Summer in the Alps Embrun and Lac Serre Poncon

Lac Serre Poncon barage view

Only an hour from Serre Chevalier would this seem like a holiday?

Having done one long weekend, and then a five day trip it seemed that Embrun ticked all the boxes, so a further two weeks were booked, but as ever you can't plan for the Weather Gods!

It always seems a little churlish to look forward and start planning a break from Serre Chevalier as the ski season draws to an end. But once the ski touring season finishes, and everything from cafes to supermarkets are closed in the valley, then it's good to get out of Dodge until it opens up again late June!

And especially this year as, what was looking to be such a good skitouring season with so much snow at altitude, was thwarted by the unseasonal high temps, which affected the all-important snow transformation process necessary for spring touring.

For a couple of years after the season finished we did a road trip down to Tarifa in Southern Spain where kitesurfing conditions are excellent. However, trying to find suitable accommodation us with three dogs is challenging and, also, very expensive.

Plus, as I'm still an intermediate when it comes to wing-foiling, I was keen to find a location that would help me progress. So close to Serre Chevalier we have the third largest artificial lakes in Europe, Lac Serre Poncon, which is surrounded by stunning views. It is an area I know well from cycling, however, it also has a fabled thermal wind that is meant to work from May through to July and on into August. Combine that with a surplus of accommodation choices  and boxes are rapidly ticked.

Wingfoil windsurfers Plan d'Eau Embrun

Before committing we went down for a long weekend to suss potential accommodation we'd seen on and airbnb.

One of the issues of coming down early is that the main lake is still not full, and, this year, that is further complicated by the massive increases in late spring snowfall at altitude. EDF who manage the dam have to calculate the flow and decided to delay flooding the lake till later in the season. Fortunately, there is a stretch of water, the Plan d'Eau d'Embrun, which you can foil and sail on. But it wasn't till we made the trip down that we saw just how good it all was there.

And then we discovered Campsite La Clapière, which as they say on their website, 'is the ideal destination for a pleasant holiday between lake and mountains'.

We went and had a look at their chalet cabins and saw that they take dogs. They, also, had new cabins being built with air-con so we decided that was the way to go. In fact I also booked an additional 5 days there for when Elaine would be back in the UK.

That weekend we stayed in a hotel very close to the Plan d'Eau and from there we could explore the lake and Embrun itself, what we hadn't realised was that it was major holiday weekend so Embrun was buzzing.

And that really helped our choice in deciding on Embrun as there is just so much more going on than back in Briancon / Serre Chevalier at this time of year with so many more restaurants and bars open.

I also managed while down there for the weekend to get out on the foil but winds were too light for me. I was optimistic at least.

Rooftop Restaurant Plan d'Eau Embrun

We discovered the fabulous Roof Top restaurant (image above) and bar overlooking the lake and the ski station of Les Orres (image below) which in May still had so much snow and does look to have some very good terrain.

Rooftop Restaurant Plan d'Eau Embrun Les Orres

Once back in Serre, Elaine discovered that during our planned trip there were two running events, one a flat 10km around the Plan d'Eau and then the following week a 15km trail run that formed part of the Grand Trail de Serre Poncon weekend with over 1,500 runners taking part in 64km, 48km, 30km and 28km races, so we duly booked ourselves in.

As I mentioned Elaine was going back to the UK so I took myself and the dogs down to stay in a cabin for four nights immediately after the big Outdoor Mix festival.

Having now stayed in / around Embrun for three weeks or more I am quite amazed at what it has to offer in terms of sporting resources. It lays claim to the toughest iron man triathlon event in the world, EmbrunMan this year is the 40th Edition and then throughout the year Embrun and Lac Serre Poncon host numerous other sporting events, and quite often feature in the Tour de France.

There really are too many sporting activities to mention and just about every water discipline is available. And then there are the usual mountain activities such as hiking and climbing, along with road and mountain biking. In fact, when it comes to the cycle route around Lac Serre Poncon, I often say that if Carlsberg made cycling routes this would be it, as it is just so scenic as well as challenging.

Lac Serre Poncon road cycle

Embrun itself is a great little town, and is known as the 'Nice of the Alps' with a good number of restaurants and shops plus a market on Wednesday and Saturday.

The main square, Place Bathelon is a great place to watch the world go by sitting in one of the bars, though my favourite is La Taverne de Pan, which had some great nibbles, notably their l'écrasé d'olive, a sort of tapindard.

And if that's closed then Le Boulevard is a classic cafe that does a good French breakfast of orange juice, croissant, bread n'jam and coffee for €7.

For my first stay at Campsite La Clapière, I was in an older cabin which was more than adequate and well-kitted out, and I found it very tranquil, just me and the dogs as Elaine was in the UK.

Campsite La Clapière Cabin Cabin

The WiFi was good as well, though that very much depends on where your cabin is, and I think I was fortunate in that I was right by an antenna. The campsite was still very quiet, being well out of high season. Many of the nearby cafes and restaurants were closed or just getting ready to open, but the all-important boulangerie and supermarket were only a 2 min drive away.

Unfortunately, the wind still failed to materialise, so I made do with running and cycling.

