When the snow has melted, Europe’s rooftop emerges as an action-packed playground par excellence
T here’s a new buzz in the Alps. Summer is back on the menu as a great time to visit: some of the most famous towns in the region, including Chamonix and Morzine, report that it is now challenging winter as their busiest time of year.
The explosive growth in cycling is one of the main reasons for the surge. Mountain-biking led the way, as the MTB brigade put on body armour and started hurtling down the slopes on purpose-built hell-for-leather trails. Now power-assisted e-biking and road cycling are gaining ground, too. And alongside these has come the sport of trail-running. In fact, running up and down mountains has become so popular, 15,000 people entered the ballot for the gruelling 104-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (and associated races) in Chamonix this year.
Of course, not every footpath echoes to the whirr of pedals and the pounding of running feet. There are gentler pleasures such as yoga breaks, wine-tasting tours and an ever-growing collection of Michelin-starred restaurants. Add in some great family centres, with buckets of activities for kids, and the age-old challenges of mountaineering and hiking, and you can see why the Alps have become Europe’s favourite summer playground once more. That’s before we’ve even mentioned the scenery. Here’s a taste of what’s on offer.
Mountain-biking tours in the Dolomites
Sheer-sided and sharp as teeth, the Brenta Dolomites of Italy rise up from an ocean of trees and pack a mind-boggling amount of splendour into a compact massif. They ’re also home to wildlife including golden eagles and brown bears , and make a thrilling backdrop to Saddle Skedaddle’s Dolomites of Brenta mountain-biking tour. This is not a technical route — most of it follows forest roads and easy single-track paths — but you need to be fit, as each day involves ascents of at least 3,300ft . The eight-day guided tour starts at £1,080pp, including stays in six hotels and one mountain refuge, transfers and most meals, but not flights (0191 265 1110, skedaddle.co.uk). Fly to Verona with BA or easyJet.
Road biking in France and Italy
A new wave of road cyclists is washing through the French Alps, as thousands of Brits follow Chris Froome up the famous climbs of the Tour de France. Several cycling-holiday specialists offer guided rides with support vehicles — including Exodus, which has an eight-day Classic Climbs of the Alps featuring a day on the Cols du Télégraphe and du Galibier, climbing a muscle-melting 7,400ft. Prices start at £1,099pp, B&B, including flights and transfers (0845 314 2012, exodus.co.uk).
If that sounds like too big a challenge, set your own agenda at the swanky La Perla hotel, in the Italian Dolomites . Its Mangia Beve Bici package includes a guide, a mechanic, a masseur and a support vehicle, as well as a Pinarello Dogma F8 bike — as ridden by Bradley Wiggins . Each day is tailor-made, and you can take it easy or tackle one of the climbs of the Giro d’Italia (00 39 0471 831000, hotel-laperla.it; from £288pp a day, half-board). Fly to Verona with BA or easyJet, then hire a car.
Trail-running in Chamonix
It’s heaven and hell rolled into one. Icicle Mountaineering’s trail-running camps in Chamonix tackle half-marathons and 3,300ft climbs on a daily basis — and at the end of your first run, you’ll feel as if you’ve been spun in a tumble dryer filled with rocks. No matter: stick with it for a week and soon “I want to die” will change to “I never want to stop”. Probably. Four camps are planned this summer, all led by the British ultra-trail runner Kingsley Jones . If anyone can coax you over the next mountain, it’s him. The six-night trip costs £699pp, B&B, excluding travel (01539 442217, icicle-mountaineering.ltd. uk). Fly to Geneva with BA, easyJet or Swiss ; shared transfers start at £52 return with Mountain Drop-offs (020 7043 4874, mountaindropoffs.com).
Hut-to-hut hiking in Austria
There’s so much to love about being up high in the Alps: the tangy smell of a dirt track, the sense of space, the silence. So why bother dropping back into the valleys at all? Stay at altitude for a whole week on a six-night hut-to-hut hike around the Zillertal Alps, in Austria. Designed by the mountaineer Peter Habeler, who climbed Everest without bottled oxygen in 1978, it’s an easy 37-mile tour that begins and ends in Hintertux, giving you plenty of time to put your feet up in the sunshine or detour up a few mountains. Book the full trail, with a night in each hut, through the Mayrhofen tourist office (from £126pp; 00 43 5285 676 0618, mayrhofen.at). Fly to Innsbruck with easyJet, then hire a car.
Mountaineering in Chamonix
Want to make the leap from hillwalker to mountaineer? Then spend a week learning the ropes on a KE Adventure course based in Chamonix, France. You’ll master the skills as you go, on glaciers, rock faces and towering peaks, then test them all on your final ascent — up the 13,325ft Gran Paradiso, in the Aosta Valley, over the Italian border. You’ll be staying in a catered chalet, with two nights in mountain refuges ; eight days cost £1,345pp, half-board, excluding travel (01768 773966, keadventure.com). Fly to Geneva with British Airways, easyJet or Swiss; a shared transfer to Chamonix starts at £52 return with Mountain Drop-offs (as above).
Five-star yoga in Switzerland
High, remote and — in the summer — undervisited, the Engadine Valley is a serene spot, and never more so than when you’re relaxing in the vast spa at the five-star Grand Hotel Kronenhof, in Pontresina (00 41 81 830 3030, kronenhof.com). For the full effect, book a Holistic Life Retreat, which mixes lots of yoga with good old-fashioned pampering. Just be sure to spend some time outdoors, too: the view down the valley from the top of the 8,000ft Muottas Muragl will make your hair curl. A week costs £2,385pp, half-board. Fly to Zurich with Air Berlin, BA, easyJet or Swiss, then take the train — it’s one of the most magnificent railway journeys in Europe (£97 return; swisstravelsystem.co.uk).
