It reopened on July 4, and now's an ideal time to visit – with a surfeit of cost-effective accommodation and activities
Keep a goat apart... this is the message from Les Arcs, the French resort which reopened on July 4.
Les Arcs is using this novel way of educating visitors to observe the one-metre social distancing rule enforced by the French government. Signage on all hand sanitiser stations around the village uses illustrations of goats as a visual representation – goats it seems are a very convenient size as well as a tourist attraction...
Goats were, however, very far from our minds last year as we – my three girls, 10, 15 and 17, and my newly widowed Dad – came down the final straight of the River Isère, breathless, bedraggled and soaking wet. We looked at each other, momentarily shocked by what we had just accomplished, and then broke out into exhilarated laughter.
White water rafting was one challenge I had never imagined I would try, let alone with my septuagenarian Dad. Every family has had a tough year, and, for us, the global pandemic was coupled with the loss of my mother, who passed away towards the end of last year from dementia. I can honestly say there were moments when we thought we would never be happy again.
The family urgently needed a break away: however, the challenge to find an all-round fit with lots of space and outdoor activities was not so straightforward. Years of much-loved family holidays led us to the French Alps, meaning the girls could practice their language skills for upcoming exams. The Alps had always been a dream for Dad, who loves hiking but was under the impression that it was hugely expensive.
It seems not! A surfeit of cost-effective accommodation is available in the summer. Les Arc 1800 in Savoie, France, in the Tarentaise Valley town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, well-known as a winter destination for skiing, has a secret – that the summer is even better!
The resort offers 35 marked hiking trails – suitable for all levels of walker and 149km of mountain bike trails. There are high adrenaline sports like mountain biking, white water rapids and rock climbing – as well as more traditional activities, such as hiking and golf.
The air in the summer has a quality that is like nectar: fresh and warm at the same time, instantly refreshing. As we drank in the first few breaths of mountain air and looked around, the stresses and strains of the past few months began to fade. The scenery was so vibrant, bold and stunning.
Basecamp for the week was at Pierre Vacances, Les Alpages de Chantel apartments. Built in the traditional Savoie chalet style, constructed from wood and local materials, our beautiful apartment gave us a feeling of warmth and relaxation from the moment we opened the door. Breakfasts of fresh croissants and sundowners were taken on the terrace with mountain views that lifted the spirits and helped soothe our souls, while dad taught the kids card games.
In the central village of Les Arcs 1800 was an incredible indoor and outdoor swimming pool with flumes and massage jets, a huge trampolining park, archery zones and an eighteen-hole golf course in open parkland with mountain scenery. An outdoor fitness studio offers yoga, cardio training, step and Zumba.
The village also has a treetop climbing adventure park, circus school, inflatables, mountain karting, archery and mini golf. With a Hero Pass, all these activities – as well as the ski lifts – are included. The Hero Pass makes you parent of the week – saying yes to everything is rather like having a super power.
As the week passed, a pattern emerged: crazy activities in the morning, more relaxed things in the afternoon. Somehow, the past few months made us all more daring than ever before – and we found ourselves being tempted by more high-adrenaline activities.
We tried all the activities together as a team. Initially there was some doubt from the village activity team that a ten year-old and my Dad would keep up. But by the end of the week, they’d surpassed all expectations.
First, mountain biking: Les Arcs is famous worldwide for well-mapped, curated routes and incredible off-piste cycling. The resort’s ski lifts can take bikes up the mountain, leaving you with just the pleasure of the descent.
We arrived at the mountain bike rental store filled with trepidation, seeing experienced mountain bikers setting out dressed for battle. Our dreams of cycling across the gentle grassy slopes of the mountains were shattered. We all were handed what essentially looked like body armour to save us if we fell. Falling, my Dad said, was not part of the plan – and everyone agreed.
Our wonderful guide, Eric, assured us that we would all be safe and that it would be ‘fun’ as he pointed towards a steep, rocky, winding path. The five of us, looking a bit like Power Rangers, set off terrified and exhilarated at the same time. Speed, he said, was not the focus - but rather, getting down the slopes safely and with enjoyment. After the first couple of slopes, we split into two groups and continued, one group taking higher and more challenging mountain paths, the other going at a much more relaxed pace.
Our bravery with the high-adrenaline sports peaked with the white water rafting. We had booked onto the discovery tour – the idea being that we would all take part, and if we wanted, there was a second part that continued into some more challenging rapids.
We arrived on the banks of the River Isère, terrified. The river was like a washing machine, foaming and fast. Where, we wondered, was the discovery tour? “What are the paddles for?”, asked my dad. My eldest daughter, looking shocked, asked, “What is this, and where is the calm water?”.
Again we donned the safety equipment – wetsuits, life jackets and helmets – and prepared to confront the mighty waters.
We were introduced to Raf, our exceptional guide and captain. The safety briefing on land was followed by several practice drills in the water. It was adrenaline fuelled and shocking in equal measure, the five of us paddling on instruction, guiding the boat through the waters, taking the waves in our stride, through the path of the rocks and huge waves. As we reached the end of the discovery tour, we separated into two groups, myself and my crazy action-loving daughter staying on for more, the others disembarking to dry land.
The second part of the trip completed the full 22-kilometre stretch of river, taking us through level three and four rapids where the conditions were extreme – riding white waters at speeds of 22m2 of water per second. Following the clear instructions from Raf, we made our way through the remaining kilometres of the swirling, foaming rapids, paddling like crazy, the water continually refreshing us with huge waves breaking over the side of the boat.
It was exhausting and exhilarating, and the forest and mountain views from the boat were breathtaking. The final stretch took us through a mountain gorge, where the opportunity for cliff jumping was offered. I declined, but my daughter was immediately out of the boat, scrambling up the cliff before leaping off into the crystal blue green water. Rising to the top of the water, she was met with cheering and clapping from our group and those in nearby boats. Her smile and utter delight made my heart fill with pride and love. The whole experience gave the family a feeling of invincibility.
Afternoons spent hiking through winding mountain paths, forests and past mountain lakes, gave us all a chance to relax and talk about life past, future and present. The gentle tinkling of the cow bells, combined with babbling mountain streams and waterfalls, was deeply relaxing.
All these activities, both energetic and more relaxed, left us ravenous – lunchtime involved a multitude of picnics made up mainly of Jambon Beurre and the amazing local cheese, eaten on the mountainside, taking in the fresh air with the views as a side dish.
Evenings were made up of self-catering or eating at one of the phenomenal village restaurants on outdoor terraces. We dined on traditional Savoie mountain food – fondue and raclette. L’effet Boeuf served possibly the finest steak I have ever eaten, served with truffle butter, and we drank red wine grown at 500m altitude.
The final day of the holiday came, we felt as if we had been pulled together as a team, refreshed and ready to take on whatever else life threw at us. Which was lucky – as unbeknownst to us, lockdown was just around the corner...
How to get there
Eurostar (eurostar.com) or flying direct to Geneva with a 2.5 hour taxi transfer.
Where to stay
Pierre & Vacances Premium – Le Roselend (pierreetvacances.com); starting £513 per week in August for a two bedroom apartment (sleeps five-six).
Where to eat
L’effet Bœuf restaurant (leffetboeuf-lesarcs1800.eatbu.com)
Covid-19 health and safety measures
The resort has implemented several measures to protect visitors, including compulsory wearing of face masks on lifts, disinfection of all public areas, buses and all rental equipment such as bikes and scooters. Hand sanitiser will be provided at all lifts plus Les Arcs will provide a “health contact” for any questions visitors have during their stay.