Then 10 days later I returned this time with Elaine, staying in a brand-new cabin with air conditioning which was useful as we used it to warm the cabin up on a couple of occasions as unfortunately, the weather was on the chilly side. In fact the weather was pretty dire with the unseasonal unsettled theme that we witnessed in May continuing well into June, and I'd estimate it was probably 10 degrees below what you'd normally expect there.

Campsite La Clapière Cabin Cabin

The first weekend we were there we ran the 10km race with a field of around 350 and Elaine won her age group with me coming second in mine, so a good performance from the visiting Brits. For the next few days, my legs were sore though I managed a good bike ride. But at the back of our minds, mine especially, was the much tougher 15km trail run on the following Sunday.

During our stay the weather was somewhat volatile and most afternoons we had thunderstorms along with some torrential rain which turned both the Durance and Ubaye rivers, which were already very high feeding into the lac, into raging torrents. That said, while out on a run alongside the Durance, we did see probably one of the most extreme sports, a sole dude standing on a SUP going at full speed down the frothing river. A very big chapeau to him!  

As the weekend of the Grand Trail approached so the forecast looked more inclement. On the Saturday we watched the trail runners in the 64km, 48km and 28km races finishing, all who had to run across snow fields at altitude above Mont Guillaume at 2,542m.

Mont Guillaume Serre Poncon Trail

Our race started in Embrun, in Place Bathelon with circa 350 runners.

After the extremes of Saturday's races, we felt that our 15km event was akin to a kids' mini-marathon in comparison, but how wrong we were. My suspicions on looking at the route on the map that it might be tough were confirmed 5km or so into the ascent as it was crazily steep. 

Serre Poncon Trail

And again the Brits repeated their winning performance of the previous week. But it was tough, especially the descent, and even though we have been trail running a fair bit, my legs took a good week to get back to some form of normality.  I didn't exactly rest as I took myself off three days later on a long 6-hour bike ride to Barcelonnette and back over the Col de Vars.

Strava Route

And as for the wind, it seemed that every time I was exhausted, after the 10km, 15km and various bike rides so the wind would then pick up in the afternoon, in fact I made three or four trips to Boscadon and did not even bother going out, though one session I had a few good runs and then the wind dropped.  I left only to see later that it picked up again around 17:00.

I did touch base with Le Spot to enquire about a lesson and we exchanged a few emails trying to second guess when the wind might be enough for a for a lesson, and eventually we plucked for a day when the forecast looked good.

However, when I turned up it seemed that it was not quite there, but eventually, we gave it a go and I was lucky to get a reasonable hour in with Fabien alongside me giving me advice and encouragement as I tried to get close to completing a gybe. 

Fabien usually operates from the lake shore at Crots but there was still not enough water there so we launched from Eyguières, which is circa 2km from Savines le Lac, and special mention must be made to the great restaurant there too, Au Happy Day.

One thing is for sure that Fabien at Le Spot has a superb location and he showed me the boards that he uses to teach Wing Foiling but it really is the location that is so good.

Lac Serre Poncon has so many sailing schools it seems, as well as water skiing and I even saw a sign for a Flying Boat operation!

One of the main areas is at Boscadon for wind & kite surfing and that can get very busy I'd imagine in High Season, as it was when I was there I saw some kite launches that were questionable to say the least.

Boscadon Beach Lac Serre Poncon

We drove up to take a look at the ski station of Les Orres, only 16km from Embrun and whilst the actual ski terrain looks impressive the main village lacked character and we can only guess that most of the restaurants were hidden away in the 70's style high-rise buildings that were prevalent of the  French purpose built ski resorts; the only place that looked interesting was a series of pods on the hillside which I believe to be part of a hotel Spa complex.

But it was not a wasted journey as we continued to explore some of the smaller roads that led to some of the villages overlooking Embrun, such as Saint Saveur with a stunning view and church.

Further down we turned off the main road and drove through the village of Baratier and came across what looked like a lovely restaurant and terrace, La Cantine and again to cut a long story short, we ended up going there for a quite superb evening meal sitting out on the terrace (when it was actually warm) and the food was just what you would not expect, and in fact it was that good we went back three days later, but this time it was more like Autumn so was eat indoors which was most pleasant.

La Cantine Baratier

And in fact the gallery of photos of food on the Trip Advisor site shows just how good the food is.

That last day when we eat there the weather was grim, in fact again we switched the air con in the cabin to heat mode when we returned from a run above Savines le Lac, and we were lucky that when I took this photo it was not actually raining.

lac serre poncon bridge cloud

So that was our Summer holiday in the Mountains away from Serre Chevalier, and it's a question many people ask, should they choose the Mountains over the beach for instance?

What I can't answer is just how busy that area might be in the height of the season, that said Serre Chevalier in Summer High Season is not too bad, but I just think that judging by the number of campsites/sailing schools / pizza restaurants etc that it must be far busier than here in Serre Che but there again it's a big area and if you want to find peace and quiet then I should imagine it's not too difficult.

I still hope to get a decent session in on the Wing Foil before I head back to the UK in a couple of weeks, and the beauty is that it's not even an hour Serre to Serre :)

And just to prove I did actually get out on the water at some point.

Wing Foil Boscadon Lac Serre Poncon