How to go paragliding over Lake Annecy in Savoie Mont Blanc

A flight from Col de La Forclaz gives travellers bird’s-eye views of Lake Annecy, one of Europe’s purest bodies of water, including the wildlife haven of Bout du Lac.

Paragliders take flight near Col de la Forclaz, the most popular free-flight take-off platform in Europe, above Lake Annecy.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 19 Dec 2021, 11:00 GMT

Walk, run then stay upright: these are the only instructions I receive at the take-off platform, which looks like a high-altitude football field, only tilted, and ending down a ravine. I stare at the few feet separating me from the mountainside. Jeremy, my instructor for the flight, is behind me, strapped to my indecisiveness by a two-person body harness. Now or never, I think as I start marching. Then, it all happens at once — air fills our large canopy, a gust lifts us up and the ground is no more. I feel a rush, a drop in the pit of my stomach, a disorientating feeling of being at the mercy of the elements. My feet wriggle, reaching for gravity.

At 3,800ft, Col de la Forclaz, from where we’ve just departed, is Europe’s most popular free-flight take-off point. It must, I think, also be one of the most scenic: not only does this Alpine mountain pass overlook the claw-like Dents de Lanfon mountain and towering La Tournette peak, but it also presides over the entirety of Lake Annecy.

Within seconds of launching, the people on the platform are as undefinable as ants, scurrying dozens of feet below. In front of us, Lake Annecy unravels like a giant turquoise snake. I take it in, one bend at a time: first, on the left shore, the Château de Duingt; then, on the opposite bank, the dense canopy of the Roc de Chère Nature Reserve; on the horizon, too far away to make out in any detail, is Annecy. Visitors to the area tend to make a beeline for this pretty lakeside town, or enjoy the sites and activities around it, such as the greenway, a leisurely cycling path that runs along the shore for nearly 20 miles.

“Try manoeuvring,” Jeremy says, bringing me back to my senses. Clenching the handles, I find myself whisking above the reed beds of the Bout du Lac Nature Reserve. Few travellers venture to this wetland, but it was here that, earlier today, at ground level (and a slower speed), I’d learned about the importance of preserving the last wild corners of the lake.

With green-blue waters and a ban on motor boats, Lake Aiguebelette is the perfect place to try stand-up paddling.

Photograph by Savoie Mont Blanc-Arnal

The Bout du Lac Nature Reserve was created in 1974 to protect around 200 acres of land from development. Today, it’s home to boars, deer and beavers, as well as enough avian life to keep birdwatchers busy for days. During a guided visit, following a signposted educational trail, I’d wandered through a meadow abloom with 20 varieties of orchid; strolled along the River Ire, one of the tributaries that feed Lake Annecy; and passed through a thicket of willows and alders, cool and shady even on a hot summer day.

I think back to Isabelle, my wetland guide, placing her palms on my eyelids: “Now, close your eyes,” she’d said. When she let go, we were by the edge of the lake, and the suddenness of its clarity made me squint. Above, the sky was speckled with tiny flecks of yellow, orange and blue — the canopies of paragliders performing feats of aerobatic derring-do, spinning on themselves, turning upside down.

And as hard as it might have been to believe back then, I’m now one of them. The wind drops, and as I adjust to the stillness, I notice how serene it is up here. I say this to Jeremy. “Does this mean you’re ready for some stunts?” he asks. He pulls the handles, and suddenly we pivot to the left, swivel to the right, draw large circles in the air and end up with our legs facing the sky, stopping just short of doing a complete 180.

Then, with barely enough time to catch my breath, stay upright, run and walk: my feet touch the grass and I land easily, lightly, among the green fields of the Doussard valley. We drive away, following the road by the lake, and decide to join a group of locals by the shore for a spontaneous dip. Everything in this landscape goes back to water, I think, as I float facing the sky — and whether above it or in it, the best way to enjoy it might just be taking the plunge.

The Château d'Yvoire on the shore of Lake Geneva.

Photograph by Savoie Mont Blanc-Monica Dalmasso

Three more lake experiences to have in Savoie Mont Blanc

In addition to Lake Annecy, the region has three other great bodies of water: Lake Geneva, Lake Bourget and Lake Aiguebelette — each with something unique to offer.

1. Step back in time
A medieval hamlet on Lake Geneva, Yvoire is a microcosm of cobbled streets and stone houses. It’s known for its floral decorations, and this shared knack for botany culminates in the Garden of Five Senses, a sensory maze lined with over 1,500 plants (think cheese-tasting herbs and gum-smelling leaves). Finished exploring the village? Hop on Le Foué boat for a solar-powered cruise of the lake.

2. Unwind and admire
Aix-Les-Bain’s thermal waters have been soothing respite-seekers since Roman times. A short ferry trip from its esplanade, lining Lake Bourget, takes visitors to the impressive Hautecombe Abbey in Saint-Pierre-de-Curtille, the former burial place of House of Savoy princes. Come sundown, grab a bite at the lakeside DéhooKé brasserie before heading to La Turquoise Egarée bed and breakfast in Bourdeau.

3. Get active
In the summer months, water sports are the Savoyard lakes’ raison d'être, and Lake Aiguebelette — with green-blue waters and a ban on motor boats — is the perfect place to try stand-up paddling. If staying in the area for longer, eco-campsite Huttopia, a short walk from the shores, has pitches for tents and caravans as well as permanent chalets and facilities. For dinner, opt for the nearby Auberge du Sougey.

Where to eat


La Cuillère à Omble: Only two fishermen are allowed to operate on Lake Annecy, and this shoreside bistro in Doussard, near the Bout du Lac Nature Reserve, is famous for serving the prized catch of the day. Make sure to try the smoked whitefish and perch fillets.

Déhooké: Located in Le Bourget-du-Lac, this brasserie has a large terrace by the shore of Lake Bourget and offers beautiful views of the water. After your meal, take a scenic walk by the lakeside boulevard.

Auberge du Sougey: Come to this laid-back restaurant for savoury European specialities. Located in Saint-Alban-de-Montbel near one Lake Aiguebelette’s beaches, it’s an ideal spot to grab a bite with the family after a day in the sun. 73610 Saint-Alban-de-Montbel, France

Where to sleep


La Turquoise Egarée: With two bedrooms and one suite, this scenic bed and breakfast in Bourdeau, overlooking Lake Bourget, has a relaxed, homey atmosphere. The modern villa, which uses only renewable energy, has floor-to-ceiling windows, and the rooms open up to a spacious terrace with access to the shore. The gourmet breakfast prepared by the owners, who live upstairs, is a highlight. From €130 (£109), including breakfast.

Huttopia: Covering five hectares of woodland, this eco-campsite in Saint-Alban-de-Montbel has pitches for tents and caravans as well as permanent chalets equipped with a kitchen, living room and bathroom, perfect for families or small groups. It’s located just a short walk from the shore of Lake Aiguebelette, and facilities include heated swimming pools and food trailers serving snacks and pizzas.

How to do it

Located in south-eastern France, right in the heart of the French Alps, Savoie Mont Blanc is a region that includes all the resorts, towns and villages of the country’s Savoie and Haute-Savoie departments.

The region is easily accessible via train or airplane. New Jet2 flights will link London, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham to Chambéry from December 2021 to mid-April 2022.

Espace 3d Parapente offers tandem flights over Lake Annecy as well as paragliding lessons for enthusiasts.

For more information, head to savoie-mont-blanc.com

Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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