3 Summer days in the alpine region of Samoëns, France
“We are the future of tourism in the Alps” proclaims Nicolas, the charismatic Director of Tourism for Samoëns, as we tuck into a slice of the region’s famous Reblochon cheese. He has a glint in his eye and is clearly a natural salesman, but having just experienced the intoxicating charm of this little corner of France over the last few days, I am compelled to believe him.
Samoëns is not your typical Alpine resort. This was clear from the second I arrived into the quiet chocolate-box town, having already been treated to panoramic views of Mt Blanc and co. on the stunning one-hour drive from Geneva Airport.
I was greeted by a tranquil scene of traditional chalets, pedestrianised streets and just a gentle hum of life, with locals exchanging smiles as they went about their enviably relaxed existence.
Although a quarter of Samoëns’ ever-increasing tourist population visits in summer – a statistic almost unmatched across the Alps – there is an overwhelming village-like feel to the place; a quietness defiantly resisting its growing international attention.
After checking into the homely, family-run Hotel Spa Neige et Roc, I reluctantly dragged myself away from my balcony’s spectacular mountain views to meet Paula, who was to be our guide throughout our stay.
Paula gave us a brief insight into the town’s fascinating history – as part of the historic region of Savoy, Samoëns only actually joined France in 1860 – before dropping us off at our first activity.
Aside from its quaint, peaceful culture, Samoëns differs from its Alpine rivals in that it is so much more than a ski resort. Summer tourists have over 600 activities to choose from and for us, e-fat biking was first up.
I’d seen this on our itinerary when I first arrived, but had absolutely no idea what to expect. E-fat bikes, it turned out, are electronic mountain bikes with particularly wide tyres to provide extra stability. This massively increases the sport’s accessibility, allowing people to take on routes typically beyond their ability level.
The bike’s electric turbo was particularly welcome on some of the more challenging climbs, but the majority of the two-hour ride was spent sailing through the relatively flat valley floor.
Flanked by Samoëns’ many surrounding peaks – the town’s name comes from a medieval expression meaning ‘seven mountains’ – we made good time on our way to the neighbouring village of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval.
Passing dramatic gorges, wild flower meadows and some of Samoëns’ nine miniature chapels, we eventually returned to our start point, all wearing wide grins on our muddied faces.
A mindful hike into the forest
The next morning, after a delightful continental breakfast, I returned to my room to watch the sun creep over the imposing Aouille de Criou, a 2,023m stony peak which dominates Samoëns’ north-eastern skyline. The temperature quickly began to climb and the heatwave that had been sweeping across Europe began to make itself known.
As such, the shaded sections of our sensory walk that morning provided welcome relief. Under the guidance of a local yoga instructor, we hiked up the forested side of one of the nearby mountains and through a series of mindfulness exercises, were encouraged to take in our surroundings.
With the snow-capped Mt Blanc and Grand Massif mountain range gleaming on the horizon, I didn’t need much persuasion. Birdsong and cowbells filled the air as we took the winding woodland trails back down towards Samoëns.
Samoëns Botanical Gardens
We spent the afternoon exploring the beautiful botanical gardens.
The Samoëns Botanical Gardens were created in 1906 and its expansive grounds – over seven football pitches worth – feature over 2,500 species of international wild plants.
Ironically, to me at least, the region’s heavy annual snowfall actually facilitates the growth of warm-climate plants by acting as a protective layer from the frost and insulating the soil. Consequently, as I strolled up the steep meandering path, I was surrounded by rainbows of colour, with exotic plants from China, the Mediterranean and everywhere in between lining the three kilometres of walkways.
As we reached the top, a little short of breath, we were rewarded with sweeping views of Samoëns below and its magnificent nearby peaks.
A wander round the Market
Edible treats were on fine display the following morning too, as we finished our three-day tour with a wander around the town’s popular weekly market. The event has been held every Wednesday since the 1500s, ever since the former Duke of Savoy allowed sellers to trade tax-free on that particular day.
The atmosphere was a world away from the calmness of the previous days, with Samoëns’ pretty streets awash with people. The town was alive.
As I slalomed down the aisles, swerving both locals and tourists alike, I entered a cloud of enticing smells. Fresh fruit, vegetables and cheeses drew in large crowds, as did adjacent stalls selling crafts and handmade fabrics. Tables of goods stretched for as far as the eye could see – passed Samoëns’ iconic Linden Tree, around the 17th century church and centring in La Grenette, the expertly carved stone market square.
Souvenirs bought, I returned to the hotel and said au revoir to the delightful management, before heading back to the airport.
As our plane passed the glistening Alps below, I reflected back on a wonderful few days and could totally understand why Samoëns is attracting more and more visitors each year.
It’s a special place and the world is slowly starting to wake up to its charm.