A ski resort in summer — it seems a bizarre concept at first. Arriving at Alpe d’Huez, the snowboards still lined up in shop windows and empty chairlifts knock you off-kilter for a moment. But then, above, a wall of silent mountains. In the muted colours of morning they’re partially in shadow, as though they’ve been stencilled onto the horizon. Some are sharp and craggy, others soft like the folds of a quilt. They stretch on and on, seemingly forever, making insignificant specks of hikers and bikers. The smell, manure and edelweiss mixed with crisp air, is so fresh it’s tangible. Alpe d’Huez in summer feels fiercely alive.
The resort itself — all quaint chalets, fancy restaurants and kids zooming around on quad bikes — sits in the lap of Pic Blanc, the region’s highest mountain at almost 11,000ft. You can ski on the glacier at its summit as late as July, for as little as £37 a day, all the while soaking up views that stretch out over a fifth of France. Higher still, four-seater planes take sightseeing trips so close to the ice that its sheen is visible as it melts, bits breaking off and skittering down the slope. And water is everywhere; a cool, glassy backdrop to hiking, biking and every outdoor pursuit in between. Within ambling distance of Alpe d’Huez, 12 pristine lakes lay undisturbed, save for tiny ripples, as though they’ve been pierced with a million microscopic needles. It’s a soul-stirring scene, the kind of backdrop that makes you want to burst into song, arms in the air, face to the sky.
Take a day trip
Take to the skies
Walk this way
Three to try: Restuarants
Every day, head chef Philippe Piloz fishes in his own private pond for trout to serve that evening. He’s a passionate advocate of local produce. Sumptuous dishes are made even better by the restaurant’s views.
Chalet du Lac Besson
Before going to eat, take a 10-minute detour to see Lake Besson at sunset. It’s spectacular. From gargantuan steaks served with dauphinoise potatoes to tartiflette, this restaurant delivers classic mountain fare at its best.
Au Puits des Saveurs
Creative cooking that achieves a happy medium between modern and classic makes this restaurant in the centre of Alpe d’Huez a must-visit. Try the croustillant d’agneau (filo lamb parcel) served with mushrooms and thyme.
Eyewitness: Tour de force
Fine, I think. Easy. I set off, and almost immediately I’m gasping like a fish out of water, my legs start seizing up and my head swims. I’m furious. I went to three spin classes this week solely so I could glide effortlessly up the mountain. I had visions of me as Lance Armstrong, having to slam on the breaks to turn corners. He had performance enhancing drugs, I have an engine — I figure we’re on par. I’m outstripped by a passing butterfly and make my decision, switching my motor up to sport mode.
I jerk forwards, careering into the middle of the road and completely giving the game away. But then, suddenly, I’m flying. It’s immensely satisfying, speeding up the slope overhung with huge Tour de France banners. I streak past cyclists in what appear to be varying levels of distress, from uncomfortable to running-on-empty, and whose looks of disdain only bring me back down to earth a bit.
It’s just me, the mountain and my (motorised) bike. In parts, the views are stupendous. The higher you get, the more the Romanche River below looks like nothing more than a glistening strand of spaghetti, the cars like beetles. I finish the eight-mile, 11,840ft ascent with my legs aching just enough to know I’ve exercised, to feel I deserve the tartiflette on the terrace of L’Altiport restaurant. olivier.sport2000.fr
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)