Walking Holidays in Les Saisies
Exploring the trails and villages in the Beaufortain
Walking holidays in the Alps are what many of us dream of when planning a healthy, outdoors break from the daily routine. We chose Les Saisies as our base, perched above the beautiful Beaufortain area with fabulous views to Mont Blanc. We were going to spend a week walking the trails, discovering nearby villages and visiting local attractions.
After picking up family at Geneva airport we’re soon dropping down on the long-familiar route through Megève (unchallenged pothole capital of the French Alps) towards the Val d’Arly.
As we approach Flumet we take the left-hand turn signed to Notre-Dame de Bellecombe, a wayward route which passes now-silent ski-lifts and through the heart of the village before climbing all the way to 1650m at the Col des Saisies.
Laid before us on the other side is the pleasingly low-rise skyline of Les Saisies, now looking very different from how we’re accustomed to seeing it in winter in family ski-resort guise. This is one resort which certainly doesn’t go to sleep outside the ski season, having built up a loyal following among walkers, who have been joined in recent years by a steadily-growing number of young mountain-bikers.
As we reach the lower outskirts of the village we pass one of the muscular high-speed chairlifts which remain open to haul walkers and cyclists up the mountain.
Our accommodation is Le Hameau du Beaufortain, situated a short distance from the main village on the Route du Mont Bisanne. It’s a steady, slightly winding climb, and feels initially as though we’ll be rather remote from village life, but we know from previous visits that it’s an endearingly calm spot offering great views of Mont-Blanc and doorstep access to footpaths, ski pistes and chairlifts, according to the season.
We love maps…
The plan for the first day here is to meet with mountain activity guide Mark Tennent and head out onto the mountain trails for an afternoon taster session. Unlike us, he’s doing this kind of thing all the time, and looks worryingly fit, but obviously knows better than to push our limits too soon, especially as temperatures are unusually high for this altitude: “We won’t do anything too demanding – just a gentle circuit which will give you an idea of what’s on offer to anyone following the marked routes”.
As our accommodation is located some way above the main village, we decide to drive to our starting point, although a shuttle-bus service is perfectly viable option. After dropping down to pick up the road which heads up from Beaufort sur Duron we drive through the heart of the village and continue back over the Col des Saisies in the direction of Notre-Dame de Bellecombe. Just a minute or two below the Col we make a right turn into a forest clearing at the roadside and park the cars. From here on it’s all up to us.
The trail begins in the kind of setting which will be familiar to anyone used to forestry tracks, and we climb steadily through tall pines as the occasional distant rumble of a passing car or motorcycle on the Route des Grandes Alpes just below us soon gives way to total silence. The climb continues, steepening noticeably once we’ve turned right off the main track and onto a signed itinerary used only by walkers, mountain-bikers and, in winter, away-from-it-all snow-shoers. Being a mountainside, the climb is destined to continue for awhile, so we settle into a steady rhythm while Mark keeps us entertained and our senses tuned into our surroundings by pointing out the various tree and wildflower species.
Local knowledge is what separates the experience of mountain people from that of visitors, and having a guide certainly narrows the gap, putting you more in touch with the landscape. When we finally emerge from the forest onto an elevated viewpoint the full impact of where we are suddenly hits us.
From the comfort of a car you can peer out at as many amazing landscapes as you like, but it’s only when you’re outside and on your own two feet that you really become part of things, a thought which is hard to escape while gazing in wonder at the jaw-dropping vastness of the scenery confronting us. The contours of the mountains and valleys are softened by mountain pastures – ‘alpages’ –, fluorescent wildflowers and dense forests of pine and larch, while beyond it all rises the unmistakable outline of Mont-Blanc, whose summit remains snow-capped even in high summer.
Among the pines
Pressing on, we’re soon climbing again, more gently this time, to the Chard du Beurre (1889m), these days the arrival point of the Covetan chair-lift, a reminder that another ski season won’t be too far away.
From here on things are all downhill, and any further hints of Les Saisies’ alter-ego as a popular ski resort are confined to distant glimpses of remote-looking chair-lifts. Along the way we pause from time to time, while Mark points out a distant landmark or homes in on an innocent-looking wildflower to show us how to identify the occasional poisonous variety.
Following the path takes us through more pasture land and past a long-abandoned chalet, before we plunge once again into the welcome shade of the forest. Happily, the gradient is gentle, and we find ourselves entering a zen-like state of contemplation, making the most of the moment, while basking shamelessly in the glow of a sense of achievement, however modest.
From Les Saisies down to Hauteluce
In the following days we make use of the trail map and discover some sensational walks, most notably the descent to Hautluce, long one of our favourite Alpine villages. The trail began near to our accommodation on the Route du Mont Bisanne and plunges us into the pine forest. After about half an hour and some scratching of heads over the route map, we emerge by a pretty chalet completely covered in flower baskets and window boxes. The path crosses the road and now descends through pastures filled with wildflowers and bees to the forest above Hautluce.
The views across the valley are stunning and live up to the area’s nickname of “Little Switzerland”. There are a few cafés and restaurants in which to have a meal if you time it right – just make sure you check the bus timetables for your return trip before settling down to a lazy lunch – they’re not exactly frequent!