WITH the wind flying in my face, I looked ahead to see my pack of dogs, panting and straining at the leash, pulling us through the pristine white landscape of Haute Maurienne Vanoise.
With just the teams of huskies in sight as far as the eye could see, and only the sound of barking and clashing reins breaking the mountain silence, it felt like we were traversing a far corner of the globe as part of a great expedition.
In fact, the half day adventure – pure exhilaration – was just one of many on offer in Haute Maurienne, a French winter playground for skiers and non-skiers alike.
Bizarrely, this secret gem seems almost unheard of among UK skiers, despite the fact that the Vanoise National Park is easy travelling distance from Chambery, Grenoble and Lyon airports and not far from the more famous resorts that pepper the Savoie Mont Blanc area.
Made up of six main villages, with three alpine and three Nordic ski areas, Haute Maurienne is close to grander cousins like Val d’Isere, which it is linked to in summer by the Iseran pass. But despite its proximity to flashier destinations, such as the Three Valleys, the winter resort has maintained a more traditional feel with authentic winter villages – and cheaper prices to match.
For family skiing, with short transfers, a free shuttle connecting the ski areas, and lift passes starting at €5.50 (for the beginners small ski area of Bramans, rising to €30 a day at the larger, pine-forested Val Cenis Vanoise), its value for money is hard to beat.
But where Haute Maurienne really comes into its own is the variety of activities you can tackle – a checklist that makes it ideal for groups including non-skiers or with mixed ability on the slopes.
For a die-hard ski fan, used to grabbing every hour on the piste possible, initially it took a change of mindset to consider unstrapping the bindings to try something else. By the end of that wild ride with the dogs, I knew I’d made the right decision.
And the adventure didn’t stop there. By morning I was a dog musher, by afternoon a biathlete.
We stopped at Bessans, home to 133km of cross country skiing tracks and an international biathlon stadium.
The biathlon, an Olympic event, involves cross-country skiing around a 20km circuit on thin skis, then stopping to fire off five shots at a target 50 metres away with a .22 calibre rifle, then starting all over again.
My training started with learning to fire an air rifle at a target 10 metres away. Actually, it was not that hard and I was right on target. But then came the difficult bit. I strapped on those sliver-width skis for a wobbly circuit of the stadium and returned, with heart pounding, for some more target practice. This time, with my breathing irregular and adrenalin pumping, the shots went wide.
If that weren’t enough to bring me down a peg or two, the downhill cross country skiing certainly did. I have always watched cross-country skiers gracefully traversing downhill and thought: “why?” After an hour of lessons, when I had still failed to master the tricksy stop technique and lay nursing my bruised ego, I realised that question should have been: “How?”
It was a relief to return to my ordinary skis to tour the downhill slopes of Val Cenis, a 125km set of slopes, with everything from beginners’ drag lifts to steep tree skiing and the 10km L’Escargot, Europe’s longest green run.
We ate a large lunch in the cosy wood cabin of mountain restaurant La Fema, accompanied by the cheery sound of dozens of accordionists also having lunch with altitude. Unexpectedly, a national accordion playing event was being staged during my visit and, on my first night in town, I’d joined hundreds of others line dancing in a large village hall. I will forever associate Haute Maurienne with accordion music.
Later, we drove to the end of the valley to Bonneval sur Arc for a taste of another ski area. With 25km of slopes ranging from 1,800m to 3,000m, it offers broader, more open runs than those at Val Cenis, but is also renowned for its off-piste slopes. In winter, you can fly to nearby Val d’Isere by helicopter, and ski off-piste for two hours down to the Bonneval sur Arc village.
The village itself has been voted one of the most beautiful in France, with good reason. Its historic stone and shale houses ooze character and it is the stepping off point for climbing the wall of mountains that separate it from Italy.
Another village worth seeing is Bessans, popular for its religious art, including the Devil of Bessans. In a story dating back to 1857, a carved devil was placed by the priest’s door for refusing the yearly meal to the cantors. The priest moved it back to the sculptor’s door and the statue to-ed and fro-ed between houses for a month until the artist relented and took it back.
I took in the famous carvings, including an ornately decorated cross standing starkly against the snow, with the eerie backdrop of a full moon.
And this was a night visit with a difference – I was touring on snowshoes. Local guide Jean Lignier offers a novel way of trying snow-shoeing – and hearty local cuisine – with his evening treks.
I had expected large, tennis-racket affairs like I’d seen in Disney cartoons to go on our feet. But in fact the snowshoes were small, sturdy and comfortable – an incredibly effective way to walk in deep snow.
Half way through the hike, Lignier warmed up our group with a large and very welcome flask of mulled wine. And we were further rewarded at the end with dinner at La Grange du Traverole restaurant and goat farm – a rustic restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
It was a hearty meal of traditional Bessans sausage and polenta, served with an array of Savoyard cheeses, including, of course, homemade goats cheese.
Needless to say, the calorie-laden Savoie fare – grill cooked pierrade, dairy-laden tartiflette or fondues – might seem a trifle harsh on the waistline in ordinary circumstances.
But with all that clean mountain air and exercise to take, there’s a valid excuse for a trucker’s appetite.
And if dog-sledding and biathlon don’t seem adventurous enough, you could always burn off the Reblechon by trying ice climbing, cani-raquette (snowshoeing while being pulled by a dog), via ferrata (climbing a mountain route equipped with fixed cables and ladders), or zorbing.
According to the latest tourist brochure, the newest adrenalin fix in town is ice diving – available even for those who have never been diving.
One thing is certain – there’s no reason for anyone to be bored. And if you time it right, you might even be lucky enough to catch the next accordion gathering.
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE AREA
• By plane
Nearby airports include Chambéry, Grenoble, Lyon, Turin and Geneva. Buses from Chambéry, Grenoble and Lyon airports are available every Saturday. Buses must be booked via La Maison de Val Cenis – Return: 70€per person
T: +33 (0) 4 79 05 23 66
Fax: + 33 (0) 4 79 05 82 17
email : email@example.com
• By train
TGV from Paris to Modane (4 hours).
Buses from Modane to the villages of the Haute Maurienne (30 minutes to Val Cenis)
2 star hotel La Clé des champs : €58 a night
3 star hotel le Moulin de Marie : €84
Crystal, Erna Low and Peak Retreats
• Val Cenis Vanoise
1300m – 2800m; 125 kms, 55 runs;
9 greens, 18 blues, 23 reds and 5 blacks;
One day adult: €29.50; Six days adult: €148
• Bonneval sur Arc
1800m – 3050m; 25 kms, 21 runs
1 day adult: €22
3 slopes and 2 drag lifts
1 day adult: €9.20
• Cross country skiing
Bessans has 133kms of marked tracks
• Introduction to biathlon
2hours, from €28 per adult
1 hour private lesson: €54
+33 (0) 4 79 05 80 05
Snowshoeing with Jean Lignier, a qualified guide
Half day: €20 per person
One day: €30 per person
• Discover the fauna and flora
The history and architecture of the Haute Maurienne tour: firstname.lastname@example.org
•Learn to drive
€115 per person, for two hours. €40 for 30 minutes. www.husky-adventure.net
• Val Cenis
La Fema mountain restaurant +33 (0) 4 79 05 90 98
La Grange du Travérol www.lagrangedutraverole.com Snowshoeing by night plus dinner : €32 per person
Le Paradis restaurant in Bessans +33 (0) 4 79 05 96 11