Once the preserve of skiers, the mountains are now open to all year-round, writes Nicky Holford.
Summer in the Alps has never been busier. Alpine summer holidays used to be a slow burner for sun-starved Brits desperate to get to the sea, but inventive marketing, new affordability and glorious scenery has literally turned the hills alive with the sound of music, activity and pampering.
Lakes and mountain holidays have traditionally seduced an older market, but as cycling has grown in popularity and a ski-lift network has provided access to high paths and the dazzling scenery and extensive trails that come with them, the Alps have become a favourite destination for all age groups. Once considered the preserve of skiers and climbers, the mountains have now opened up to everyone.
While the options of high-adrenalin activities such as canyoning, parapenting, climbing, testing out steep hairpin bend climbs on the Tour de France routes or dangling on the via ferrata (climbing routes) are in plentiful supply, those seeking relaxation are equally catered to. Try yoga overlooking fields of wildflowers, gentle hikes to mountain huts, golf, e-biking or some of the magnificent mountain railway journeys.
Wherever you are in the mountains it seems there is a festival of something or event to celebrate. In Switzerland I’ve found a wrestling competition, yodelling festival and watched cow fighting. And this year celebrates 50 years since scenes in the Bond film, On her Majesty’s Secret Service, were filmed at the top of the Schilthorn cable car in the Swiss resort of Mürren (schilthorn.ch).
There’s also Verbier’s Classical Music Festival, now in its 26th year, which will host more than 60 concerts of top and up-and-coming artists from around the world this July (verbier.ch).
Switzerland has some of the most iconic rail journeys in the world. The Jungfrau Railway, which connects to many resorts including Wengen, Grindelwald and Mürren, travels from Kleine Scheidegg to the Jungfraujoch, the highest railroad station in Europe at 3,454 metres above sea level. You can reach the top via a tunnel through the Eiger mountain, an incredible engineering feat, with a stop where you may even see climbers scaling the North Face through viewing windows. The dramatic Aletsch Glacier – the largest ice body in the European Alps – is a spectacular sight, too.
The Mont Blanc Express is another stunning journey from Chamonix in France to Saas-Fee in Switzerland. In the French Alps, the tour of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, is one of Chamonix’s best-known hikes, but there are countless shorter walks and excursions. The highest point of the Aiguille du Midi cable car goes to 3,842 metres, as close as you can get to the summit of Mont Blanc without hiking. It has a glass panoramic viewing area, reached by an elevator inside the mountain, which links to the ultra-modern Skyway Monte Bianco: rotating cabins that go across to the Punta Helbronner on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, which can be reached from Courmayeur.
In Italy, for sheer mountain beauty, the Dolomite Mountains and national parks are magical. Watch sunset from the dramatically perched terrace at the Refuge Lagazuoi at 2,800 metres, and feel on top of the world. This is near the South Tyrol border, a strategically important location during the First World War where a network of tunnels was built by the Italians and Austrians. There is an open-air museum, and the opportunity to try the via ferrata, walking on ledges and in some of the original trenches.
For the ultimate hiking tour take a hut-to-hut trip with a guide staying in refuges in stunning locations (dolomitemountains.com). This area, called Alta Badia, is also a foodie and cyclist heaven. Cycle to one of the three Michelin-starred restaurants or head to a gourmet mountain hut. The tourist office provides maps with recommended routes for mountain bikers and e-bike riders and offers daily bike tours (altabadia.org/bike).
For some of the most picturesque alpine villages, Austria is hard to beat, with Alpbach in Tyrol named as the country’s most beautiful village. Here, as in most Austrian resorts, the hiking is spectacular and varied. There are 900kms of marked trails including the famous Eagle Walk, a long-distance route of 256kms over the Alpbachtal province. There are also 250kms of mountain bike routes, e-bike guided tours, and lakes with arguably the warmest waters in the Tyrol.
Surrounded by four valleys, Mayrhofen is another hiking heaven, boasting 1,700kms of walking routes. It is famous for many high-level routes such as the Berlin High Trail, a seven-day hut-to-hut trip. But equally it caters to well-signed, long, flatter walks in the Ziller Valley along the meadows and river to Zell am See.
Experience yoga on the mountain or take a culinary hiking tour in Salzburgerland (salzburgerland.com) where a number of hotels including the Aqua Dome, Interalpen-Hotel Tyrol and Weisses Rössl provide spa treatments with mountain views.
Another Austrian summer hotspot is St Anton am Arlberg, best known as Austria’s top international ski resort in winter. Named “Europe’s most beautiful village in bloom”, St Anton am Arlberg also has lots going on in summer. This year, it hosts E-bike Fest in June followed by a yoga festival, bike marathon and film festival (stantonamarlberg.com/sommer).
And if you fancy skiing, Austria has some of the best summer skiing on the glaciers of Kaprun and Hintertux. Skiing in summer on a glacier is an excellent opportunity for beginners to learn. Les Deux Alpes in France has the largest skiable glacier in Europe. It has a dedicated slope for beginners and a ski pass that can also be used for bike trails.
In Eastern Europe head to the resort of Poiana Brasov at the foot of the Postăvarul mountain in Romania or choose from the Pirin Mountains or the Seven Lakes of the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria. Then there is Kranjska Gora in the Julian Mountains in Slovenia and the beautiful Lake Bled, where a Baroque church is located right in the middle of the lake. Slovenia has an incredible 5,000kms of footpaths and 10,000kms of mountain hiking trails with waterfalls, canyons and glaciers along the way (balkanholidays.com)