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Samo​​ëns is a mountain playground – here’s why you should add it to your to-visit list

samoens skiing resort
This mountain playground is waiting for you…Hannah Mendelsohn

‘Breathe one, two. Hold one, two. Exhale one, two.’ I’m surrounded by Alpine peaks, fixating on my breathing and trying not to think too much about the fact that I’m wading into a seven-degree lake in front of a flock of local dog walkers, and losing all normal feeling from my hands as I go…

We’re ice swimming, just one of the activities on offer in the French ski resort of Samoëns that will please if you're tempted by a skiing holiday, but don't want to commit to a full week on the slopes, or some of your pals aren't such staunch skiers.

It's not an entirely random holiday pursuit either. In 2023, Samoëns played host to the World Ice Swimming Championships. So while it’s technically a smidge too warm for it to officially count as ice swimming when I'm there (it should be below five degrees), it still offers a bracing look into the extreme end of cold water swimming.

Due to the low temperatures, you should only stay in for a few minutes (although the pros will stay in for up to 20). Our instructor lists benefits including a long-lasting dopamine high, better body temperature regulation, boosts to your immune system and mental health – the list goes on and on.

samoens skiing resort
Cold as ice but somehow still smiling!Hannah Mendelsohn

There’s not a lot of research on this just yet, but it’s not all anecdotal either, and it does feel exhilarating, not least because focusing on my breathing means that the slightly panicked sensation I’ve experienced when jumping into my local lido is nowhere to be found.

Luckily, there's a lakeside sauna ready for brave swimmers to run into (is it even a holiday without a spa trip?!), with undoubtedly some of the best views around. Then, it's time to take another quick dip. This time I stride in confidently, and the cold is much less painful. Now on to the next mountain adventure…

Tell me more about the skiing?

While ice swimming is undoubtedly something to add to your holiday bucket list, Samoën’s biggest pull is its ski slopes. From the town, you can access the Grand Massif, one of France’s biggest ski areas that joins up with other resorts including Flaine, les Carroz, Morillon, and Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval.

In all, there are 139 slopes waiting for you to come and play and ski passes start from €57.50 for one day. On a clear day, you should be able to see some breathtaking views across the Alps, including Mont Blanc. However, as a first-timer (and due to cloudy weather) this wasn’t on the cards for me.

samoens skiing resort
Hannah Mendelsohn

Instead, I stuck firmly to the beginner slopes, and with the help of an endlessly patient instructor from ZigZag Ski School I slowly made my way down some green runs. By the end of one lesson, I felt like I was starting to master the snow plough and, crucially, stop myself from tumbling down the slope.

Everything is well-catered to newbies, and it's enough to tentatively win me over to the sport. I'm convinced that with another day out I'd be gliding down like a pro – so actually, maybe I'm already sold…

I’m not sure if skiing is my vibe – what else can I do?

Even if you have no need for speed, Samoëns is a real mountain playground. It’s situated on the Grand Randonée Five which is a footpath that goes from the Netherlands to Nice – and the legs passing through the Alps (known as the Grande Traversée des Alpes) are its most famous.

If you don’t fancy a serious hike, walking around the valley still offers stunning scenery of both the mountains and insta-perfect chalets. And when the sun comes out, so do the paragliders – another way you can get an adrenaline fix.

Try snowshoeing if you want to gain height without putting yourself at the mercy of skis and gravity. It’s worth doing this with a guide if you’re new to the mountains (we had to wear GPS detectors in case of any avalanches). We went out with Claire Philipczyk, a mountain leader who also practises Afghan walking and cold yoga, which both make the hiking experience a whole lot more mindful.

samoens skiing resort
Trying out snowshoeing and cold yogaHannah Mendelsohn

Mindful hiking, what do you mean?

Instead of powerwalking, Afghan walking encourages you to focus on your breathing, adjusting it according to the gradient you’re tackling. There’s a pattern of breathing for going up, walking on the flat, and descending. You’re also only meant to breathe through your nose.

To avoid becoming breathless within seconds (which we all were when we first started marching off) you have to slow down, forgo any conversation, and ultimately, connect more with your surroundings.

As for cold yoga, like ice swimming, it’s all about improving your body temperature regulation and exposing your body to conditions that we tend to try and avoid in modern life. We eased in, breaking up stretches of snowshoeing with breathing exercises and gentle movement.

Later, we donned our swimming costumes and ventured outside to feel the full effects of snow on our skin (surprisingly warming and tingly, if you’re wondering). Doing it with a mountainous backdrop was unreal, but it’s not something I’ll be taking back to my balcony.

I’m already looking at flights, where should I stay?

Head to Hotel Les Glaciers in the town – where the rooms are decked up just like you’re in a cosy chalet, and a full continental spread is on offer to fuel up ahead of a day on the slopes.

And for an idyllic but off-grid experience, try Refuge Mont Plaisir. This artfully converted chalet is only accessible by foot in winter, but with log burners, an open plan living area and the most breathtaking of views, it’s a truly charming place to unwind.

samoens skiing resort
Inside Refuge Mont PlaisirALTMAN GeorgesStudioAltman

There’s no TV or wifi, so pack some card games (or try your hand at one of the French board games if your GCSE language skills are up for it) – even if you’re just there for the 48 hour minimum stay, you’ll leave feeling well-rested.

samoens skiing resort
Refuge Mont Plaisir is a dreamy place to stay with even dreamier viewsHannah Mendelsohn

And what's on the menu?

Cheese, cheese and more cheese, of course! Samoëns (like France in general) is heaven for dairy lovers – both raclette (melted cheese that you pour over potato) and fondue are staple dishes of the region.

Visit La Table de Fifine for indulgent seasonal dishes or if you can't tear yourself away from the pistes, Lou Caboëns is the place to go for a walming French onion soup or tartiflette.

Verdict

Samoëns is charming, making it a destination that will work even if you're jetting off with a group of pals who are split between well-seasoned skiers and tentative newbies.

But beyond the practicalities, experiencing all that the town has to offer – whether you’re after an adrenaline-fuelled week skiing or to enjoy the mountains’ slightly calmer offerings – is a great way to clear your mind, breathe deeply and reconnect with the great outdoors.

I was struck by the control that breathing purposefully can give over your body and mind when taking on the more extreme sports available there. It’s a lesson I intend to implement next time I hit the slopes, and when I stroll through the park on my way into work. Priceless.

Rooms at Hotel les Glaciers start at €210; Refuge Mont Plaisir starts at €200 per night for 2, minimum two nights; Lift passes €57.50 for one day or €345.00 for six; Skiing equipment ranges from €17 to €44 per day.


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