Claps of thunder rolled around the valley and dark rain clouds stayed just a few hundred metres ahead of us as we walked past a small yellow sign telling us we had entered the Vanoise National Park in the French Alps. Far ahead of us we could see the Lac de la Plagne cupped on a ledge and beyond it the Grande Motte glacier above Tignes. To the south, the seriously steep scree of the Sommet de Bellecôte towered above the valley that leads down to the villages of Nancroix and Peisey.
Immediately in front of us was, thankfully, much more gentle terrain. Our path zig-zagged round the Crête des Lanchettes before narrowing to a well-worn single track that wound down between alpine lawns dotted with edelweiss, arnica and black vanilla orchid, and wiggled between lichen-covered boulders.
We had set off from the French resort of Arc 1800 and taken the Transarc gondola to 2,570m. Our destination was the Refuge du Mont Pourri, an hour-and-a-half hike from the top of the lift and our bed for the night. We, my husband and I, with our six-year-old daughter Evie, had wanted activities and adventure on our summer holiday; something we could do as a family that would take us far, far away from our easygoing London life yet realistic enough for us, given we were unused to walking at altitude and had little legs in tow.
When most British families think of booking an activity holiday, whether it be during the summer break or half term, the first thing that comes to mind is Centre Parcs – with six locations across the UK and Ireland, its concept of a controlled and safe break in nature has taken the nation by storm. But the price for a week in August is eye-watering – accommodation alone is around £2,500. Forgetting one-size-fits-all cabins and lodges, in Les Arcs we had the option to take the adventure up a level and spend a night in a remote mountain refuge – a world away from Longleat Forest or Centre Parc’s latest proposed site in West Sussex.
As we descended into the national park, stepping across mountain streams the valley flattened out and the roof we’d spotted in the distance revealed itself to be the wooden and corrugated iron Refuge du Mont Pourri, solidly sat on a rocky base next to the flowing water. At times, it had felt like we’d never make it – walking with a six-year-old had involved a lot of cajoling and bribery. Yet posing for a family portrait outside the hut before checking in with the guardien, Laurent, we were delighted to have arrived at our home for the night – this was a ‘proper’ adventure.
Despite the constant coaxing of Evie, I loved the walk and that evening we joined the other 20 guests, including a family of four from the South of France for the communal dinner – not a Cafe Rouge or Starbucks in sight. In the refuge, we were greeted by unexpected luxuries such as cold Brasserie du Mont Blanc beer, drank while overlooking the refuge and accompanied by the sounds of cow bells jangling on the pitched pasture beneath.
Despite the tranquil calm of the place, I had a terrible night’s sleep in our wood-clad bunk room – I blame the altitude, not the comfort – but it was worth it to wake up in such a remote outpost, as the clouds of the previous day cleared to reveal peaks and dômes, valleys and ridges spreading out in 360-degree technicolour glory around us.
Evie, however, had other opinions of our back-to-basics one-nighter – which she revealed once we arrived back at our stylish and spacious apartment in the Odalys Prestige Residence Edenarc, above Arc 1800. In typical six-year-old fashion, she explained she hadn’t liked it at all – “it was too far away and the walk was too long.” Surprised, we quizzed her further. Her conflicting reply was: “I didn’t like it. Apart from…” I’ll paraphrase the rest, in no particular order: the beef bourguignon and chocolate brownie we had for dinner, the hot chocolate, bread and jam for breakfast, playing games found among the refuge’s collection, sleeping in bunk beds, spotting marmots from the doorstep and hunting for crystals and fossils.
Her problem was we’d taken her away from all the adventure available in the civilisation of the village. Each summer, Les Arcs offers the Hero pass, which gives access to an ever-growing number of outdoor activities. With the Hero Pass Premium, everything from archery and trampolines to circus skills and tennis is available, plus unlimited access to the brilliant indoor and outdoor pool and the ski lifts (for hiking and exploring further). It’s great value at €99 for seven days.
It was in fact eye-opening to have so much included. At Centre Parcs, each activity – except access to the village’s subtropical swimming pool – is charged separately and must be booked in advance. Planning for an action-packed week can almost double the cost of the holiday at any of the UK sites. For organised families with deep pockets this isn’t a problem, but for everyone else, Les Arcs’ Hero pass makes for a much more relaxed, and budget-friendly escape.
