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Wednesday
Jul132011

Insider Guide to Val d’Isere, France

The glorious mountains around Val d’Isere, in France’s Haute Savoie province are rightly famed for their fabulous winter skiing.  With some of Europe’s best mountains, excellent weather, and great tourist infrastructure, skiers beat a path here in the winter months.  Some of the sexiest events of the 1992 Winter Olympics were held here, so in terms of hotels, dining, and entertainment, everything is beyond top-notch.

But the summer?  A ski resort in July?

Here are six good reasons to grab your hiking boots and head to this corner of France in the summertime.

1. Excellent hiking

The very same mountains that are beloved of skiers take on another avatar in the summer months.  From June onwards when the snow begins to melt, the dazzling peaks beckon walkers and hikers.  Some ski-lifts operate, if you feel like hitching a ride to the top, but otherwise the trails are clearly marked, graded by degree of difficulty, and are well-maintained.  Get a map from the tourist office, check the daily weather reports (always remembering that conditions can change rapidly in the mountains), and head off into the hills.  Some of the passes are blocked by snow all year round, so be prepared to negotiate snow drifts, even during the peak of summer.

2. Wild flowers galore

The slopes of the mountains are ablaze with a breathtaking variety of wild flowers.  Childhood lessons on wild flowers will prove inadequate, such is the huge variety of flowers blanketing the slopes.  Perhaps hike with a guidebook to wild flowers to complete the image of hiker nerd.

3. Marmots

The cutest little rodents around.  Rather like overweight meerkats, they stand on their hind legs and whistle to the neighborhood when they spot you.  This piercing noise then echoes all around the hills.  They are not tame, despite their furry image, but neither are they excessively skittish.  They tend to keep a safe distance, lolloping slowly away as you approach.  Don’t feed them, cute as they are.

4. Empty restaurants

This is France, after all, where good food is an integral part of life.  Even at the National Park’s mountain 'refuges', or shelters, high up in the hills, they have a wine list.  The restaurants and cafés down in the village of Val d’Isere are pretty empty during the summer months, so you always get a table.

5. Perfect weather

Sun, deep blue sky, enough wind to need a light sweater.  What could be more perfect?  You absolutely need a hat and sunblock in the hills, and yet a slight breeze will remind you that you are up in the mountains. Essentials to pack include good broken-in walking shoes, a hiking pole, hat, sunblock, backpack, water and camera.  If you don’t have these things, no worries – there are sports shops galore in Val d’Isere, which brings us to reason #6 to visit…

6. Summer sales

Everything is on sale in the leaner summer months, so you can buy all your hiking and winter sports gear at a huge discount.  Every shop in town is seemingly having a sale, so if hiking hasn't worn you out, you can shop till you drop.

How to get there:

You can fly to Geneva, in Switzerland, and drive across one of the most relaxed borders into France and up into the mountains.  The drive takes about 2.45 hours on excellent roads. Or you can fly to one of the three surrounding local airports Chambery, Grenoble, or Lyon.

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