With at least two full-on cable-car/chairlift phobics in our family, a summer break in the French Alps wasn’t the obvious choice for a successful holiday. But after my two youngest sons and I finally stepped out of the second of the two cable cars you need to take to the Bellecôte Glacier, teetering at an altitude of 3,000m, we all agreed the teeth-gnashing and wringing of sweaty palms was worth it. The otherworldly rocky landscape unfurling all around spelled pure enchantment and adventure for the boys – and that’s before they spotted the signs of the ice grotto within the glacier.
'We hiked up from Montchavin to Les Coches and back down through the peaceful forest, pausing en route to play in sparkling mountain streams and collect sticks. When we got back down, we were never more in need of a hearty lunch involving large amounts of melted cheese.’
Staff were still chipping away at the entrance with ice picks so people could get inside. We were the first visitors of the day and had the small but dazzling gallery of elaborately sculpted ice animals and statues, including snakes and dragons, all to ourselves. But most impressive was the feeling of actually being inside a glacier.
Yet it was back outside that my seven and 11 year olds’ imaginations were truly lit. They loved clambering about the mountaintop pretending to be explorers, fishing chunks of glacial ice from meltwater and soaking in the views from above the clouds. We spent several hours up on the roof of the world, feeling cheerfully disconnected from the rest of humanity.
Pony ride in the Vanoise National Park
Our base for the ice-cave trip was Belle Plagne with its program of summer events and parties for families. Our accommodation was a basic but cosy apartment at Les Balcons de Belle Plagne, with a great indoor pool and a sun terrace, plus a spa. Although we self-catered, we also discovered several child-friendly Belle Plagne restaurants.
Heading for European mountain resorts for a summer break means you can avoid crowded Mediterranean beaches or the British seaside while enjoying a lovely setting with glorious views and lungfuls of fresh air. And the list of things to do in the mountains in summer grows year by year as resorts get wise to the potential to attract families outside the ski season.
Indeed, our visit coincided with 6D Kids, with family races and activities that form part of La 6000D trail-running event, comprising challenges involving all 10 of La Plagne’s villages. These family activities include archery, hiking and quizzes. We chose a hike up from Montchavin to Les Coches and back down through the peaceful forest, pausing en route to play in sparkling mountain streams and collect sticks. Of course, you can do this independently outside of the 6D event, and Les Coches also has a kids’ circus school each summer.
When we got back down to Montchavin, we were never more in need of a hearty lunch involving large amounts of melted cheese, which we followed with an afternoon in the outdoor pools and lazy river and on the racing slides of the village’s fantastic Espace Paradisio.
Hiking down from Les Coches
Even more scenic than Montchavin is Champagny Le Haut, a gorgeous little resort on the threshold of the Vanoise National Park with its Alpine ibex, marmots and fabulous birdlife. We stayed in the traditional chalet-style Hôtel Ancolie in the village itself, with an outdoor pool, connecting family rooms with charming wooden balconies and an upmarket but family-friendly restaurant that was so good, the kids demanded to eat there again on our second night instead of trying somewhere else. The opportunity to dine on its terrace against a stunning mountain backdrop stopped me putting up any resistance.
For our activities while in Champagny, we headed to Camping le Canada, a low-key campsite beside a pretty stream and the focal point for all kinds of healthy outdoor fun, including a treetop adventure course with zip-wires, self-guided pony rides, orienteering, a nature discovery trail and a themed wooden playground. There’s also a very good restaurant on the campsite, and lots of space for picnicking. Nearly, close to the picturesque valley church, is L’Espace Glacialis, a family-friendly museum about glaciers – great for those like my boys whose interest in the subject has been piqued by an ice grotto visit.
Our four-day break wasn’t long enough to try everything La Plagne’s villages offer in summer: the zip-wires from Belle Plagne to Plagne Bellecôte, for instance, or the via ferrata routes in Belle Plagne, the mountain-biking and the paragliding. All of which make it even more likely that we’ll be heading back up to the roof of the world before too long.
Find out more about family holidays in the French Alps.