Evie’s circus skills session was a huge hit, but vying for top place was the Jardin d’aventures and the swimming pools. The Jardin d’aventures is a pine forest full of graded routes for children aged from three to 17 to swing, climb, balance and zip line through – a stepping stone to the newly installed 1.8km zipping descent from the top of the Varet gondola to Arc 2000.
As residents at Edenarc, we had a choice of two pools – the indoor/outdoor option open only to Edenarc guests, and the main Arc 1800 pool, with the added appeal of water slides, toddler play area and adult-only spa.
In another difference to Centre Parcs, where parents or unsuspecting grandparents are left largely in charge of their offspring, Les Arcs also runs Hero Camp, a fantastic kids club for children aged from four to 17. Children are split into year groups and activities include everything from running wild in the huge bouncy castle maze to playing team games and going mountain biking. While Evie spent an enjoyable day there (costing €45), dancing, trampolining and crafting, my husband and I checked into Nama Springs, Edenarc’s adult-only sumptuous spa. From the sauna we soaked in the rolling vistas above Arc 1800.
Back to reality
Comparing our holiday with those of our friends with children of a similar age, all vying for places on the Centre Parcs pony trekking waitlist, it appeared we’d hit the jackpot. Les Arcs made for a great stepping stone back to those much more adventurous holidays we used to have pre-children.
While Centre Parcs in the UK offers the priceless reliability that the kids will have a great time, it can leave parents wanting more. For us, we wanted more than to eat food that isn’t the same as what we’d have at home – to pick up a baguette and fresh pastries as we did every morning for breakfast, to visit the weekly local market in Bourg St Maurice, full of stalls selling local Beaufort, Reblochon and Tomme cheese, saucisson and terrines, and colourful fruits. We wanted to practice our rusty French, connect with the locals and stretch our legs beyond the confines of a holiday park.
We’d found that balance in the French Alps – and, rewardingly, not had our budget stung every time Evie, or we, wanted to try something new.
Need to know
Summer activities and lifts in Les Arcs run during July and August. For more information and to book Hero passes, visit the Les Arcs Bourg Saint Maurice Tourist Office lesarcs.com. For more information on the Edenarc Residence Arc 1800 visit Odalys-vacances.com. For more information on Refuge du Mont Pourri visit refuge-mont-pourri.fr.
The price: a week in Les Arcs versus Centre Parcs
Total price: £2,820.50*
A week’s accommodation at Woburn Forest, Bedfordshire, in a standard two-bedroom self-catering Woodland Lodge: £2,228
Access to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, adventure playgrounds, watersports lake, sandy beach and up to 400 acres of woodland.
Activities: two aerial tree sessions £24.50pp; two archery adventures £18pp; two laser combat games £25.50pp; two soccer coaching sessions £13.50pp; 1hr tennis court hire £11.50.
Three meals out at £80 a meal (pizza at Amalfi Ristorante: £11.95-£15.95)
Two Aqua Sana Spa sessions, from £49.00pp.
*Based on a family of four (two children aged six and nine), excluding travel, for a week in August.
Total price: €1,935 (approx £1,631)*
A week’s accommodation in a two-bedroom self-catering apartment (sleeping six) in the Odalys preside Residence Edenarc 5* in Arc 1800: €1,419. Book at odalys-vacances.com
Access to the indoor and outdoor pool with sauna and steam room, plus five half days of Edenarc kids’ club and two half-day hikes with a guide.
Hero Pass Premium: €99pp, includes access to the Arc 1800 pool, ski lifts, archery, adventure garden and 18 other activities.
Three meals out at €80 a meal (pizza at Voga Goga: €12-15).
Two Nama Springs spa sessions, from €29pp.
One night’s half board accommodation at Refuge du Mont Pourri, from €49,50 per adult, €21 for under-eights.
The Hero Camp pass offers professional childcare with dedicated staff and activities adapted to the age of the children (plus access to the Hero Pass activities). One day costs €45, seven days start from €186.
*Based on a family of four (two children aged six and nine), excluding travel.