Shelters started out as crude survival shelters built by people traveling in the mountains, and evolved into large-scale constructions with all modern comforts. Traditionally, accommodation has been in collective dormitories but more and more shelters offer single rooms and of course the emphasis is on sustainability. The style, however, remains rustic; you won’t find luxury in a hideaway and the prices reflect that.
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Some shelters are so famous and popular that they need to be booked months in advance, like the Eyrie (Eagle’s Nest) on Mont Blanc in Haute-Savoie. Out of season, although availability is usually not a problem, it is best to call ahead and verify that the refuge is open.
The French Federation of Alpine and Mountain Clubs (FFCAM) ââ- aka the French Alpine Club (CAF) – manages around 150 shelters, mainly in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but other organizations and even individuals run shelters. You can call the relevant tourist office and request information, or find it online at sites such as www.refuges.info (an unofficial but very complete list). Before you go, in addition to making sure your destination is open, check exactly what is provided as not all shelters offer meals.
There is also unguarded-huts – who do not have residence staff. Staying there is a matter of trust. Some are open and some are locked, which means you have to request the key from the town hall/ tourist office / national park information office. Each has slightly different rules.
Usually these are small huts containing a table, a few benches, mattresses that can be placed on the ground, and blankets. You may find firewood and other people may have left candles or matches. You’ll need to bring your own food and a trowel to dig holes outside behind a bush: they usually don’t have toilets or showers, although most have some form of running water. Prices start at around â¬ 5 for a night.
The spirit of a mountain refuge is convivial; a place where hikers and others can meet, exchange experiences and tips. The shelters are designed to provide shelter for everyone, so it is not possible to book a cabin for yourself or your group. If other people show up, you must let them in. It is, however, part of the experience; numerous huts have a guestbook where people write about their trips, and leave tips and advice on where to find firewood, etc.
Cabins are a wonderful resource if you really want to get away from it all. Some are better maintained than others, and unfortunately not everyone leaves them as clean as they found them, but the further away you get from the road, the less likely you are to run into people who are only looking for a secluded place to party (which is frowned upon but it does happen).
Shelters with guards tend to be much more comfortable. The Refuge des PrÃ©s in Les Contamines-Montjoie, for example, can accommodate 30 people and has a restaurant. Electricity is powered by solar panels and the whole building has been refurbished to a high standard. Access is by 2 hours 25 minutes from Les Contamines, or you can take the Signal cable car and walk only 1 hour 30 minutes. The prices for a night with a meal are â¬ 70 for adults and â¬ 49 for children.
The Roc de la PÃªche Refuge in Pralognan-la-Vanoise in Savoie is ideal for families with children because it is accessible in 40 minutes on foot (150 meters of difference in altitude) from the Pont de la PÃªche car park. It has 60 beds divided into 12 rooms, as well as a gÃ®te if you want more privacy.
There is a unique menu for everyone, served each evening at 7 p.m. There are plenty of activities in the area and it also has a pool table, foosball table, books, and board games for you to use, as well as a spa containing a steam room, jacuzzi, and sauna. The prices for meals and accommodation are â¬ 68 for adults and â¬ 48 for children.
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