THE sun sets a fiery orange on the serrated peaks of the Aravis Range, turning a mellow gold before darkness falls.

Up here in the heart of the French Alps, all is silent, save the gentle clanging of heavy cow bells coming from the pastures on the steep valley side below, and the more amusing whistling of dozens of marmots – the chubby ground squirrels which pop out of their holes perching on hummocks to eye us with suspicion.

The impossibly cute rodents, with their comically long front teeth seem initially shy, but lose their inhibition when the food comes out.

It's a steep climb to this ridge, high above Le Grand Bornand in the area known to lovers of high places as the Annecy Mountains  - due to its proximity to the serene lake of the same name. The views, and sense of solitude, make every step worthwhile, though.

We area travelling light for our camp is already set up for us, and it's one which would look more at home in the American West than the Alps, for we are sleeping in tipis – just one of the delights of a holiday hiking in these mountains.

First there is dinner to cook – with more than a little help from our wilderness experts from the Compagnie Guides Aravis – local chaps who not only know each step of every trail, but also where to pick the herbs to enliven our evening repast. This is France after all, and the small matter of being miles from civilization is no reason to skimp on culinary excellence.

The night is cool and we kept warm around the bonfire, sharing tall tales, badly-sung tunes and nips of the strong local herbal liquor génépi. We are grateful for the thick blankets waiting for us in the tipi – and sleep like logs.

We wake early to the distant sound of cowbells, and after soaking up the views of the sunrise – and the ever-changing colours of the valley – we troop down the mountain side for breakfast at a farm.

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A table has been set out in the sunshine, and when we arrive, the farmer's daughter is loading the table with home made cheese and butter and milk straight from the cow.

After breakfasting on their efforts, it seemed only right to go around and meet the bovine inhabitants who had kept us so well fed – cue more clanging of bells, tail swishing and rolling of big, brown eyes.

Walking in the Alps can be as tough as you make it. The peaks, rising to Mont Blanc – western Europe's tallest summit – are challenging and test the mettle of even the best climbers. Conversely, you can take it all a bit easier. That does not mean missing out on scenery or adrenaline, though.

Almost any walk from every valley reveals fresh delights and eye-popping views. And you don't even need to camp. There's an extensive network of cosy refuges among the high peaks, but for a softer adventure you can do it in comfort by hopping between villages - staying in fabulous grand hotels, sweet family-run places and cosy inns. And the food, it goes without saying, is uniformly excellent – ranging from Michelin-starred gastronomy (including some where walking boots are welcome) to mountain establishments serving wonderful, and very hearty, mountain food.

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Tartiflette (baked potato, lardons, reblochon cheese and onions), crozets de Savoie (small squares of pasta in a reblochon sauce), hunks of cheese (not just the ubiquitous reblochon, but Abondance, Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie and many more) and divine cured meats and sausages are daily fare and set up the walker for the most demanding of slopes.

We tucked in to wonderful plates of Alpine delights beside the trail above Le Grand Bornand at Chalet de Paccaly. The place is owned by Greg (+33 (6) 81 63 33 68) and Astrid – ski patroller and mountain guide respectively – who cook simple yet delicious dishes based on ingredients that they have foraged in the mountains. It's as wholesome as the fresh mountain air and set us up perfectly without weighing us down.

If you fancy a taste of adventure but are not quite up to Bear Grylls-standard, there's a thrilling but ultra-safe way to try your hand at rock climbing.

Taking their name from the Italian for 'iron path', via ferrata are permanent climbing routes featuring a steel cable anchored to the rock along with a series of iron rungs and carved footholds. Climbers don a harness, clip themselves onto the cable and follow it along the edge, allowing an exciting climb without the need for ropes nor any particular technical knowledge. And because you're clipped on, you can't fall.

We hit the heights above the gorgeous village of La Clusaz, following the side of a deep gorge, complete with traverses and overhangs.

Beneath us the forest stretched away towards the valley floor – behind, across the gorge, were the serrated peaks of the high Alps. it was beyond fun. One by one, we made our way along the cable, hanging from the rock face, eventually arriving, hot and pumped with adrenaline, at the top. It was thrilling even though we knew we weren't going to go very far even if we fell – which we didn't.

