Night is settling on the village of Lanslebourg in the Haute Maurienne Vanoise region of the French Alps.
Amid a strengthening breeze, the mercury is heading rapidly towards minus 20. Time, surely, to retreat indoors, warm up and wolf down some fondue.
But no – it’s day eight of the Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc dog race and hundreds have come together to watch as mushers from across Europe take position. Gathered alongside them at the start line are scores of huskies, malamutes and eurohounds, itching to run and yelping themselves hoarse in the gelid air. As the signal is sounded for each sled team, the crowd responds with a soaring allez and the dogs are off, speeding across the village’s tiny bridge to a wave of cheers, whoops and roars.
Lanslebourg and the surrounding Val Cenis ski resort don’t immediately strike the visitor as the sort of location which would, or could, help host an international event such as the Grande Odyssée. One of the many pleasures of this area is its sense of seclusion and tradition. Surrounded by stone hamlets which cling limpet-like to the mountains, Val Cenis feels hidden from the world even though it’s next door to the Franco-Italian border. And compared to neighbouring Val d’Isère, large-scale commercial skiing appears to be at a relatively early stage of development.
Yet the Odyssée – which was held for the 13th time in January – is well established as one of the world’s premier sled events and attracts tens of thousands of spectators annually. This year saw 20 elite competitors sign up for a multi-stage race covering 750 kilometres between the Giffre Mountains and Bonneval-sur-Arc. They were accompanied by 500 dogs and set the task of conquering a route through dense forests and over alpine peaks.
And it isn’t only the competitors who need determination. When I meet a bleary-eyed Henry Kam, the Odyssée’s founder, he tells me he has been functioning on about two hours’ sleep a night since the 2017 event launched several days before. Not that he’d have it any other way. “It takes many years to become a musher,” he says. “It’s a real sport. It’s really tough. So the organisation of the Odyssée is really a 24-hour story. It’s like a military operation.”
And as Henry’s Grande Odyssée goes from strength to strength, Val Cenis is also making efforts to boost its profile. Building on the popularity of the resort’s slopes among families and mid-level skiers, local entrepreneurs are clearly moving to claim a more prominent spot on the winter sports tourism map. The recently opened Saint-Charles, where I stayed, is the first four star hotel in the Haute Maurienne valley. While its appearance echoes that of a traditional Savoyard chalet, the 83-room building – decked out in soothing hues of wood, lime and dark slate – boasts an impressive range of facilities, including a restaurant, spa, pool, fitness suite and a Japanese bath. If the Saint-Charles is any indication of future trends, it won’t be long before the short queues at nearby ski-lifts become a thing of the past.
It’s also hard to imagine a region with a better fit between climate, landscape and cuisine than the Haute Maurienne Vanoise. There’s nothing more satisfying after skiing in sub-zero temperatures than sitting down to cheese fondue or a dish of steaming polenta. Unsurprisingly, the area has many excellent restaurants, including La Cabane in Bonneval-sur-Arc and Le Gite du Petit Bonheur with its spellbinding views of the Bessans plateau. But for an unforgettable taste of how individuals and communities are adapting in their bid to tempt tourists, visitors should seek out Jean-Louis Vincendet’s La Grange du Travérole restaurant. Based in a converted barn between Bessans and Bonneval-sur-Arc, it offers local specialities in a homely setting with colourful alpine paraphernalia. Arriving there halfway through a late-night snowshoeing session was relief indeed. And as I made short work of a meal of polenta, spiced sausage and blueberry tart, my fingers stinging in the warmth, it was a struggle to think of a time when food had tasted quite so good.
A double room with breakfast (for two) at Hotel Saint-Charles costs from €169/£143 per night, www.hotel-saintcharles.com
Snowshoeing by night with dinner, €40/£34 per adult, firstname.lastname@example.org
Skiing at Val Cenis, €35/£30 for an adult one-day lift pass, €173/£146 for a six-day pass. Children under 12 years old, €29/£25 for a one-day pass; €143.50/£121 for six days.
Hiring at Ski Set Saint Charles, €19/£16 per day, €109/£92 per week.