Lake Annecy and its surrounding mountain resorts still hold irresistible summer charm, finds Cheryl Caira
There can be few sights more soul-stirring than catching a dramatic sunrise over the mountains. If you’ve previously only visited the French Alps during the winter, having a more sun-soaked experience can cast a brand-new spotlight over the area.
The Annecy Mountains territory, encompassing the expanse of peaks with glimmering Lake Annecy at its foot, is abound with options for wellness. Even just staring at the picture-postcard scene before you and taking a deep gulp of mountain air could be tonic enough for a mini health boost.
A hotspot for outdoor sports, paragliders crest the mountain peaks, while hikers, kayakers and boat aficionados trace the lake’s edge, soaking up the undulating, verdant landscape. Haute-Savoie is the region of choice for busy Parisians looking for some respite from city living, and the appeal is as crystal clear as the lake at the centre of it all.
You can make a pleasant and unhurried long weekend of it here – Geneva is around a 40-minute drive from Annecy, with flights from the UK taking just over an hour. Take a day or two to explore the Lake Annecy area, before ascending to some of the nearby mountain resorts for your Alpine fix.
Queen of the lake
The Imperial Palace (leading image, hotel-imperial-palace.com) undoubtedly has the crown jewels’ view of Lac d’Annecy and its Alpine layers rippling into the distance, one of which is the mighty La Tournette, the lake’s highest mountain. Once the haunt of Edith Piaf and Charlie Chaplin, the hotel first opened its doors in 1913. A belle epoque landmark overlooking lovely lakeside gardens, people walk their pooches there, practise tai chi on the lawn and generally take life at their leisure.
You could dine at the hotel’s excellent Brasserie for the best vista seat in the house, or sit on the terrace of Hip Bar, where your cocktail is often accompanied by live jazz music. If you stay as a guest, you can sit on your balcony and watch the moonlight shimmer over the lake, which is definitely worth exploring by boat during the day.
Given the nickname the ‘Venice of the Alps’ owing to its central waterways (apparently cleaned twice a year to retain their turquoise sheen), the old town of Annecy is essentially the dictionary definition of picturesque. Announced by the Palais de L’île at his heart – a palace rooted in the 12th century which has served as a family home, prison, and court in its time – windows decorated with colourful flowers overlook the quaint cobbled streets, which are lined with cafes and traditional shops. Head to locals’ favourite Café Des Arts for some refreshment, then jump on a one-hour boat trip round the lake (find departures on annecy-croisieres.com).
Cézanne was one of many artists who was inspired by Lake Annecy’s bonny shores, culminating in one of his best-known paintings. This is prime French real estate: while you whizz along the circumference of the lake, you’ll pass luxury homes, grand hotels, Michelin star restaurants, and the residence of the Counts of Geneva in the 13th and 14th centuries, Château d’Annecy. The Bout du Lac nature reserve towards the south of the lake is a pretty stroll to seek out, with plenty of flora and fauna to spot.
Winding through the Alps
The easy-breezy town of Thônes is but a stone’s throw away from Annecy, set between the lake and the classic French ski resorts of La Clusaz and Le Grand-Bornand. A tasty feature on copious menus, the region’s creamy Reblochon cheese originated here. La Crêperie on Rue des Clefs serves hearty and organic Reblochon-themed creations, with every combination of fillings you could envisage.
One of the country’s top ski resorts, Le Grand-Bornand has retained a feeling of high-end tranquillity. Set into the base of the Aravis mountains, there are photographic features at every turn. Some of the historic chalets here were built at the same time as the Palace of Versailles in the 17th century. The village square is a gorgeous spot, with its church, view of the mountain range and quirky carousel. Come rain or shine, it hosts the last Reblochon market in the country every Wednesday, and has done so since 1795.
Its neighbouring resort, La Clusaz, is a slightly livelier location, with twinkling fairy lights adorning many of the bars and restaurants open later into the night. Both resorts still attract French tourists in the main, although a growing number of travellers from abroad have picked up on the area’s understated, authentic appeal.
The St-Alban (hotel-st-alban.com) has been a much-anticipated new arrival for La Clusaz – a trendy, art deco-inspired four-star hotel where previously your options were tied to more traditional accommodation. A short walk from the centre, there’s a spa which must be a joy during ski season, and luxe chalet-style, duplex bedrooms. There’s a mezzanine with netting draped over the lounge, designed to make you feel Spiderman-like, fully stretched out and ready to unwind. The hotel reception and bar have a ’60s decor vibe, with shelves of books stacked high alongside chess boards and vintage-looking posters, all enticing you into having a glass of wine in the comfy booths before bedtime.
La Cuillère à l’Omble
A too-good-to-miss restaurant with a terrace overlooking the lake on Route de Talloires, the speciality here is dishes cooked with the local omble chevalier fish, delivered with delicious aplomb. The cocktail of the house, the ‘Soleggiato’, is a sweet sensation of champagne mixed with ginger and cherry liquor. lacuillereaomble.fr
Located in a flower-scattered meadow, the beauty of this Le Grand-Bornand cafe-bar is its simplicity. A hidden gem surrounded by nature, owner and local DJ Justin arranges the suitably chilled tunes, while the menu offers up locally sourced cheeses, meats, desserts, organic beers and wine.
There are some interesting makers and producers to look out for in the area. Craft beers have been enthusiastically embraced here, with brewer Laurent Gallay making his L’Aravissante ales by experimenting with an array of different hops, some of which are grown in the surrounding mountains. Local designer Corinne Pezzotti is the founder of Atelier Gustave (gustavebijoux.com), a jaunty accessories brand working with leather and specialising in brooches. Le Grand-Bornand is where you’ll find craftmanship going back centuries, notably at leather goods workshop L’Atelier du Bourrelier (bourrelier-hautesavoie.com) and La Poterie Martin, a pottery hub laden with patterned ceramics.
Find your zen
If the priority is finding a sense of calm and feeling revitalised on your return, you’ll have plenty of opportunity. There are regular wellness events such as the La Clusaz Yoga Festival in July, where you can practise your downward dog with the Alps towering around you. If you’re still not feeling relaxed enough, head to the resort’s Deep Nature Spa (deepnature.fr), get a tension-relieving Signature Massage, and lie back in one of the eight different massaging pool sections, which include water deck chairs and hydromassage jets.
For more info on visiting the Lake Annecy area, go to annecymountains.com