On and Off the Piste: Le Grand Bornand Review
With one of the top ten snow parks in France, 90 kms of ski trails and opportunities to try novel activities like ski biking and biathlon, Le Grand-Bornand is the sporty family’s dream. But it isn’t all a mad dash for the slopes. This alpine village is also famous its lush green pastures, dairy farming and traditional crafts. We teamed up with France Montagnes to bring you this story of spring action, cows, cheese and ski culture, on and off the piste in the mountains around Le Grand Bornand…
There are, apparently, 2,000 cows and 2,000 people residing in Le Grand-Bornand. Or so I’m told by the locals. This figure makes me smile. Do people take a cow with them when they relocate to keep the figure balanced? Anyway, one thing I do know, while Le Grand-Bornand is first and foremost a ski town, it has a whole industry evolving around ‘la vache.’
There’s no escaping the cows
Arriving in Le Grand-Bornand you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all about the cow. Cow street art adorns bridges, walls, stairs and signs. Outside many of the shops and tourist offices there are cow sculptures made out of a vast range of materials. I have never seen so many different artistic interpretations of udders.
Cow related art also mixes with real life in the chalet of the local bourrelier who has dedicated his life to producing artisan accessories. Didier Perrillat has a magic touch when it comes to leather. You can watch him in action at his shop, Chez le Bourrelier, one of the oldest chalets in the village, and you can even do a workshop with him. The first thing that strikes me when I enter is how big the cows in the village must be. Because the bells they hook around their necks, displayed all over the shop, are enormous. Big enough for a toddler to climb into. Luckily I don’t have one with me.
Where there’s cows, there’s cheese
An hour or so later, I see for myself that the local cows are indeed enormous. I am standing in a stable amongst forty one Abondance cows, a breed originating in the high valleys of Haute-Savoie. At Gaec D’Hermy cheese farm at the tip of La Vallée du Bouchet, (about 7kms from Le Grand Bornand village), the family Jacquard specialise in production of Reblochon and Tomme cheese.
Stephanie is the knowledge and driving force behind the family’s cheese making. In traditional farm buildings, one of which dates back to 1792, we follow her through the process of making more than 90 of these local delicacy cheeses. It’s surprisingly manual work, involving cutting and stirring, tipping a huge bucket of fresh curd into waiting cheese moulds, spreading it out and pushing it down by hand to create a fresh batch of local cheese. As she presses, moulds and checks the weight of each cheese, Stephanie explains how production is strictly controlled to ensure only cheeses produced in the Haute Savoie area can be called Reblochon.
The cheese of the mountains
If you’ve ever had tartiflette in a mountain restaurant you’ll know the nutty taste of Reblochon. Stephanie tells us there are specific rules for Reblochon farmers. It’s important that work on the cheese begins immediately, as soon as the cows have been milked, and in the same location. The cheese is made twice a day and the cows must be native to the area. They must also be fed on local crops – grass in the summer and hay in the winter. There are currently 43 farmers making 1,300 tons of cheese a year in the area and Stephanie says she can tell you which farm a cheese comes from in a blind taste test. Unlike many cheeses, you can eat a Reblochon just 3-4 weeks after it has been made.
“It’s a young cheese,” explains Stephanie, tasting different in winter and summer, according to the type of feed the cows eat, the amount of flowers they munch on in the fields, and how much water they drink. “When they eat grass, the taste is more fresh.”
I buy a cheese that Stephanie made by hand just three weeks ago. As a souvenir I know it won’t last very long in my hands. I am even tempted to cut a slice straight away.
A valley full of craft traditions
But we can’t delay, we still have to fit in a different kind of souvenir shop before closing time; the local ceramic artists at Le Poterie. Up an alley of cow art we find artist Edith Martin at work in an old stable converted into a charming and slightly chaotic ceramic workshop.
Inside Edith is working her potter’s wheel, shaping clay into beautiful bowls, mugs and plates that she’ll later paint with her signature stamp, traditional little bird decorations and motifs. They are simple yet beguiling. With over twenty years of production under her belt, she is something of an artistic establishment in the village.
Visitors are welcome to have a look at what she is doing or to buy something. And if you speak French you can stop and chat to Edith while her hands shape the clay.
And then there’s the skiing
But of course, you probably don’t come to one of France’s most respected ski resorts in winter or spring to meet local craftspeople. You come for the sport. And the resort has a long history of sport; amongst other achievements it was the French resort with the highest number of medallists in the last Winter Olympics.
We begin our own sporting activities high above the main village, in the upper resort of Chinaillon. The kids are happy to find today’s fun combines two of their favourite things; skiing and cycling. ESF ski biking instructor Jean-François Exertier is going to teach us to ski bike or velo-ski as it’s known in French.
Ski biking – like biking, but on skis
Ski biking is a great way of getting down the slopes for anyone who hasn’t yet learned to ski, who might have dodgy knees, or who can’t keep up with the rest of the family when they are pushing on downhill. And Le Grand-Bornand is the only place in the world where the ski bikes have brakes. Sound strange? It is, a bit, for a few minutes. And then soon you are letting go of the brake on a sturdy machine that is literally a bike frame on skis. And you are blasting down, without the need to work on your snow plough or parallel turns.
