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I’m clinging to a tree trunk, some 30 feet up. It’s hot, and humid. My feet are on pegs barely an inch wide. A harness should catch me if I fall but I’d really rather not put it to the test. In front of my nose, a column of ants is marching up the tree, and a wasp buzzes round intermittently.
This isn’t your usual family summer holiday. It’s the solution to a problem many parents will recognise. My children have outgrown buckets and spades – much to my relief, as I hate sand – but aren’t quite old enough to be left to their own devices on holiday. They need to be entertained and challenged, else they’d happily spend a week slumped in front of Minecraft and Instagram. So we’re in the French Alps and they’re doing assault courses and riding horses. And the adults are joining in.
The Alps are better known for skiing and snowboarding, but summer tourism was big business here long before eccentrics in woollen jumpers hit on the idea of strapping planks of wood to their feet for fun. Alpine resorts were a stop-off on the grand tours of Europe that English aristocrats took in years gone by. Their French and Swiss equivalents would head there to take the waters and the fresh air. Chamonix’s famous Compagnie des Guides was founded in the summer of 1821.
In recent times local communities have banded together to boost summer tourism. Interlinked lift systems transport walkers to the mountain ridges and shuttle buses ferry them between villages. There are swimming pools, mini-golf courses and ice rinks, all available at a fraction of the cost of a winter lift pass. Real daredevils can jump off mountains with a paraglider, abseil down waterfalls or raft down rivers. There’s even a zip-wire that shoots you from one side of the valley to another, at speeds of almost 100km/h. And in Morzine, where we’re based, there’s mountain biking. A steady procession of mud-spattered bikers come off the mountain in full protective gear, looking like Stormtroopers from the Star Wars films. Shops that wax skis in winter spend the summer jet-washing mountain bikes that cost more than my car.
All this activity is necessary to offset the rich diet. Savoyards must surely consume as much cheese as the Normans. There are fromageries everywhere, including a particularly pungent one next to our chalet which runs cheesemaking demonstrations. We try a local restaurant speciality, tartiflette, made of potatoes with smoked lardons and lashings of reblochon cheese, served in hearty portions. Afterwards I feel like a python that has consumed an antelope and must lie motionless for hours while digestion is completed. Only later do I learn that the locals offset their tartiflette with a drink called génépi, a herb-based firewater, which supposedly prevents the cheese coagulating in the stomach and eases heartburn.
Morzine is full of the usual chintzy Alpine chalets, all wood, cowbells and flowers tumbling from window boxes. But higher up the valley is Avoriaz, a bizarre ski resort purpose-built in the 1960s. The chairlift runs right through the centre and the architecture borders on the brutalist; as if the notorious Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle had been uprooted from south London, clad in cedar shingles and dropped on to the mountain top. We’re told it looks better with a covering of snow, and, indeed, snow is the main appeal here: at 1800m, Avoriaz is noticeably cooler than Morzine, even in summer. In winter, snow is almost guaranteed.
A welcome contrast comes on our final day, courtesy of a trip to Evian-les-Bains. This well-heeled Belle Epoque resort on Lake Geneva’s southern shore, where the terms of Algerian independence were hammered out in March 1962, has long been on the spa trail. So much so that virtually all the hillside with its glorious lake views is now taken up by luxurious hotels such as the Ermitage and the Royal.
Having trundled up in the charming century-old funicular, we have to walk down mostly on roads. Evian has a fine collection of early 20th-century buildings, such as the casino and the Palais Lumière. But its lake frontage, looking over to Lausanne, is curiously underused; the mountainous surroundings mean the town is not bypassed, so the shore is spoiled by the endless traffic grinding through en route to Montreux in the east and Geneva in the west.
It’s much hotter at lower altitude, so it comes as a relief to discover that you can fill up your bottle for free at the Source Cachat – one of several sources of the famous mineral water. Plenty of locals are loading up five-litre water containers they’ve brought along on trolleys. I now see why one of the earliest owners of the springs, François Fauconnet, saw only very modest returns on his investment. It seems unlikely that the current steward of the brand, the French food conglomerate Danone, will make the same mistake. Evian water is sold in 143 countries, and Danone’s waters division had sales of almost €4bn in 2013. In the town itself, visitors can relax in the Evian Resort and buy Evian-branded bathrobes and baseball caps. And just in case the water ever becomes tainted, Danone owns Volvic, too.
Jonathan Eley is the FT’s personal finance editor
Illustration by James Ferguson