Wine-tasting in Italy
It’s odd that the Val d’Adige is overlooked as a wine-growing region. They’ve been at it for 3,000 years and have several of their own grape varieties, as well as an irresistible sparkler called Trentodoc spumante . For a taste of the region’s range, take a three-day self-guided tour on the Strada del Vino, in Trentino (from £255pp, B&B, including tastings and restaurant meals; 00 39-0461 921863, www.stradavinotrentino.com ), then follow it with a couple of nights at the chic Gius La Residenza hotel, in Kaltern am See, so you can explore the vineyards of the South Tyrol (0471 963295, designhotel-kaltern.com; doubles from £181, B&B). You’ll see amazing scenery, too — along some sections, the cliffs go straight up for almost 6,500ft. Fly to Verona with BA or easyJet, then hire a car.
Electric-biking in Austria
With 620 miles of trails and 80 rental stations, the Kitzbühler Alps are Austria’s e-biking hub . But there’s more to the appeal than infrastructure. This is one of the softer stretches of the Alps — more Sound of Music than Eiger Sanction — and its easy-going bridle paths and forest roads are perfect for the gentler style of riding that your bike’s electric motor will encourage. It’s also the setting for hundreds of miles of footpaths and several golf courses, should you feel like a change of pace. A week at the family-run Hotel Bechlwirt, in Kirchberg, starts at £588pp, half-board, including flights to Salzburg, transfers and three guided bike tours, with Inghams Lakes and Mountains (01483 345719, inghams.co.uk).
Michelin stars in France
Visit the lush green mountain meadows of the village of Megève, in France, and you’ll have several Michelin-rated restaurants on your doorstep. Most enticing is the three-star Flocons de Sel, where Emmanuel Renaut has made “eat local” his mantra. He invites guests to accompany him as he scours paths and pastures in search of mountain flavours such as meadowsweet, lovage, yellow gentian and mushrooms (menus from £73; floconsdesel.com). In nearby Manigod, you can conduct your own exhaustive search for the perfect slice of reblochon, with a tasting at the Paccard cheese cellar on Tuesdays and Thursdays (www.reblochon-paccard.fr). Megève itself is full of posh hotels, but with so many big lunches to pay for, why not go self-catering and finish the day with a modest bowl of pasta, or another slice of reblochon, back at base? A week in a one-bedroom flat at the Résidence Lune d’Argent starts at £181pp , including return ferry crossings for a car and passengers, through Peak Retreats (0844 576 0170, peakretreats. co.uk/summer).
A splashing time in Austria
Let your young adrenaline junkies loose in the Otztal , home to Area 47, the largest adventure playground in Europe, which has water slides , climbing walls, rope walks , rafting and 440 miles of bike trails. The Aqua Dome complex is a place of refuge for grown-ups : a giant spa with three open-air thermal pools. A week in the school hols in a family suite at the designer-chic Bergland hotel, in Sölden, starts at £495pp, half-board, for a family of four (00 43 5254 22400, bergland-soelden.at). Fly to Innsbruck with easyJet, then hire a car.
Go wild in France
High, remote and free of human settlement, the Ecrins is the largest national park in France, and attracts just 850,000 visitors a year. (The Lake District gets 15.8m.) So, if you want to experience the mountains in an almost pristine state, this is where to go. Undiscovered Alps specialises in affordable tailor-made trips in and around the park. It has a week in the school holidays, staying at the boutique Grange des Ecrins, from £570pp, B&B, for a family of four. The price includes nine “activity points” per person, which can be exchanged for all manner of guided adventures, including canyoning, via ferrata and climbing (0345 009 8501, undiscoveredalps.com). Fly to Marseilles with BA, easyJet or Ryanair, then hire a car.
Balmy days on Lake Garda
The climate here is balmy enough to produce the world’s most northerly olive oil, and is perfect for anyone who wants a little bit of mountain and a lot of sunshine. The four-star Hotel Poiano, near Bardolino, has an Olympic-sized pool, a kids’ club , tennis and beach volleyball. Out at the back, there’s mountain-biking and hiking on Monte Baldo . The Gardaland theme park and Canevaworld water park are nearby, too. A week in the school holidays starts at £711pp, half-board, for a family of four, including flights to Verona, transfers and excursions to Venice and Verona, with Thomson Lakes & Mountains (020 8939 0740, thomsonlakes.co.uk).
Dive into downhill mountain-biking
It sounds so simple: just point your bike down the mountain and let gravity take control. But there’s a whole lot more than that to downhill mountain-biking. The sport has boomed in popularity across the Alps, and the routes now offer a range of challenges, from the relatively gentle to the (apparently) lunatic. Riders put on full-face helmets, goggles and body armour, then tackle everything from banked turns and exposed tree roots to huge manmade jumps.
You’ll find bike parks in most Alpine resorts, each with ski lifts adapted to carry your bike back uphill — and more are opening every year. Les Deux Alpes, in France, Saalbach-Hinterglemm, in Austria, Verbier, in Switzerland, and the Val di Sole, in Italy, are among the best; but this year the spotlight is on Les Gets, part of the vast Portes du Soleil area that straddles the Franco-Swiss border east of Geneva.
A downhiller’s paradise for more than 20 years, Les Gets is the only European stop on this year’s Crankworx world tour, and offers 14 lift-serviced downhill trails , graded according to difficulty. There’s everything here from heart-stopping elevated runways to a kids’ zone and a coaching track; and there’s more of the same on the back side of the mountain, above neighbouring Morzine. First-timers can book private lessons at the Les Gets Bike School (£32 an hour; lesgetsbikeschool.com), and a week at the Hotel Christiania starts at £600pp, half-board, including flights to Geneva, transfers and three days’ bike hire, through Alpine Elements (020 3432 6880, alpineelements.co.uk).