Jean-François became an ambassador for the activity through his neighbours the Merillod brothers who began to manufacture them in their local iron workshop. He is still currently the only instructor who offers tuition in the five interconnected resorts around La Clusaz.
Not everyone loves the idea of ski biking. Some purists regard the riders as intruders to the ski scene and it has taken years to get all the ski lifts to carry them. Jean-François has been patient, persistent and persuasive so that today you can take a ski-bike on all the lifts in Le Grand Bornand, which means great opportunities for recreational ski biking. I quickly fall in love with this new form of biking; it’s about the only time on the holiday that I can easily keep up with my kids.
Two more sports in one
In the Olympics and other international winter sport events, biathlon is a combination of two sports – rifle shooting and Nordic skiing. Le Grand-Bornand has a special relationship with this winter sport; in 2013 it hosted the French Cross Country Skiing Championships and in 2017 the village will host the Biathlon World Cup. Unusually for a small resort it has its own biathlon stadium in the centre of town, named after its own Olympic Biathlon medallist, Sylvie Becaert. It shares its passion for biathlon with visitors, offering taster sessions and welcoming families.
A taste of biathlon
We are taught biathlon by 25 year old Alexis Bailly, an instructor from ESF who specialises in teaching raquette (snow shoeing) and biathlon. He trains us today in a special learners’ area on a flat valley floor in the Vallée du Bouchet. This is an area known for its cross country skiing trails with 58 kms of slope passing quietly through fields and forests.
We hire our Nordic skis from the cheerful staff at nearby L’Auberge Nordique and before long we find ourselves lying flat in the snow, firing tiny lead pellets into a target. And then quite soon into an even smaller target. I find I can hold the rifle straight but I know getting around traffic cones on Nordic skis, in a competitive environment, in order to shoot at a target with a pounding heart, will be a bit more tricky.
Biathlon – a family shoot out on skis
When we finally feel we know what we are doing with the air rifles, we are taken out of our comfort zone once more. Alexis has us up on our feet and teaches us various Nordic ski techniques including one with a scissor movement that feels like we are skating on ice. He explains that this is quicker than pushing ourselves along with poles; the whole point of biathlon is to get around the course and over to the targets as quickly as you can, then shoot with accuracy to minimise penalties and win the medal.
Biathlon surprises me by being one of the most fun things we have ever done as a family. As I push the kids out of the way to skate on skis towards my air rifle and targets, I reflect on how this combination of learning a skill with the competitive element appeals to our family dynamic. We are still arguing about winners and losers in our family world cup.
High thrills abound
If you aren’t totally exhausted by the double whammy of Nordic skiing and shooting, then there’s lots of other adventure thrills around. Close to the biathlon stadium in town, Le Grand Bornand has its own ice rink and a high ropes Adventure Park, Les Dodes, with a variety of trails for kids, adults and families. Meanwhile over at Lac de Confins (about 10km from Le Grand Bornand) you can get even more dramatic high thrills flying over the frozen lake on the 700m ‘Tyrolienne du Lac’ zip line. There is also trampolining, a bouncy castle, acrotyro, a smaller 300 metre zipwire and of course great walking on the Confins plateau. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic or, if you prefer, a spot of lunch or a drink at the bar-restaurant overlooking the lake.
Lac du Confins lake is better known as the centrepiece of an end of winter season party called Defi Foli that has been going for more than 20 years. Brave locals shoot down a long steep slope and straight into the lake, (the ice is broken just for the event) at speeds of up to 80 km per hour. Once the serious skiers have tried it, locals do it for fun on all manner of home made toboggans. We are slightly too early for the party, which is to be held a week later, but stop for a beer in the terraced restaurant overlooking the lake and imagine the shouting and splashing. The curves of the mountain reflected in our glass seem to make the beer taste even better.
Snow park and skiing thrills
If it’s curves and bumps you want then the Grand-Bornand Snow Park is a big adrenaline rush. This six hectare playground for skiers and snowboarders is famous for being one of the ten best in France. The freestyle humps and equipment are a little too advanced for us (we watch snowboarders fly high over snow ramps and cars) but we find a little spot we can practice, on a tiny mogul, in a quiet spot of the mountain.
Compared to many French resorts I have skied in, Le Grand-Bornand as a whole is quiet and relatively uncrowded, particularly in spring when you can often get a slope or two to yourself. It is a wide open place to ski, with great 360 degree views from 2000 metres up on the summit of Mont Lachat where everything looks impressively white even through Hannah’s trendy purple goggles.
The wide open geography means optimum sunshine and on a good day you can see the far tip of Mont Blanc. I get vertigo looking down and over to the little Lachat chapel. There are loads of easy runs for families in Le Grand-Bornand but we particularly like winding down from here on a steep red called Les Lanches, with high peaks all around.
