Why families in search of activity holidays should head to the mountains, whatever the season
Words by Pendle Harte
Picture the scene. A mountain path, the sun shining, the sky felt-tip blue, the mountains impossibly green, the fir trees identically tall and the wildflowers blooming. It’s as if we have fallen through a portal and into a Disney animation that shows an idealised version of Switzerland living its best life, only this is the actual world and it really is like this. It’s kind of sad that the clarity of the air, the luminosity, the perfect colours and the sheer natural beauty around us is so overwhelming to a group of jaded Londoners that our only point of reference is a digital simulation. We really do struggle to believe that it’s real.
These are the Swiss Alps, a destination widely perceived to belong to winter due to the British travel industry’s insistence that mountains are only for skiing. This means that travelling to the Swiss Alps in summer has all the advantages of low season – no crowds, cheaper flights, availability – while retaining everything that you need from a family summer holiday: hot weather, beautiful scenery, outdoor activities and delicious food. Less obvious than the all-consuming ski industry, there is a strong tradition of summering in the mountains but as long as people continue to focus on beaches as the summer imperative, the Alps will retain their slightly off-piste feel when there’s sunshine instead of snow. Villars Sur Ollon has a long-standing history as a ski resort but in summer it takes on a whole new identity. While winter offers one main activity, summer offers countless different ones.
So, what to do? When there’s a mountain around, it’s natural to want to ascend it and in Villars the train takes you straight up to the ski station at 1,300 metres, which is an excellent starting point for a hike. Small groups of cows with gently tinkling cowbells have been perfectly positioned, the wildflowers artfully styled by nature and the path designed to lead to an insanely beautiful lake, with a dreamy restaurant alongside it. You could spend the day here but we’re after a little more adventure, so we hire mountain scooters. Picture a mountain bike without a seat and pedals, and you can imagine the scooter. The idea is that you stand up, bend your knees a bit and hurl yourself down the mountain. It looks innocent enough: my nine-year-old daughter and I are confident cyclists and are fully expecting to master this quickly.But off-road mountain scooting is more of an extreme sport than we’re quite ready for.
The terrain is – by definition – steep and the track is by turns rocky, gravelly and grassy. The scooter lurches downhill and my instinct is to brake heavily, but brakes are a further challenge. Brake too much and you’ll skid, potentially throwing yourself at the rocky ground, but without braking you’ll build up terrifying speed and still potentially hurl yourself off balance. There’s no easy option, but neither is there time to think because you have to keep your entire brain on the scooter as the world whizzes past you. Of course it’s partly an age thing: these fears are not shared by my daughter, who is careering down the mountain without a backwards glance, entirely unburdened by thoughts of whether she’ll fall, how much to brake or whether she’s likely to skid. Her fearlessness is exhilarating. This is a lesson in confidence as much as in balance and co-ordination. We are overtaken by a professional-looking group of teenagers, unrecognisable beneath their extreme protective gear, whose sheer speed is either impressive or horrifying, depending on your outlook (or your age).
Back in Villars, there is a beautiful public pool, indoor and outdoor, which has slides and amazing views as well as an on-site spa and an inflatables course. Also on site is a year-round outdoor ice rink. We are staying at the Chalet Royalp, which provides us with free access passes that get us in everywhere, including on the train. Our next day is spent visiting a cheese farm and sampling the mountain dairy offerings before heading to Parc des Diables for a high ropes course in the forest. And so it goes on. Lakes, mountains, forests. Our activity-filled days are laced with fondues and showstopping scenery. So who needs snow?