I am not a “mountain person”. I usually prefer beaches, but when I saw Annecy for the first time (thanks to a friend to wouldn’t take no for an answer) I was blown away by the breathtaking beauty of the area. The French department of Haute-Savoie, located in the Alps and bordered by Switzerland to the north and Italy to the east, is a panorama of rugged mountains, lush valleys and crystal clear lakes. It is a marvelous location for a holiday or winter getaway, even if you don’t ski. There is so much to do here, and just driving around, taking in the views and exploring the towns, villages and hamlets could keep you busy for months. I highly recommend renting an apartment, chalet or villa to completely immerse yourself in the local way of life. There are tons to choose from, in every price range and every setting you could wish for.
Annecy, on the northern banks of Lac D’Annecy, is simply stunningly beautiful. The picturesque medieval town with its chateau, canals and winding, cobble-stoned streets is a perfect place for a winter vacation. Looking out over the lake, the cleanest in Europe, you gaze upon the spectacular rugged, snowcapped peaks of the Alps, and great skiing is only a short car ride away. In town, you’ll find plenty of cute shops, cozy cafes and restaurants serving both contemporary and traditional local dishes. At least one raclette dinner (melted Raclette cheese accompanied by potatoes, gherkins, onions, pickles, etc.) is a must, but also try the “farcement”, an ancient dish made out of grated potatoes, bacon and prunes cooked in a high mold shaped like a chimney. And make sure you sample some of the local cheeses: the gooey, stinky, absolutely delicious Reblochon, the nutty and earthy Tomme de Savoie, the fruity and slightly sweet Abondance, the nutty and almost caramelly Beaufort, the soft, creamy goat-milk Chevrotin, the sweet raw milk Emmental de Savoie, and the fruity and somewhat herbaceous Tome des Bauges.
Evian-les-Bains, home of the world-renowned bottled water, is a beautiful spa town, spectacularly situated on the banks of southern end of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) at the foot of the Chablais mountains. Winter pursuits include downhill and cross country skiing, snow shoeing, dog sledding, trekking, or for something a bit extravagant, heliskiing, where a helicopter drops you off on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. There are plenty of activities to keep non-skiers busy as well: visit one of the many world-famous spas, gamble at the casino, stroll along the lake, fill a bottle with water at Cachat’s spring, go for a free cable car ride up a mountain, or take the 35-minute boat trip across the lake to Lausanne.
La Clusaz is a traditional alpine village in the Aravis mountains where skiing (both downhill and cross country) and snowboarding are the main attractions. Other popular pastimes include ice-skating, snowshoeing, mountain climbing, and watching the scenery from the Aqua Centre’s large heated outdoor swimming pool. In the winter, Mondays are a particularly fun time to visit – during the day, there’s a farmer’s market in the town center, and at night local merchants organize torchlight processions and vin chaud for everyone. Child-friendly, not as hectic as some of the other ski resorts in the Alps, and easy to navigate, La Clusaz is a favorite among families and those who prefer to linger over candlelit dinners rather than dance the night away (although there are several bars and weekends tend to get a lot busier and louder with the influx of both French and Swiss tourists).
Megeve, the picture perfect, rustically chic winter playground for the well-to-do crowd since the 1920s, is as popular today as ever. Here, you can go skiing, paragliding, dog sledding, sleigh riding, hot air ballooning, or rent a small plane or helicopter to take you by Mont Blanc for some great views and photo opportunities. Megeve also has plenty of high-end boutiques, cafes, bistros and restaurants, as well as one of the world’s best spas, “Pure Altitude” at the resort “Le Fermes de Marie”. Those looking for a swinging nightlife have plenty to choose from too: there is an active apres-ski scene as well as several jazz clubs, discos, and bars.
Whether you decide to rent a cozy apartment in town or a charming chalet on a hillside, I recommend trying to find one with a fireplace – it can get pretty cold and raw in the mountains, and what’s nicer than warming up in front of a blazing fire with some hot chocolate or a glass of wine before heading out to explore?