Mid ski relaxing
All of us love the mountain restaurants and we take regular breaks. A favourite is Le Panoramic 1800 where we relax in deck chairs and on comfy sofas. Later on, over in the Maroly valley, we enjoy coffee and pastries with a cow watching over us. Yes a cow. Not one of the 2,000 in the village but another piece of art, silently surveying the frozen white as the chair lift tips skiers onto the piste. Skiers may think they own the mountain but in reality the cows do, especially once the snows melt, as soon they will. And that’s the way it has always been here.
For more on skiing and other attractions in and around Le Grand Bornand, check out our companion post on La Clusaz, a resort with a big heart. Click the image to go straight there or read on for practical information on Le Grand-Bornand.
Staying in Le Grand-Bornand
There are over 4,400 traditional chalets in the Le Grand-Bornand, with accommodation for over 24,000 tourists. The oldest chalet dates back to 1664. We stayed in accommodation selected by Ski Independence in Le Village de Lessy in Chinaillon, one of the ski stations of Le Grand-Bornand, about 7km up the valley from Le Grand Bornand village. Le Village de Lessy is a big apartment complex made up of individual chalet style apartments. With lots of character (the lamps have cute mini skiers attached to their stands), a lounge/living area, cooking facilities, and a balcony overlooking the slopes, these luxury family apartments are a comfortable option for a family who feels cooped up in a hotel room.
But it’s the shared facilities that really wow, like the pool and spa, where you can see the mountains as you swim, and the games rooms and play areas with unique furniture crafted out of driftwood. You can access the village of Chinaillon from the apartments – and we recommend having early morning coffee on the main street at Le Petit Marquis Boulangerie. There are outdoor tables and it opens at 7am. Listen out for the owner singing as he bakes the bread. In summer there’s an interactive smartphone discovery trail Sentier de Decouverte du Chinaillon that you can walk between coffee and cake stops. It takes about two hours and even has geocaches to find.
Le Grand-Bornand has 90 km of skiing on 42 slopes, (3 black, 13 red, 14 blue, 12 green), but you can ski a grand total of 220 kms with the Aravis Package, valid for all ski lifts in Le Grand-Bornand, La Clusaz, Manigod and Saint-Jean-de-Sixt. If conditions aren’t good then there are 184 snow machines to make up for it.
Lessons are available for family groups or individually. We learnt with ESF in Le Grand Bornand. If you fancy having a go at the snowpark you can do a freestyle course with ESF that gives you an introduction to jumps. The price is 6 half days for 179€. Children aged 8 and above to adult can also book a free ride course to feel what it’s like to go off piste. Le Grand Bornand has some patrolled off piste areas which is great for those wanting to start exploring off piste skiing but with the security of knowing help is at hand if you get into trouble.
Ski biking and biathlon
Ski biking with an instructor costs the same as an ordinary ski lesson with ESF. Budget for about €50 an hour (slightly cheaper out of school holiday time) with a suggested minimum for your first time out of two hours. You can rent the bikes (for an extra fee) from Le Tremplin sports shop at the foot of the Le Chatelet and Floria chairlifts in Le Chinaillon. Children as young as ten can ski bike with no prior knowledge of skiing although they will need to be able to ride a bike.
There are many different options for learning about biathlon. You can join scheduled taster sessions from as little as 12-15€ for an hour. Alternatively book a private family taster lesson or even join a series of classes to develop your skills. Remember you may need to rent nordic ski equipment or require a nordic ski pass so do check what is included in any rates you are quoted. Older kids (typically 10 +) can learn with air rifles under supervision. Laser biathlon may be more suited to younger children and some options are available all year round.
There are lots of ski rental businesses around La Clusaz. We used skis, boots and helmets from Intersport who have a huge range of skis to hire. They offer skis which are gender specific and have a great range for kids featuring cartoon characters. Their rental policy is flexible and customers are free to swap and change equipment as many times as they like during the hire period, to take advantage of changing snow conditions or to swap between different snow-sports like snowboarding and skiing. Prices vary but average around €8 per day, with further promos and bi-weekly Intersport discount codes being released via facebook.com/intersportskifrance.
Le Grand-Bornand is an hour’s drive from Geneva (48 kms,) and just under an hour from Annecy (31 kms.) Annecy is really worth a visit. We spent a happy hour wandering its old town and lake. In winter there are bus transfers available from Geneva airport direct to le Grand-Bornand and local shuttle buses run around the town and between resorts so there is no need to take your own car or rent one.
If you want to use a car to carry your ski equipment and get around the resorts don’t forget you may need winter tyres, snow chains and ski racks, depending on road conditions. At Geneva airport check out the rental prices on both French and Swiss sides of the airport as there can be differences in pricing and packages. Swiss rentals typically appear more expensive but may include snow chains, winter tyres, ski racks and a Swiss motorway vignette. On the French side you may need to budget for all the extras.
Disclosure Note: We travelled to Lake Annecy Ski Resorts in a collaboration with Atout France, France Montagnes, Ski Independence, Intersport and the Tourist Offices of La Clusaz and Le Grand Bornand. The ski biking, over-competitive target shooting and cheese eating was all our own. As is the story, opinions, photography and videography here.