The prelude to the Alps begins in Savoie. Before you reach the rarefied air of Mont Blanc or the imposing rock faces of the Vanoise, there are the lush, elevated woodlands and pastures rolling from bourgeois Annecy to Chambery, then on to lively Grenoble. NEWSWEEK's Lily Huang spent a year in the region—primarily on a bike—and found the quiet beauty of the baby Alps just as rewarding as the more dramatic, iconic peaks.
Activities: The Bauges mountain range is a natural wonderland year-round. Well-kept country roads criss-cross its slopes and valleys. Its forests and open plains are home to an astonishing number of raptors. The Lac de la Thuile, a small, secluded lake a few kilometers from the mountain village of Curienne, has a magnificent calm and plentiful fishing. In winter, the Bauges is home to one of the top cross-country ski domains in France, La Féclaz (savoiegrandrevard.com). The Chambery tourism office offers detailed itineraries for walking and biking (chambery-tourisme.com).
Sights: La Dent du Chat means, literally, the cat's tooth, and it spikes up out of the range lining the western side of the Lac du Bourget, France's largest natural lake. A well-marked path leads up to the summit through shady woodland, slipping vertically between boulders in the last few meters. The plateau summit is just a few paces wide and thrusts up amidst a spectacular panorama of two different valleys, with the lake and the stolid Bauges to the east, and the snow-capped range of the Belledonne anchoring the south. Cars can park by the trailhead at the Col du Chat, a modest pass at 600 meters' elevation. The Dent eventually leaps up to 1,390 meters. Read the legend of the peak's name at 123savoie.com.
Eats: The Saturday market at Chambéry is a must. The capital of Savoie is big enough to attract a brilliant array of local artisans and growers, and small enough that everyone still gathers in one central marketplace. This is where to pick up a jar of my favorite honey, the dark brew of chestnut flowers (miel de chataignier). It's a richer, more full-bodied sweetness, not cloying like some lighter honeys. It's also reputedly therapeutic for the respiratory tract. You can also find quality smoked meats, a well-kept tradition in the area. The longest line is bound to be for smoked sausages, which come in surprising flavors like walnut and blueberry. The most coveted commodity of all, though, is the artisanal beaufort d'alpage, the king of cheeses that rivals the best Swiss gruyère in its subtlety. The other cheese beloved in Savoie, the smelly, oozing reblochon, is the star of a Savoyard specialty: the famous tartiflette. It's the classic potato gratin flecked with onions and bacon, and draped with melted reblochon. It gets you through the winter.