If your wellness is on the wane, you’ll find the stunning vistas of France’s Haute-Savoie a breath of fresh (mountain) air, says Tess de la Mare.
The Alps in winter can sometimes feel like a bit crowded, but if you head just a little lower, where life is a little slower, you will find the freedom and space you crave.
The Aravis is part of the French Prealps, sitting just west of the main chain of the Alps, and has long been beloved by cross-country skiers for its romantic ridges, valleys and fairy-tale forests.
Situated across the Savoie and the Haute-Savoie, and an easy transfer from Geneva, the region benefits from picture-perfect mountain villages, wickedly indulgent menus and a spacious ski area.
With 210km of slopes and modern ski lifts, downhill skiers are well looked after, but otherwise the Aravis has resisted sacrificing its local character in a bid to compete with the higher destinations.
While snow sports are rarely the first activity on the list for those looking for relaxation, the Aravis proves the two are not mutually exclusive.
It can sometimes feel like all of Europe’s snow lovers are trying to squeeze into the big resorts, but here – outside of the school holidays – there isn’t a queue for a ski lift in sight.
The local restaurateurs, both on the pistes and in the villages, are very proud to serve their regional cuisine.
You would also be hard pressed to find the usual resort fare of overpriced fast-food – in fact it is frowned upon if you don’t take the time to sit down and really enjoy your meal.
You run the risk of being unable to stand, let alone ski, after a lunch of fondue, tartiflette or raclette with near-bottomless servings of salad, bread and fries.
Perhaps not the kind of superfood beloved of Instagram wellness gurus, but definitely cooking that warms the soul.
The village of Le Grand-Bornand sits on the western slopes of the Aravis in the widest part of a wedge-shaped valley.
For centuries, before the tourist industry, it was home primarily to the dairy herds that make the region’s famous cheeses.
The locals are as proud of their cattle as they are of their many gold medal-winning winter Olympians, and in Le Grand-Bornand, every spare wall features a mural of their bovine friends.
Some of the chalets dotting the landscape date back to the 16th century and, in a bid to avoid any concrete eye sores, new developments must echo the area’s traditional style to get the go ahead.
One recent addition to the neighbourhood, by Le Grand-Bornand’s standards, is the Auberge Nordique.
Built 40 years ago, but recently refurbished and extended, this hotel-come-hostel aims to bring a little Scandinavian hygge to an otherwise strictly traditional French resort.
Located a few miles up the valley from the village, it’s rugged slopes are popular with cross-country skiers and ski tourers, who want to escape ski lifts and groomed slopes and head into the wild.
It has partnered with French ski school ESF (Ecole de Ski Français) to create touring packages for those new to the sport, as well as those not yet ready to head out into the backcountry alone.
Ski touring is probably the best answer to the region’s rich diet, as even a short session will get muscles you didn’t even know existed, working.
Traditional skiers are well advised to shed a few layers from their usual outfit and carry plenty of water, as this is a workout and a half.
Guests can also try their hand at biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, with a practice range a few metres from the Auberge Nordique’s doorstep.
For those who want to stick to downhill skiing, a bus service is provided to the village bubble lift.
To soothe tired muscles following a hard day’s skiing, and in keeping with the Auberge Nordique’s hygge ethos, the recent extension features a wellness area, spa and yoga space.
But other than these touches of luxury, the Auberge Nordique is actually very stripped back; its simple rooms have lockable wardrobes, so solo travellers can reduce the cost of their stay by sharing.
All meals are included, with a packed lunch, and – during our stay – the Auberge Nordique was filled with athletic-looking French pensioners who would probably be a speck on the horizon by the time the average Joe had got their boots on.
While cross-country skiing and ski touring are still pretty niche, there is growing interest in the sport, which is likely to accelerate as global warming takes its toll on the downhill slopes.
It could well drive increasing numbers to Le Grand-Bornand in search of new ways to enjoy the changing landscape.
Further south is the larger town of La Clusaz, filled with shops, restaurants and activities, and with direct access to the pistes.
While pristine powder days are a little rarer at lower altitudes, the resort ensures all its pistes are groomed to perfection with the help of more than 300 snow machines.
Like everywhere, it fills up during the school holidays, but during a late January break, the runs are virtually empty.
La Clusaz, like its neighbour Le Grand-Bornand, has also stuck to its local architecture, with its wooden chalets springing up around a beautiful stone church.
It is a holiday for those who like the hustle and bustle of resorts – particularly families with children.
Nearby is the village of Manigod, which offers night skiing sessions for those who have not had their fill in the daytime.
It boasts the largest lit area for night skiing in the Savoie Mont Blanc, including plenty of blue runs for those looking to occupy their kids for that little bit longer.
Night skiing is not included in the regular ski pass, but Manigod restaurant The Happy Chalet offers a night ski session and meal deal for around €30 (£25) per head.
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During our visit, we see plenty of parents enjoying a leisurely meal while their offspring pop in and out to shovel down a few mouthfuls, before hitting the slopes again.
For thrill seekers still looking for more, Manigod’s snow tubing run provides the answer.
It’s either an exhilarating or terrifying experience, depending on your tolerance for adrenaline, and involves wedging yourself into an innertube before launching down a twisting run carved into the snow.
Think massive water slide, only instead of smooth plastic walls and a guaranteed soft landing, you find yourself hurtling at speed towards banks of ice – sometimes backwards.
The operator assures us that no one has ever broken their neck, but as I go twisting through the tunnels, I find myself thinking ‘there’s always a first time’.
That said, fearless kids will love it and I am definitely up for another go.
After an evening of fun and good food, we are grateful for the large, comfortable rooms of the Hotel Alpen Roc back in La Clusaz.
The chalet-style building has beautiful views of the valley from its picture-perfect balconies, and features a well-equipped spa.
Those who fancy a whole afternoon of pampering can head to the Deep Nature Spa for its heated pool, the powerful massage jets, sauna and steam room, or for a seriously indulgent massage.
A break in the Aravis will definitely recharge your batteries, but with so much to feed the soul, you will find it hard to leave.
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