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We spent the night at Peak Retreats’ Village de Lessy Prestige Residence in Le Grand Bornand, feasting in a nearby tavern on the creamiest of tartiflettes. The town itself is pretty, with cafes with busy terraces and souvenir shops stocked with fluffy marmots, and boasts a wonderful open air pool where you can either build up your strength with a few lengths or soak your aching muscles, depending on how you are faring.

For many, it is the pull of the high peaks which draws them to this corner of France, and there are few better places to get up close and personal than the classic Alpine bolthole of Megève at the heart of the Mont Blanc range.

This grand damme of mountain resorts gently bustles year-round, with well-heeled skiers taking over in the winter and hikers, mountain bikers and lovers of more sedentary pursuits descending in summer.

The traditional haunt of the rich and famous, Megève carries itself with an elegant swagger, but for all its celebrity-chic, it is also disarmingly quaint. It may bill itself as the French St Moritz, with its casino and designer clothes shops, but is far prettier than its Swiss counterpart, with narrow streets radiating from the bridges over its little river and early 11th century church.

Horses and carriages rattle over the cobbles and cafe terraces are thronged with those enjoying the mountains while making minimum effort – perhaps resting while exploring the town's 200 or so boutiques.

The market square plays host to a fabulous food festival, Cuisine Mon Village, showcasing the incredibly rich local produce. Whole extended families joined neighbours and visitors along convivial long tables and benches, sharing delights served up by local chefs, food producers and wine makers. The creative desserts, in particular, are not to be missed.

Megève is a foodie paradise, bursting with homely restaurants and temples to gastronomy, such as the three Michelin-starred Flocons De Sel.

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We stayed in the sweet Hotel Au Vieux Moulin – a former mill beside a fast-flowing stream – and spent a couple of days exploring the majestic surrounding scenery – right up to the foot of the Mont Blanc massif itself, where drifts of snow, left over from the winter, sit in the shadow of the peaks. Around us marmots squeaked and whistled and we sat and watched graceful chamois – antelope-like mountain goats making their way down sheer cliffs.

As wonderful as that was, the best was yet to come, as we soared high above the animals in a light aircraft, zig-zagging between the Mont Blanc massif itself.

Taking my seat next to the pilot, our four-seat single-engine plane took off from the tiny Megève Altiport, swooping over the town and swooping round towards the jagged wall of rock and ice which marks the highest point of the Alps and the frontier with Italy.

The mountain face seemed almost close enough to touch, as we buzzed along in the shadow of needles of rock, the iconic Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc itself tantalisingly close as we made our way over the glaciers of the Vallée Blanche, (White Valley) and Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice). The views in every direction from the panoramic canopy were jaw-dropping, and we touched down 30 minutes later, grinning from ear to ear.

There's more than one way to see the French Alps – and while some more may be more exhausting than others, there's one thing you can rely on: they are all exhilarating.

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The facts:

Le Grand Bornand

Le Village de Lessy, bookable with Peak Retreats at peakretreats.co.uk. Seven nights, five sharing from £131pp including a standard midweek ferry crossing with P&O from Dover to Calais on a self-catering basis.

Overnight stay in tipi 45.50€ (adult), 35,50€ (child under 12) includes breakfast at the farm. Booked with compagnie-guides-aravis.com +33(0)4 50 02 78 18

La Clusaz

Via Ferrata: access free for those already familiar (equipment can be rented in La Clusaz). Guided sessions bookable at laclusaz@guides-des-aravis.com (or in Tourist Office). Prices from 58€/person

More on the ANnecy Mountains from annecymountains.com/

Megeve

  • Hotel Au Vieux Moulin: standard double from 105€/night. +33 (0)4 50 21 22 29. hotel-vieuxmoulin-megeve.fr/

Guided hiking: guides-megeve.com/en/ 20€ adult / 15€ child under 12 as part of a group, 120€ for a private guide.

Light aircraft flight over Vallée Blanche: 105€ adult / 53€ children under 12). Book at Megève Altiport +33 (0)4 50 21 03 21.

Cuisine Mon Village is the first weekend in July.

More on Megeve from megeve.com/

Exploring the French mountains:

For further information on holidays in the French mountains, please see france-montagnes.com

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