In Lonely Plan-It, we take you step by step through how we planned some of the most complicated travel adventures. Here, Nicola Williams explains how she tackled one of the most mythical cycling routes in the French Alps with her tween daughter.

When it comes to inspiring outdoor action and ridiculously good-looking alpine scenery in spades, looping Lake Annecy on two wheels is up there with the other highly desired greats in the French Alps. The glittering kaleidoscope of craggy peaks, flower-spun villages and beach-crusted shore that unfurls as you spin around Annecy’s exquisite pool of wild water is cinematic: think the sort of giddy, spontaneous exuberance that makes you want to toss your hat in the air, ting your bike bell and thank your lucky stars for French joie de vivre.

An adult and a child ride bikes alongside each other on a lakeside cycle path
The cycle around Lake Annecy is suitable for less-experienced riders and children © Stephanie Hager - HagerPhoto / Getty Images

The seductive allure of Lake Annecy (Lac d’Annecy in French) is no secret. Europe’s purportedly cleanest lake was made great by the medieval Counts of Geneva and was an indispensable entry in the little black book of 19th-century queens, kings, artists and flaneurs. Annecy’s canal-sculpted old town is picture-postcard cuteness on Venetian-esque steroids, and Parisian A-listers craving a chic rural escape can’t get enough of its namesake lake luxuriantly cloaked in the velvety green mountain ranges of Bauges, Bornes and Aravis.

It wasn’t without some trepidation that we arrived in Annecy town on a dry day in March to attempt the 42km-route (26 miles, elevation gain 300m/984ft, 3–4 hours excluding stops) around the emerald lake en famille. We honestly weren’t sure our youngest, aged 12, would be able to complete Annecy’s iconic Tour du Lac, but opted for the tried-and-tested parenting method of “keep quiet and lead by doing.” The odds were certainly in our favor. Unlike dodging snow bridges down Chamonix’s Vallée Blanche off-piste ski descent or dedicating days to encircling Mont Blanc on foot, this French Alps bucket-list entry requires no superhuman strength, technical skill or mindset. Pretty much anyone, young children included, can pedal around Lake Annecy’s pristine shores. This is how we did it.

Step 1: Pick the right moment

April to June and September are best

Battling relentless headwinds or driving rain in the saddle is definitely not conducive to a successful family day out. Check the weather forecast and choose a dry, still day. Spring, early summer and September are usually pleasantly warm, without July and August’s huge crowds. Weekdays are less busy than weekends when local cycling enthusiasts join the throng of freewheelers spinning around the lake.

Step 2: Rent the right wheels 

Classic road and e-bikes both work

Our entire lake-to-lake train journey from Geneva to Annecy was spent debating the pros and cons of old-school versus new-school wheels, if we should power up our tween with electric assistance, etc. The recent explosion in e-bike rental in France has certainly revolutionized the distances amateur cyclists can cover in a day. Number one rule: don’t mix wheels within your party unless you want to spend the entire ride with someone playing catch-up.

Dozens of bike-rental outlets, including Cyclable Location on the lakefront place aux Bois, pepper Annecy town – the starting point for our lake tour. Most shops rent children’s bikes and trailers to tow tots. They don’t all take reservations (essential in July and August when every bike is nabbed by 10am). Arrive early morning to ensure your pick of wheels and get a head start on the tourist peloton. Expect to pay €9/24 per hour/day for a lightweight touring bike and €16/52 for an electric bike. Rates include a rudimentary paper map, helmet, bike lock and un panier (front basket, super-handy for dumping kit and supplies in – ask for one if your bike doesn’t already have one).

Six cyclists ride bikes over a bridge beside a lake in a mountainous region
The route is well signposted and broadly follows the lakeshore, so it's hard to get lost © Tobias Joon-Ho Persson / Shutterstock

Step 3: Pack your sack

Keep it light and bring something tasty

Bring your passport or ID card to leave as a deposit when renting wheels. Other essentials include a refillable water bottle, a cap to wear underneath your bike helmet, snacks, swimming gear, a towel and sun protection. On blustery days, a light waterproof doubling as a wind-breaker is indispensable. A detailed map is not essential: Lake Annecy’s cycling path is well signposted and essentially skirts the lakeshore, making it impossible to get lost. This said, tracking our ride on route-planner app Komoot added another level of interest for our tween.

Scenic picnic spots abound on this tour. Before heading out of town, stock up with fruit, a crunchy baguette, Savoyard cheese and saucisson sec (air-dried sausage) studded with Beaufort cheese or blueberries at Annecy’s open-air food market, Marché de la Vieille Ville, filling rue Ste-Claire and surrounding streets on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday mornings (7am to 1pm).

