Rapids and relaxation in the French Alps | Travel

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Ohen Pauline Boinard fell in love with rafting, it wasn’t primarily for the thrill. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t like difficult things. If you’re going to dive a Level IV rapid, this 28-year-old Bordeaux rafting guide is as confident and reassuring a presence as you could wish for.

She has this way of calling out her orders like an American cavalry officer in an old-fashioned western. There you are, at the pointy end of your giant inflatable boat, watching in bewilderment as a sudden blast of water curls up into a 4-foot wave. You have no idea what happens next and at that precise moment, Boinard will shout in a deep and still relaxed drawl: “Left! Available…(left side, front).

Clearly, she’s figured out where the raft needs to go, and with her steady tone, you instantly have confidence in her ability to clear that thundering obstacle. Along with everyone else on the left side of the raft, you paddle like a maniacal plunger, while Boinard steers and Mother Nature throws buckets of water in your face. Then suddenly — miraculously — the rapid is behind you. Nobody drowned.

Of course, once disembarked, his eyes will shine just as bright as yours. But for her, it will not be the highlight of the day. It’s what comes next – when you unload the raft, make your way up a slippery bank and set up camp – that really ignites Boinard’s fire.

Rafting on the Isère

“It’s always the longer trips that I prefer,” says Boinard, whose rafting career includes a 26-day trip down the Colorado River in the United States. “When you bivouac, everyone has to work together and find their place in the team – making shelters, lighting fires, cooking, solving problems,” she says. “You find a rhythm, and the journey takes on an almost meditative quality.”

Now, after several years in America, she is back in France; and she wants to show us Europeans how good this meditative quality can be. This summer, she is pioneering a revolutionary nighttime rafting experience. The river on which she offers this adventure – through the rafting company EssaOnia – is the Isère in the French Alps.

I’m the first UK travel writer to join. It’s partly because I want to get to know the river better. I have crossed the Isère almost every ski season since the mid-1990s, when I first visited one of the ski resorts in the valley. Tignes, Val d’Isère, La Rosière, Les Arcs, La Plagne: the list of famous names that dot its slopes is extraordinary, and yet the river flowing below is almost unknown to skiers. What secrets are hidden in its tight, wooded bends, I wonder?

But I also want to give rafting another chance. In 28 years as a travel writer, I’ve only tried it a few times. Not for lack of opportunity: it was simply because it didn’t seem interesting enough. Of course, it was fast and fun. But on the European rapids I had sampled, it only lasted a few hours. I barely had time to catch my breath, let alone connect with the river or the wider landscape. I might as well have been in a theme park.

From the start, Boinard’s journey was different. No roller coaster or rafting trip I’ve ever heard of has started with yoga. But Boinard begins with 75 minutes of dynamic vinyasa exercises and deep breathing on the riverbank, led by friend and fellow rafting guide Alice Carriat. She graduated as a yoga teacher in 2019, and her lesson is serene and still scary for a yoga agnostic like me. Especially since the other members of the group all seem to have unlimited flexibility. All around us, the forests of the Isère valley are adorned with early summer greenery. I feel like a dry, fallen branch amid the fresh, floating leaves.

Yet it has an extraordinary effect – and not just on our muscles. It may not surprise you to learn that Boinard’s first expedition attracted a very unmacho band of seasoned comrades. Three are French, one is Dutch and all four are women. Although we all know how to swim, we hate getting our faces wet. Another admits she gets a little nervous in the water. And yet, as we try on our helmets and buoyancy aids, and pull on three layers of neoprene, the atmosphere is calm, supportive and uncompetitive. Once we arrive at the starting point, between the small valleys of Aime and Bourg-St-Maurice, Carriat takes us through another series of deep breathing exercises to help those with anxiety. Then we leave.

Sean tries yoga in the woods

Sean tries yoga in the woods

NOT KNOWN

It was then that I discovered how great a team we had become. Our power comes from a sense of unity. Boinard is at the back. The rest of us are on either side of the raft. According to Boinard’s instructions, we use our entire upper body, from the waist up, to paddle, rather than just our shoulders and arms: and we do so with remarkable cohesion.

