With soaring Alpine peaks, verdant valleys and serene lakes bordered by elegant towns, Haute-Savoie is a haven for all who adore the great outdoors, as Caroline Bishop discovers
A dramatic landscape of peaks, clear blue lakes and valleys makes Haute-Savoie a haven for lovers of the great outdoors
It’s not hard to imagine how impressive Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, must have appeared to two English explorers who encountered it on a trip to Chamonix, in the south-eastern corner of Haute-Savoie, way back in 1741. William Windham and Richard Pococke fell in love with the mountains and glaciers around this small village and wrote so enthusiastically about it in a published travelogue that they are credited with sparking tourism in the area. By 1770, when the first hotel opened in Chamonix, it was named L’Hôtel d’Angleterre in honour of all the English tourists who had followed in their footsteps.
They’ve kept coming ever since. Not just to Chamonix, which remains arguably Haute-Savoie’s most famous resort (the first Winter Olympics were held here in 1924, cementing its reputation for winter sports), but to the area’s many other resorts, which are just as well endowed with natural riches. From the shore of Lac Léman (also known as Lake Geneva) in the north to Mont Blanc on the Italian border in the south, the department’s 4,388km2 surface area encompasses four mountain ranges that between them create some of the most stunning scenery in France and a giant natural playground for anyone who loves the outdoors. With 718 ski lifts, 51 lakeside beaches, 22 golf courses and 58 paragliding take-off points, this isn’t a place you easily get bored in. No wonder its biggest town and capital, Annecy, on the shore of the pristine-clean lake of the
same name, is known as the European capital of outdoor sports.
With all this on offer, it’s obvious why millions of foreigners visit every year and why many, including nearly 4,000 Brits, have chosen to make Haute-Savoie their home, syncing their lives with the rhythms of mountain life.
“Mother Nature dictates how we live,” says Teresa Kaufman, an American photographer who runs discovery walks in Chamonix. “It seems that everyone who has chosen to live here is here for the benefits of the environment: nature, mountains, sports. We organise our daily life around the arrival of the sun and its departure. Don’t bother trying to organise an afternoon tea party in town on a sunny afternoon. Everyone will be either hiking, biking, climbing... or any other outdoor activity.” In winter, Haute-Savoie boasts some of the world’s best skiing across some 50 resorts, many of them interconnected. Skiers and snowboarders are spoilt for choice in the vast Portes du Soleil, which encompasses 286 slopes across 12 village ski areas and even links to Switzerland. In the Grand Massif, you can sample the family-friendly slopes of Samoëns before dropping down into the bowl of Flaine for the afternoon. And in the Lake Annecy ski resorts you can wake up in La Clusaz, ski to Manigod for lunch and sample Le Grand-Bornand in the afternoon, all on the same pass.
But a major part of the appeal of Haute-Savoie is that summer is no less actionpacked. Châtel, part of Portes du Soleil, turns into a mountain biker’s paradise from June to September. The spa town Évian-les-Bains, on the shore of the vast Lac Léman, is at its best in the summer months, when sailboats race offshore and day-trippers take the ferry across to Switzerland. Road cyclists adore pedalling where Tour de France cyclists have pedalled before them on the steep climbs up from Annecy into the mountains. And hikers enjoy myriad trails across the region, walking hut to hut in Savoie-Mont Blanc, tackling the Pointe Percée in the Aravis range or sampling the Portes du Soleil’s 800km of marked trails.
It was the area’s year-round appeal that attracted Su and Andy Lyell to Samoëns.
The couple, from Winchester, were on an “adult gap year”, as Su puts it, when they fell in love with Samoëns and decided to open a chalet there, the Ferme du Ciel.
“It’s a place with a real life; it’s got people living here in the village all year round, unlike other ski places. It’s a stunning area in winter and summer, and we thought the ski area was absolutely superb and higher than some others,” says Su.
The couple “loved it from day one” and are still there 11 years later. With easy access to Geneva airport – most resorts in Haute-Savoie are only about an hour’s drive away – they could easily get back to see friends and family in the UK while maintaining a completely different way of life. “We love the pace of life,” says Su. “They’ve got their priorities right. You’ve got time to really enjoy the stunning outdoor life and social life. It’s given us everything we could have hoped for and more. It’s a much, much healthier way of life.”