Step 4: Hit the road – clockwise

Ditch breathless climbs for exhilarating descents

Most cyclists head east out of Annecy town towards Veyrier-du-Lac in order to fly down the one notably steep hill immediately before Talloires, 12.7km (8 miles) south. Cycling clockwise also means you save the less grueling, western-shore cycling path – easy cruising along a pancake-flat, 1930s train line transformed into a silky smooth voie verte (greenway) – for the latter part of the ride when everyone is tired.

The bulk of the 42km (26-mile) loop is along a dedicated, two-way cycling path, which makes it an instant winner with families. The initial stretch out of Annecy is directly beside the traffic-busy D909 and can be noisy – don’t be put off. Once past the lakeside village of Veyrier-du-Lac, 3km (1.8 miles) south, the traffic thins out and the bike path sticks less closely to the road. The southern end of Lake Annecy, around the Réserve Naturelle du Bout-du-Monde protecting the last remaining reed beds, is the least built-up and most au naturel.

A solo cyclist sits by their bike on the lakeside enjoying the view of the sparkling waters and small sail boats in the distance
Factor in some rest stops along the way © oliverdelahaye / Shutterstock

Step 5: Plan in stops to refuel and play

Swim, stroll and spot beavers

Plan to make a day of it, broken up with plenty of playful pit stops. Metal ladders plunge into the crystalline water – a swim-friendly 23°C (73°F) in summer and no more than 12°C (54°F) in the friskier shoulder seasons – from grassy verges at several points along the eastern shore. Or take your pick of Lake Annecy’s gem-like beaches. Our favorite stops (including cycling time/distance from Annecy):

  • Veyrier-du-Lac (30 minutes, 6km/4 miles): Dip down to the manicured lakefront for coffee at Le Pêcheur and a paddle from the village’s bijou grassy beach, Plage de la Brune.
  • Menthon–St-Bernard (40 minutes, 9km/5.7 miles): Ditch the 2km/1.24 mile detour uphill to the village’s fairy-tale chateau in favor of cake shopping at the village boulangerie-pâtisserie. A tarte écureuil (squirrel tartlet), piled high with caramelized walnuts, is the perfect energy snack.
  • Talloires (1 hour, 13km/8 miles): Mooch the manicured lakefront of Lake Annecy’s poshest village. Admire 17th-century Abbaye de Talloires, where Paul Cézanne stayed to paint in 1896, the limestone hulk of Roc de Chère (601m/1972ft) and Château de Duingt across the water. This is the lake's narrowest point, where the more developed Grand Lac (north) spills into the wilder Petit Lac (south).
  • Plage de Doussard (1½ hours, 21.5km/13 miles): Rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, water-ski, wakeboard or surf the waves of a latest-generation speedboat on this sizeable sand and grass-fringed beach. Watch paragliders float over the lake, and follow the boardwalk trail into the serene Réserve Naturelle du Bout-du-Monde, where beavers frolic and Eurasian coots build floating nests in the reeds.
  • Les Jardins du Taillefer (1¾ hours, 22.7km/14 miles): Stop for lunch in the flower garden of this organic farm, with slide and climbing frame for tots, vegetarian cuisine, Savoyard cheeses and farm-made Glaces & Cows ice-cream. If you can’t tear the kids away, sleep over in a rustic pod, tent or wooden cabin.
  • Duignt (2 hours, 27km/17 miles): The 10-minute walk uphill to Grotte de Notre Dame du Lac for breathtaking lake views is a highlight of a pit stop in this quaint lakefront village, with its 19th-century chateau hosting seasonal exhibitions. The artisan Boulangerie du Lac is one of the best in the Alps.
  • L’Abri Cyclette (2¼ hours, 31km/19 miles) Grab air, bike repairs and refreshments at this uber-cool signal house-turned-snack bar on the silky-smooth Voie Verte, roughly half a mile inland from the lake.
  • Plage de St-Jorioz (2 hours 20 minutes, 32km/20 miles) Join the summertime throngs for a swim from this sandy, 1920s municipal beach with retro plongeoir (diving tower) for older kids and lifeguards in July and August (seasonal entry fee adult/child €2.60/1).

If I could do it all again…

… it would still be with regular wheels, especially given our 12-year-old conquered the loop without tears, trauma or e-power (friends of ours with a 9-year-old recently returned, equally victorious). In high season, renting bikes and starting the tour in Duingt cuts out queue-time in bike-rental shops and avoids the inevitable crowds on the “starting blocks.”

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