Any ideas for a snow-free Alps vacation?
In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answer your travel problems and provide tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. This week Lake Geneva–based writer, Alps expert and outdoor aficionado Nicola Williams shares her favorite spots for a mountain holiday sans snow.
Question: I’ve always been enamored with the idea of a holiday in the Alps, but I hate winter and don’t ski. Any ideas for a snow-free Alps vacation?
Nicola Williams: With blistering hot temperatures and sardine-packed beaches in much of Mediterranean Europe right now, summer is a brilliant time to lap up cooler temperatures in the French and Swiss Alps. And don’t assume that a vacation in a winter ski resort is limited to stiff hikes up big mountains. Now more than ever, you can pair soul-stirring walks at uncrowded altitudes with lazy beach days, close encounters with wildlife and family-friendly thrills-and-spills in spades.
Biking your way through the Alps
There’s a silver lining to every cloud – including in the sunny Alps, where winter’s increasingly precarious snow cover is forcing ski resorts to rethink their options. I live by the vast Franco-Swiss Portes du Soleil ski area, and in season ski every weekend in Les Gets. But it’s snowless, pea-green July and August that shine the richest light on the alpine heritage of this mountain village in the rural Haute-Savoie region. You can easily spend a week here, drifting around geranium-strewn chalets, goat farms such as Chèvrerie des Félires that sell rounds of creamy chèvre cheese, and gourmet épiceries (groceries) bursting with artisanal saucissons (air-dried sausage) and craft beer (look for Bec Jaune from neighboring Morzine and brews by Brasserie du Mont Blanc near Chamonix).
Les Gets has more hiking trails than you can shake a baguette at (sunrise with Mont Blanc view atop Mont Chéry is my favorite). A new toboggan run on rails has just opened, while Lac des Écoles, with its inflatable lake slides and obstacles, is an action-packed hot spot for cooling down in crystalline alpine water. A nighttime forest stroll along the Alta Lumina trail is magical for all ages.
I also highly recommend a couple of days mountain-biking (e-wheel alert!). Beginner or expert, Portes du Soleil is the top spot in the French Alps for cruising gnarly downhills, jump trails and flowy enduros: Les Gets bike park alone sports 128km (80 miles) of marked trails with three lifts, while a cross-border enduro trail (80km/50 mi) for electric-assisted mountain bikes takes in all 12 French and Swiss resorts in Portes du Soleil. Local sports shops rent gear; non-seasoned bikers will want to hook up with an MTB guide – try Bike Experience or Bike Morzine. If you’re not limited to school holidays, catch pros in action at the Mountain Bike World Cup (September 7–17, 2023).
Make a road trip of it
Les Gets is one of the first stops on the iconic Route des Grandes Alpes, which since 1937 has linked Lake Geneva with the fashionable Riviera resort of Nice on the sea. Instead of staying put in one place, consider a one-week road trip – by car, camper or e-bike – along the roller-coaster-like northern section of this classic driving itinerary.
The alpine drive is in fact only possible from mid-June until early October. The mountain vistas constantly amaze as the route takes you off the trodden ski-resort track into peaceful pastures you’ve probably never heard of: the turquoise Lac de Roselend (feast and sleep at lakeside Chalet de Roselend); the tiny cheese town of Beaufort, where milk from red Abondance cows fuels tangy AOP Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage cheese (learn more in ripening cellars at the village dairy); and the itsy Pralognan-la-Vanoise, with walking trails spangling across France’s oldest national park, Parc National de la Vanoise (download the Rando Vanoise app to enjoy the park to its fullest).
To experience the sublime solitude and soul-rousing natural beauty of traditional mountain life, dine and overnight at a mountain hut. Try the family-friendly Refuge Les Barmettes (easy to reach from Pralognan-la-Vanoise by the Génépi chairlift) or Refuge du Col de Vanoise (a three-hour hike via the unforgettable Lac des Vaches). Bring binoculars to better enjoy the national park’s profusion of ibex, marmots and other alpine wildlife. You won’t be disappointed.
Take the train for mountain swims and Matterhorn views
Bluebird days aren’t just a winter-ski thing. China-blue skies and sunbathing-warm temperatures in the summertime Alps are an open invitation to hit a beach – and the Alps have plenty. I’m just back from a week in car-free Zermatt in Switzerland, where all those unrivaled alpine highlights – awe-inspiring iced peaks, flower-strewn villages and meadows, adventure sports, insanely good cheese – pop up on an epic scale. Why not take an SBB train from Geneva, along its eponymous lake shore? The breathtakingly scenic journey is an experience in itself.
Once you’re settled in, you can hurtle down mountainsides on fat-tire scooters, explore gorges carved from green serpentine rock and, of course, obsess over the perfect Matterhorn snap on long walks; a week will fly by. The best “pinch-me-is-this-real?” holiday moment? Bracing summer dips, picnics, wooden-raft play and Med-style lounging on pebble beaches at altitude around the sparkling lake shores of Leisee and Grünsee.