We walk along the river in single file, paying attention to the sight of the mountains and the trees, the sound of the water and the birds, and the feel of the sun on our skin. When we reach a clearing, we stop to do some silent sun salutations, then sit cross-legged in a circle to share our feelings.
Cringe! I love fresh air and exercise, but I don’t need to talk about it with a bunch of strangers afterwards. Luckily, at that moment a huge pair of curved horns emerge from behind a fallen tree, followed by their owner, a mighty bouquetin (alpine ibex). We are so transfixed by this shaggy beast that by the time he wanders off again, our “sharing circle” has been forgotten.
I’m on a yoga and hiking break in the French Alps, one of a new collection of summer wellness holidays by UCPA, a French non-profit organisation that runs affordable, active holidays for adults under 45s (though they don’t check!). UCPA is best-known for its ski trips, but also offers summer activities including surfing, kayaking and mountain biking. The new wellness breaks are more relaxed than these high-octane trips – and are extremely good value compared with the average pricey yoga retreat.
The low prices mean few frills. We are staying at UCPA Argentière, a 292-bed hostel in a village near Chamonix. Most rooms are four- to six-person dorms, but my sister and I bag one of the twins. Accommodation is basic – guests make their own beds and clean their room before checkout, and bathrooms are shared – but it is modern; the hostel was refurbished a few years ago. It is certainly not a luxury retreat, but makes a great base for a healthy holiday.
Most days involve a few hours’ hiking and a two-hour yoga class. There’s an outdoor pool at the hostel, although this gets busy in the afternoon when everyone returns from their activities – there are a dozen different trips running concurrently each week. We are a group of five women (two English, two French and one Belgian) plus our walking guide, Fabienne, and yoga teacher, Samantha.
Our first walk follows trails around Argentière. We set off along the Petit Balcon Nord, a path that runs along the valley through pine trees, with wonderful views of meadows and mountains. Fabienne is a particularly engaging guide, stopping frequently to help us spot flowers, birds and alpine marmots, cute rodents that whistle when they spot predators before dashing into their burrows. It’s more of a nature walk than a strenuous trek; hardened hikers might prefer one of UCPA’s dedicated trekking or trail-running trips. Basic French is also an advantage – Fabienne doesn’t speak much English, but makes a real effort to speak slowly and simply for our benefit.
At Le Lavancher, a ludicrously pretty alpine hamlet, we turn uphill, ascending steadily until we reach a viewpoint. We eat our packed lunches overlooking the Mer de Glace, France’s biggest glacier, on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc massif. After coffee at Buvette du Chapeau, a tiny mountain refuge with a terrace for soaking up the views, it’s time to head back to the hostel for our first yoga class.
Samantha speaks rapid-fire French throughout our hatha class that I find impossible to follow – occasionally looking up to see that I’m in a completely different pose from everyone else. Later, a UCPA representative assures me that all guides are bilingual and classes are in English too, so maybe we are just unlucky. (My sister’s language skills are better than mine; I really should brush up on my schoolgirl French.) I may have missed the nuances of the class, but I still benefit from a good stretch after our walk.
The cost of the holiday includes a pass for local buses, trains and ski lifts, so we can hike in different beauty spots. We had hoped to trek around two mountain lakes, Lac Bleu and Lac Blanc in the Aiguilles Rouges, but in mid-June the routes were still snowbound. (Wellness breaks run from June to September.)
Instead, we take a bus to nearby Vallorcine, then ride a gondola and a chairlift up the mountain for a circular hike with far-reaching views across snowy peaks. There’s a decent amount of snow here, too – Fabienne teaches us the best technique for running down a snowy slope without falling over. Another day we take a short train ride over the border to Switzerland, for that riverside meditation walk. The route includes an impressive waterfall, lunch in a wildflower meadow and a paddle in the icy river.
On a rainy day, we scrap the hike and get a bus into Chamonix and take a cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi (3,842 metres) – the closest you can get to the summit of Mont Blanc without climbing. When we reach the terraces at the top, the clouds briefly part in time for us to Step Into the Void – the all-glass box that juts out over the abyss, with thousands of metres of empty space beneath. Afterwards, my sister and I calm our nerves with a few drinks on rue des Moulins in Chamonix old town.
The yoga classes cover different styles including hatha, faster vinyasa flow and relaxing yin, which was my favourite. Most sessions take place in a room inside the hostel, but the yin was under a canopy in the garden and its slower pace made it easier for me to follow. On the last day, we swap the yoga for a real treat: an afternoon in a spa. The Deep Nature spa at Les Granges d’en Haut in Les Houches, the other side of Chamonix, must be one of the most spectacularly sited in Europe: the Jacuzzi and a deeper, non-bubbly wooden Swedish bath have panoramic views over the Mont Blanc range. Inside there is a pool, sauna and hammam. This is the one luxurious element of our trip, and it’s a fantastic way to round off the week.
Mealtimes, by contrast, are more like school dinners, in a sociable, serve-yourself canteen setting – but are filling and relatively healthy. Bircher muesli for breakfast, do-it-yourself packed lunches (cheese baguettes, tuna and egg salads), buffet dinners (the tastiest dishes tend to be the vegetarian options, such as spicy chickpeas or tomatoey lentils), with desserts every day and, this being France, at least four delicious cheeses. In the evenings, we head out to Argentière’s handful of bars to sample herbal génépi, bitter gentiane and half-a dozen varieties of kir.
At the end of the trip, Fabienne invites us for a farewell drink and asks for our feedback. As we talk about our favourite moments, I realise I haven’t dodged the sharing circle after all – but I’m too chilled out to care.
• The trip was provided by Action Outdoors, the UK arm of UCPA, whose six-night wellness breaks cost from £370 (18-25s)/£470 (26-45s) including full-board, guides, lift passes and equipment, and run from 14 June to late September. Transfers were provided by Mountain Drop-offs
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