But the attraction of this region isn’t only in its natural assets. Haute-Savoie’s rich cultural and historical traditions add to its appeal, as the capital attests. With its origins dating back more than 4,000 years, Annecy has been shaped by a long and tumultuous history that included a defining period of rule by the Dukes of Savoy in the Middle Ages and a time as an important religious centre pitted against Reformist Geneva, before the area was annexed by France in 1860.
This rich history has left the town’s medieval centre with many architectural treasures including the 12th-century Palais de l’Île, a former prison and mint that sits on a peninsula in the Thiou river, the 16th-century St Peter’s Cathedral, and the imposing Château d’Annecy, considered the symbol of the town. Built over several centuries in the Middle Ages and once home to Geneva’s counts, it is now a beautifully restored historic monument and museum.
All this is set amid pretty pedestrian riverside streets and a network of flowerlined canals that have lent the town the nickname ‘Venice of the Alps’. The oftphotographed point where the Vassé canal meets Lac d’Annecy under the 110-year-old Pont des Amours (‘lovers’ bridge’) sums up this town in a snapshot – a place as blessed with personality as it is with beauty.
There’s plenty of Savoyard character in the department’s smaller towns and mountain villages, too, which have found an easy bedfellow in tourism without being overwhelmed by it. Apart from the purpose-built 1960s ski resort of Flaine, whose austere Bauhaus architecture is an anomaly, most of the region’s resorts, including Samoëns, Les Gets, Megève, Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval and Le Grand-Bornand, were once small farming villages (it’s rumoured that Le Grand-Bornand is home to as many cows as people). Their development as ski resorts in the 20th century has given them a welcome economic boost, but thankfully hasn’t – for the most part – been achieved at the expense of their original character.
Departmental capital Annecy, on the shore of the pristine-clean lake of the same name, is known as the European capital of outdoor sports
Instead, these villages guard their heritage proudly. New developments are built in keeping with the chalet-style architecture of the centuries-old village centres; restaurants entice visitors to sample the hearty montagnard dishes – fondue, tartiflette, raclette – that typify the Haute-Savoie department; and local producers welcome tourists to their farm shops to try the Abondance and Reblochon cheeses made with milk from cows that graze on the nearby Alpine pastures in summer.
As well as superb skiing, visitors can try the latest sports, from skijoring to ‘snoocing’ (a ski touring/tobogganing cross). There are swanky spa facilities, such as Châtel’s Forme d’O and Megève’s Le Palais; big-name music events, including the popular Rock the Pistes festival in Portes du Soleil; and worldclass restaurants. The upmarket resort of Megève, with a population of 3,500, has no fewer than three Michelin-starred restaurants, making it a gastronomic go-to in the Alps.
As tourism has grown to become a key industry, it’s become even easier for foreigners to set up home here. “They are very accepting [of the British],” says Nicky Wye who works for property agent Leggett Immobilier in Portes du Soleil. “And it’s great they like the fact that the Brits come out here and buy up the old farmhouses that are absolute wrecks and need totally renovating, and that brings vibrancy back into the community.”
Su Lyell agrees. “The majority [of locals] are very friendly, welcoming; our neighbours are delightful. I think they have accepted that the Brits bring in business and the young ones particularly recognise that this is what creates growth in the area and that’s good for them too.”
That’s lucky, because most of the area’s foreign residents love it so much they are unlikely to ever leave. With its relaxed pace, incredible scenery, character-packed villages and array of activities in all seasons, life in Haute-Savoie is hard to turn your back on.
“After a while,” says Teresa Kaufman about Chamonix, “you start to wonder if it is possible to live anywhere else.”
Main photo: Haute-Savoie is home to many beautiful lakes including Lac de Montriond in the east of the department
Facing page from top: Annecy’s colourful Old Town; skijoring (where skiiers are pulled by a horse, dog or motor vehicle) is one of the Alps’ latest sports; once a small farming village, Le Grand-Bornand is now a thriving ski resort
This page, left and inset: Annecy’s Old Town is full of cafés, restaurants and pretty flower-lined canals; the Aiguille du Midi in the heart of the Alps
Facing page, from top: The clear blue waters of Lac d’Annecy; summer is the perfect time to take a boat out on the water; Chamonix is a popular resort for the Brits
Yvoire is a pretty village on the edge of Lake Geneva; mosaic floor at the Chamonix tourist office