French connections

Explore three sides of France: an active break in Morzine; tree-top living in Normandy; and the literary genius of Jules Verne and Nantes in the north east

By Maria Pieri
Published 28 Jan 2013, 13:28 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 12:17 BST

The local with a thick French accent behind us in the queue is shaking his head, staring at Luca (my slight, teeny, three-year-old).

"Too small. He iszt very small," he says. "It istz dangerouz."

That doesn't stop us buying tickets and, not long afterwards, anxiously waiting our turn in a crowd of families queuing for the chairlift.

"I'll take the boy," I volunteer, before the kids have time to voice their own preferences.

Shuffling on, two abreast, I lock my arms in a tight hug around my squirming octopus of a son, who seems indifferent to fear or heights. Twisting round to wave at Rae, his five-year-old sister, his little legs are barely hanging over the edge and it seems he could easily slide through the gap in the back. The lift stops at intervals, enabling us to take in the panoramic mountain views, while Luca continues to squirm.

Soon after, we're heading back down, this time feet-first, seated in a luge (a plastic toboggan). I partner with my daughter as we wind our way down the slope. She's trying out the controls, pulling the lever back and forth, as she gains confidence and we pick up speed. She's surprisingly good with it and we roll down with the kids screaming happily.

At the bottom, Luca is on a high: "Again, again, again," he squeals.

Welcome to France's adventure playground resort, Morzine — thrill-seekers only please (and active families too, of course). Set in the Rhône-Alpes region in the heart of the Portes du Soleil ski resort, this town excels at panoramic mountain views — sitting cheek-by-jowl with the ski resort of Avoriaz, just a short hop from Geneva and the lakeside town of Annecy.

We cross town to take the bubble car up to the top of the other side of the mountain and have lunch there watching the parascenders go down the mountain. After returning to our chalet for a snooze, swimming is on the cards.

It's getting warmer and we're tempted by a choice of not one but six swimming pools — three indoor; three outdoor — at the newly opened Espace Aquitaine complex. To reach it, you take two lifts down from the town. They work perfectly and like almost everything in this town seem almost new, thoughtfully designed, and very well-made — no doubt capable of withstanding extremes of snowy cold and summer heat.

The complex also includes an adventure playground, as well as a volleyball court, grass picnic area and restaurant. Not to mention a big, blue water slide.

Dad goes down first, then, Luca. I take Rae down with me but picking up speed, we catch up with Luca mid-chute, catapulting us all out in a mass of legs and arms — far too fast. Dad catches Luca, but Rae has been well and truly dunked.

"Again, again, again," says Luca. Rae's having none of it.

Morzine may be best known as a winter ski haven but in the summer, it reinvents itself in all its verdant alpine grandeur to cater to sporty sorts. We're party to a week-long programme of events: from milking cows, to street fairs, rock concerts, parades and even jousts. Our base, the Alaska Lodge, in the centre of town, is geared up for the ski market but is equally as hospitable in summer, with its wet room, sauna, hot tub and communal living areas, which include a dining and living room with wi-fi and Freeview (ace for watching CBeebies on). And it was all ours for most of the trip, too.

Our hosts, chalet managers Sam and Rob, become our unofficial local guides and — it turns out, rather good — personal chefs. We're staying on a B&B basis (with a couple of meals thrown in, too) and every morning a breakfast extravaganza is served: from berry toast, to omelettes, pancakes, baguette and freshly baked croissants. The food is superb and basics such as saucisson (dry cured sausage), cheese and vegetables are fresh, tasty and moreish. The Wednesday market in the old town centre next to the Carrefour is not to be missed for its hulking cheese wheels (Morbier — yum) and all manner of onions, sausages and garlic.

We've no car with us, having travelled via the Eurostar and the smooth-as-clockwork TGV, so we set out on foot to discover the immediate pleasures of this traditional Alpine hideaway. Spread across a river gorge, bordered partially by wooded slopes, mornings are spent exploring, pebble-skimming and paddling in the streams. There's also plenty of time to taste new flavours at the local markets, and stumble across playgrounds, festivals and tennis courts, while sidestepping the horse riding school (my daughter is not a fan) and Indiana Parc zip-wiring complex (they're still both too young).

Our daily routine falls into a familiar pattern: Rob serves up his latest breakfast creation (today, it's eggs, bacon and beans), and we continue our discussion on running routes. Dad and I have been taking turns on our morning jogs to hunt out new places to go with the kids, and Rob, who's training for a marathon, knows where to run. Like him, many of the local residents are fitness fanatics — either bikers, hikers, runners or ski enthusiasts. He tells us the best and flattest routes are by the river.

Dad also loves cycling, but Rob warns, "Cycling here is for those with ability; a green run here is not like a green run in skiing. They're not easy. And they're steep." We believe him, having seen riders coming down the mountain dressed head to toe in body armour. "We have more accidents in the summer than the winter," he says.

Later that afternoon, a carnival procession takes to the streets. Little tots re-enact scenes from 101 Dalmatians, dragon and flower floats roll past, vintage cars and brass bands swing by, while kids don sumo fat suits to wrestle. In the evening, a band called Reptyll are on stage playing a series of rock and indie classics. A vanilla and blackcurrant glacé later, the kids are jigging and head-banging to the music. It seems impromptu, yet it's well organised. "Again, again, again," urges Luca.

How to do it

Best for: Adventurous families or multi-gen families.

Highs: The views, paddling in the streams, the luge. And the French bread.

Lows: The prices. Dining out in Morzine isn't cheap.

Kids say: "I liked the big blue slide and swimming, and the chair thing that went up in the air. And I loved the luge, and the bubble [car]. And I loved the slide with the wheels that I went on with mum, dad and Rae. And I loved the bread." Luca, aged three.

"I liked throwing stones in the stream, swimming, the pancakes and the bread." Rae, aged five.

How to do it: Book via Railbookers and take the train from London's St Pancras to Geneva via Paris, travelling by Eurostar and TGV. Incorporate a stopover (such as Geneva or Annecy) en route (see the alternative below). 

Where to stay: The Alaska Lodge, booked via VIP SKI, is based in the heart of Morzine, and close to the lifts and facilities. The Lodge features seven bedrooms, a full wet suite with sauna and hot tub. Our chalet came complete with wi-fi, Freeview TV, DVD, music system and wall-mounted plasma TV. Prices for the chalet start from £55 per room per night and include a rather extravagant breakfast (and three meals during the week). Alaska Lodge sleeps a maximum of 16 guests in seven rooms. VIP SKI organises transfers to the Lodge from Geneva and on the return, back to Annecy.

When to go: Summer. (And winter for a snow trip).

Alternative: Annecy, one hour and 30 minutes from Morzine and easy to access via the TGV. Known as the Venice of the Alps, its medieval town centre is built around a 14th-century chateau (formally a prison) and criss-crossed by small canals and streams leading to Lake Annecy. A popular day trip from Geneva, it classes itself as an active resort, akin to Morzine: swimming, hiking, biking and hang-gliding are all popular here and cafes in town do a mean gelato. Stay by the train station at the Hotel Novotel Annecy Centre Atria. A two-night stay, with breakfast, includes a return train journey from London to Annecy from £265 per person

Read two further French adventures in the Spring 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)

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