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Weekender: Alpe D’Huez

One of France’s premier skiing resorts feels fiercely alive in summer, with outdoor pursuits and spectacular mountain views that stir the soul

Weekender: Alpe D’Huez

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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

Drive for an hour and a half to Villard-de-Lans, a town in the Vercors Massif mountain range that offers the charming squares and chequered tablecloths you’d expect from a holiday in France. The centre is pedestrianised from 8 July to 23 August, a music band is an almost constant feature and wooden games reminiscent of a 1900s village fete line the main street. Some restaurants, like Le Vieille Forge and Chez Ange, offer Mediterranean cuisine but head to Le Clariant and you’re plunged back into the mountains. This chalet-style restaurant was built using reclaimed wood, and the dining room is hung with fairy lights and vintage photographs. The imposing fireplace, meanwhile, comes complete with a stuffed pig’s head wearing a woolly hat and sunglasses, naturally.

Take to the skies

Several companies offer tandem paragliding throughout summer and winter, taking off from an altitude of 6,916ft and slowly spiralling down to the Bourg-d’Oisans valley 4,630ft below. While there’s the option of trying your hand at steering, you can always just sit back in the harness and soak up the view. Alternatively, the tiny planes that take off from the airport in the centre of Alpe d’Huez soar over the Alps’ spectacular peaks, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Flight times range from 20 minutes to an hour. alpesportsloisirs.com aeroclubdudauphine.fr

Walk this way

The valley surrounding the resort has 143 miles of marked trails suitable for all abilities. Hikers wanting to reach the higher routes can take a chairlift up the mountain or, for those after a challenge, guides are on hand all summer.

Three to try: Restuarants

L’Altiport
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.

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

Eyewitness: Tour de force

The 21 hairpin bends of Alpe d’Huez, a legendarily tricky section of the Tour de France, tower above me mockingly. But I feel supremely confident. I’m on an e-bike, a huge monster of a machine that looks like a road bike but has an in-built engine complete with four speeds, from eco to turbo. Under the instruction of our distractingly blue-eyed guide, Charlie, we’ve agreed to get to turn six before going to anything above eco.

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

Essentials

VIP Ski runs its luxury ski chalets as B&Bs in the summer (from £40 a night per person). Throughout summer, Ryanair flies from Gatwick to Grenoble three times a week.

Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)