Magnificent peaks, blinding white snow, set against a gleaming sun as daredevil skiers and snowboarders go off piste seeking virgin powder and the next adrenaline rush -- this is the romantic vision I've long reserved for the Alps. It is a playground for the bold & active who return year after year for endless winter thrills and unrivalled landscapes.
Arguably the most famous mountain range in Europe, the far-reaching Alps stretch across parts of France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria and Slovenia. Its highest mountain, Mont Blanc, stands imposingly at 4,810 meters (15,781 ft) above sea level and for centuries has been the object of affection for many artists and adventurists alike.
Having virtually no expertise in any winter sports and little tolerance for cold weather, I opted to visit the region near the end of its summer season, which ran from June 28 - August 31 this year. Val d’Isère in southeastern France was my destination.
Situated near the French-Italian border, Val d’Isère is about a 2.5 to 3-hour drive from four airports - Geneva, Grenoble, Lyon and Chambéry. It's one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe and receives tens of thousands of visitors every year, but the town has merely around 2,000 residents during the summer months with many hotels and restaurants closed for the entire duration. In an effort to attract more tourists to explore its year-round beauty, the local tourism body has started a promotional campaign for non-winter activities including hiking, cycling and rock-climbing via Ferrata (Italian for "Iron Road") that cater to all ages and strengths.
The history of the valley where Val d’Isère now sits can be traced back to Roman times, but the harsh winter weather saw it being used mainly as a summer refuge for farmers looking after animals in the high mountain pastures.
It wasn't until the 20th century when winter sports became fashionable that the town of Val d’Isère started to get noticed for its top-notch snow conditions, and around 1937 with the construction of Col de l'Iseran (2770m) - the road leading to the highest paved pass in the Alps - it began to evolve into an established, full-fledged ski resort and has since hosted Olympic events and become one of the most beloved destinations for winter sports enthusiasts.
Two-thirds of Val d’Isère is located within the Vanoise National Park - France’s oldest national park. Created in 1963 and one of the 9 national parks in the country, Vanoise has stunning flora, glaciers, mountains above 3,800m, and one-third of France's Alpine ibex population (at about 2,000). You can also find plenty of smaller mammals here such as the Alpine hare, the marmot and the snow vole.
The Savoie region is also the producer of the delicious Beaufort cheese which can be found at many local supermarkets. The pale yellow alpine cheese has a smooth and creamy texture that tastes slightly similar to cheddar but with a milder aroma. It's definitely a gift cheese lovers would welcome back home.