Trudging through the thick snow, my view obscured by a swirling mist, I find my way by following the din of dogs barking. I’m off to try husky sledding in the French ski resort of Val Cenis Vanoise, located in the Haute Maurienne Valley, a two-hour drive from Lyon. Panting, howling and straining at the ropes of their tethered sleds, the over-excited canines are clearly keen to get a move on.
As I’m assigned my sled with three playful and super-fluffy dogs, I feel like Santa Claus – giving the reindeers a day off – setting off on a festive adventure. I’m taught how to keep my balance and how to slow down and stop, and finally, to the huskies’ relief, we’re off.
Travelling in single file, everyone in my group manages their own sled pulled by three to four canines. I’m surprised at how severely the cold air stings my face as the animals surge forward and begin weaving their way across the mountains. Although we’re just moments away from the busy ski lift, the dogs have taken us off the beaten track and I find myself plunged into a magical and gloriously unspoiled, sparkly snowscape, where we appear to be the only people. Adrenaline rushes through me as the huskies hurtle down the steep slopes and negotiate hairpin bends while I grip tightly. Near the run’s end, the dogs go bonkers in anticipation of their waiting dinner.
They rush onwards and I go flying as we take a bend, but I have a soft landing in a pile of powder. The canines don’t wait for me to get up, however, racing off towards their meaty tea.
Val Cenis is a haven for skiers and boarders, boasting 125km of slopes, between 1200m and 2800m high, which offer good snow conditions from December until April. And unlike most pricey French ski resorts, there’s a raft of affordable accommodation here – with self catering apartments costing as little as €135 (£116) for three nights. There’s a surfeit of easy slopes for beginners and some challenging rides for more experienced skiers, including some gorgeous tree-skiing through larch and pine forests.
The next day, we head to the village of Bessans’ international biathlon stadium to have a go at being biathletes for the afternoon – an Olympic sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. I’m told the biathlon originated in Finland where the Finns had a passion for cross-country skiing and shooting Russians. Another (and not quite as amusing) version is that it originated in Norway in the 1860s, as an alternative method of military training to provide national defence at a local level.
Haute Maurienne Vanoise is a hub for cross-country aficionados thanks to its high plateaus, filmic scenery and first-class snow coverage. A keen downhiller, I’m surprised to discover that the cross-country variety is an entirely different kettle of fish – the skis are lighter and, in spite of the poles, it’s a challenge to stay upright and balanced. This is going to take some getting used to. We lap the course, discovering how to walk uphill by placing our skis in a V-shape, and glide downhill with control by adopting the snow plough position. At the shooting range, I lie on my stomach and start aiming at the targets, while catching my breath. It’s
a real buzz but after our two-hour session, I can see how combining the two sports is a gruelling test of endurance and skill. That evening, we wait for darkness to fall in picture-book rural Bessans, before strapping on a pair of snowshoes, soaking up knockout views of the surrounding peaks under the light of the moon. We’re far away from the crowds and the crunch of the snow under our shoes provides a soothing soundtrack.
Tramping through luxuriant banks of snow is hungry work, so the perfect way to end the night is with a meal at titchy wooden restaurant La Grange du Traverol, where we feast on a Bessans polenta dish, sausage stew and local cheese, washed down with Savoie wine in a festive atmosphere. And the best thing about it? The snow-shoeing and dinner is a snip at €32 (£27). The resort is so reasonably priced that I have to remind myself that I’m in France.
Direct return flights from London Stansted to Lyon start at £61 with easyJet (easyjet.com)
Located in the centre of Lanslebourg, Chez Tata’tine offers traditional Savoyard dishes such as fondue, tartiflette (potatoes, cheese, cream, lardons) and raclette. They also offer a takeaway service. (35, rue du Mont Cenis 73480 Lanslebourg Mont Cenis)
For delicious cheese and beef fondue cooked in white wine, swing by the characterful L’Estanco in Termignon, a traditional mountain restaurant with a friendly atmosphere. Traditional Savoyard accordion players regularly entertain guests at the Estanco.
Next to the Tourist Office in Lanslebourg, La Vieille Poste is a traditional French restaurant with a gastro menu including frog legs and snails, and a Savoyard menu with tartiflette, fondue, etc. (lavieilleposte.com)
Le Relais de la Diligence in Bramans, Haute Maurienne Vanoise is an eco-gite set in a house built in 1813, alongside the transalpine road traced by Napoleon in 1805. The ski areas of Val Cenis Vanoise, Bonneval sur Arc and Bessans are easily accessible from Bramans. From €35pp (about £30) with breakfast. (chambres-hotes-maurienne.info)
Le Moulin de Marie is a simple but comfortable three-star hotel, with a restaurant that serves modern cuisine based on local ingredients. From €94pn (about £80) for a double room. (hotel-lacledeschamps.com/en/le-moulin-de-marie)
Opening this winter, the four-star Les Chalets de Flambeau offers apartments and chalets at the foot of the slopes of Val Cenis Vanoise. Guests will have access to an indoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna, treatment rooms and a fitness area. From €791 (about £675) for a week for an apartment for two-to-four people. (cgh-partenaires.com)
At the top of the Vieux Moulin gondola, La Fema is also available for non-skiers. It is a self-service restaurant with good mountain food at a very reasonable price – around €10 (about £8.50) for a main.
Located at the top of the Arcelle chairlift, La Ranova is a cosy mountain restaurant. It is famous for its entrecote (premium beef), and many other meat and cheese dishes.
For a bit of apres ski fun, head to club La Cle des Champs in Lanslevillard which stays open until 2am nightly. Val Cenis isn’t known for its nightlife; evening activities tend to include less alcohol-focused pursuits such as snowshoe hikes and skiing by torchlight.