make for a heady combination.
Start in: Evian-les-Bains
Before its name became a regulation sight in drinks chillers across the globe, the lakeside settlement of Evian had forged a reputation as a luxurious 19th-century spa town. It certainly had the right credentials. Overlooking silvery Lake Geneva and offering a range of elegant hotels, it also had ready access to flowing mineral springs. The town’s heritage has been neatly modernised at the Palais Lumière, where a century-old thermal spa has been remodelled as a cultural centre. It holds regular exhibitions.
In scenic terms, the calm of Evian’s location on Lake Geneva provides a neat precursor to the alpine pinnacles further south. The lake itself is the largest in Western Europe, and warrants exploration. A winter cruise across to Lausanne in Switzerland gives a sense of its dimensions. And less than 20 miles from Lausanne is another Swiss lakeside town, Montreux. It’s where Deep Purple were inspired to write their classic “Smoke on the Water” after witnessing a fire on the waterfront. Continuing the musical legacy, you’ll also find former Montreux resident Freddie Mercury immortalised in bronze by the lake’s edge. He’s in triumphant arm-aloft pose, as well he might be – the view’s superb.
Back in Evian, taking a dip in its thermal baths is still possible. It’s a good way to get the blood flowing, ready for the scenic drive to Chamonix. As the road bends its way up into the mountains, the refinement of lakeside living becomes replaced by something altogether more raw and rugged. The French Alps have man-made comforts of their own these days, but the route to Chamonix is a chance to appreciate the rampant scale of one of the world’s great mountain ranges.
Drive to: Chamonix
When Pierce Brosnan’s 007 sped downhill on an epic ski-chase in The World Is Not Enough, it showcased to the world the momentous wrap-around scenery that makes Chamonix such a thrilling area to visit. That said, it’s not as though the resort had previously struggled to make a name for itself. It was as long ago as 1741 that a pair of aristocratic British mountaineers “discovered” the glaciers and peaks of the Chamonix region. The intervening centuries have seen it become one of the most fabled spots in Alpine tourism.
The 4,810m-high bulk of Mont Blanc looms above the resort like some colossal winter overlord, and the list of activities on offer is similarly sizeable. You’ve got the chance to hike, skate, ski, luge, climb and snowboard, not to mention indulge in a spa treatment or two. After your scenic helicopter flight, naturally.
Visitors who prefer vicarious thrills shouldn’t fear, either. The era of mountaineering exploits that helped “Cham” first find fame is well documented at the resort’s Musée Alpin. It makes for an absorbing – and by no means exerting – historical diversion before you drive on to Les Trois Vallées.
The 4,810m-high bulk of Mont Blanc looms above the resort like some colossal winter overlord…
End up in: Les Trois Vallées
Beyoncé. Prince Edward. The Beckhams. When the press run their annual round-up of celebrities on the slopes, fewer things are more certain than Les Trois Vallées having drawn a healthy flock of A-listers. Billed as the world’s largest ski area, it’s made up of eight separate resorts, including classy Méribel, sky-high Val Thorens and oh-so-chic Courchevel. It complements some of the Alps’ most snow-sure downhill runs with an impressive dedication to the joys of après-ski.
Thrill-seekers can try the two-kilometre floodlit toboggan run through the woods of Courchevel. Families and beginners can find their ski legs in the Méribel snowpark. Up in lofty Val Thorens, meanwhile, the likes of snowshoeing, Segway tours and even dog-pulled sled trips hint at why the World Travel Awards named it not just the best resort in France, but the world as a whole. And frankly, is there a more impressive spot to wrap up a car trip than at an altitude of 2,300 metres in the heart of the French Alps?