I wouldn’t call it child’s play. By definition, Level IV (aka “advanced”) rapids are intense and powerful and this section of the Isère is home to several. The Dining Room, the Meat Slicer, the Virgin: their names may sound corny, but the feeling of foreboding when you dive into the first two or three is real. Moreover, thanks to the daily releases of water from the Chevril dam upstream, they are formidable all summer long, even in dry weather. No wonder then that a third rafting guide, Thibault Verchère, is kayaking alongside us, in case one — or all — of us falls into the torrent.

An instructor teaches recruits

An instructor teaches recruits

CIARAN HEURTEAU

That evening, at the bivouac, I make our fire. One of Boinard’s hopes is that on his travels everyone will share something with the others when camping. For me, that night means passing on the fire-starting tricks I learned yesterday when I explored the forests above Aime with survivalist Guillaume Brun. Even the guides are curious about the raft of three layers of dry sticks I create to keep my kindling out of the moist forest floor. Meanwhile, around us, our dry bags push a fully functional camp, dotted with one-person tents and centered on a giant tarp shelter, suspended under the trees. It’s big enough for another yoga class, as well as preparing our vegetarian dinner.

Later, I am awakened at dawn by the bellowing of a red deer that seems to be standing right next to my tent. It’s a reminder of just how wild this valley is, even though in winter it’s the very heart of the global ski industry.

There is no rush to break camp in the morning. We only have a few more kilometers of river to go rafting before returning to the base of EssaOnia, near the village of Centron. But even so, there is always something essential to do. There is no time to ruminate. We are all busy – all constantly focused on the here and now – as we negotiate our way through this fiery and exciting landscape. Normal life seems a million miles away.

The day before, Boinard had told me that “When you go rafting for one night, you enter another universe – another reality.” At the time, that frankly seemed like an exaggerated idea. But as we guide our raft ashore at the end of the journey, I know exactly what she means.

Sean Newsom was the guest of La Plagne (fr.la-plagne.com). Two-day rafting expedition from £335 pp (essaonia.net). Two-day hike with survival specialist Guillaume Brun from £151 pp (gb-montagne.com)

The Cocoon restaurant

The Cocoon restaurant

Three accommodations in the Isère valley

1. The Cocoon

If you want to mix your rafting with a busy and buzzing program of mountain sports, this four-star hotel is a sensible compromise. Built eight years ago in the traditional Savoyard style, it stands among meadows and trees at the entrance to the mountain resort of La Plagne, but is a 30-minute drive from Essaonia rafting center . Inside, unvarnished pine panels are mixed with lots of stone, wool, and faux fur. Outside, everything from beach volleyball to mountain biking awaits you on the La Plagne activities menu (fr.la-plagne.com).
Details B&B doubles from £112 (hotel-lecocoon.fr)

2. Cassiel Inn

On the sunny side of the valley, away from the ski resorts, La Côte d’Aime is the kind of tight Savoyard hamlet everyone once lived in. Here, L’Auberge de Cassiel is an old farmhouse, dotted with flowerpots and complemented by a small gourmet restaurant. The view from its terrace crosses the valley towards La Plagne and Les Arcs. Upstairs, its four bedrooms offer simple country comfort and deep peace of mind.
Details Double bed and breakfast from £70 (aubergedecassiel.fr)

3. Tourmaline

Here is further proof of the good value for money holidays in the mountains in summer, especially if you stay in the valleys below the renowned resorts. La Tourmaline offers simple three-star accommodation at the entrance to pretty little Aime, a short walk from the hub of bakeries, cafes and restaurants in the heart of town. You will also want to eat at the La Tourmaline restaurant. Its hearty and unpretentious cuisine, including quiche, Caesar salad and poke bowls, comes in generous portions.
Details Double room only from £69 (hotel-tourmaline.com)

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