Alpine Oasis

A nature-loving Frenchman has built an off-grid, eco village in the Victorian High Country, where guests are treated with fondue and French liqueur.


It’s late afternoon in the Victorian ski resort of Mount Hotham, and the chairlifts that spill from the ridgetop village towards Swindlers Creek have just stopped moving. As the sun sinks, shadows creep up the sides of the plunging valley like a bathtub filling with water. Skiers disperse and the mountain becomes silent and still. 

For most visitors to Australia’s highest alpine village, it’s the end of another day on the ski slopes, but for a small group gathered in a carpark a few kilometres down the Great Alpine Road, the adventure is just beginning. 

“Has anyone here walked in snowshoes before?” asks Jean-Francois Rupp, the French founder of Alpine Nature Experience. No-one responds in the affirmative. In fact, some guests on this Snowshoe to Fondue experience have never walked in snow before. But that won’t be a problem. As Jean-Francois assures everyone, if you can walk, you can snowshoe. And with the temperature rapidly dropping and cheeks reddening, walking sounds like a fine idea.

Snow crunches underfoot as the group follows a track through the bush. A fire is soon spotted burning in a clearing among the snow gums, and a towering Nordic tipi comes into view, with honeycomb-shaped, geodesic domes dotted around it. A bar fashioned from corrugated iron and rough-sawn timber stands alongside a cast-iron fire pit encircled by bench seating carved into the snow. Steam rises from a hot tub perched above the dark expanse of the Dargo Valley as the last embers of sunset pulse softly on the distant horizon.

As wide-eyed guests file in, Jean-Francois hands out mugs of hot, homemade gluhwein. “Welcome to my eco-village,” he says, “I hope you like it.” 

Jean-Francois grew up in the town of Annecy, in the mountainous Haute-Savoie region of France. He would never have fallen in love with the Australian Alps if he hadn’t fallen first for an Australian girl. He met Kathy, an Albury native, in 2010, and the couple married 4 years later. Jean-Francois launched Alpine Nature Experience in 2017 after observing that most winter tourism experiences in Australian mountains were focused solely on skiing.

“I wanted people to be able to experience everything I love about the mountains, without the need to ski,” Jean-Francois says. “People told me they loved the idea of coming to the snow, but they’d never do it, because they didn’t know how to ski. So I wanted to give people an authentic overnight experience in the snow, and make it something they’d never forget.” 

Jean-Francois says people sometimes assume that coming from the French Alps he must find Australian mountains a let-down in comparison. They’re wrong. “The French Alps might be higher, but they’re not better. For a start, they’re less accessible, so it would be impossible for me to do there what I can do here. And in France we don’t have a vast expanse of nature around our ski resorts. That’s what makes Australia special.”

It's also why Jean-Francois feels compelled to look after it. “I’m trying to build a resilient ecosystem around the eco-village, so that if we had to leave, we would leave it in better condition than how we found it. I want people to understand how fragile this alpine environment is.”

Snowshoe to Fondue is primarily a dinner experience, but guests can also book to stay overnight in brand new Hypedomes – futuristic-looking pods, constructed with a blend of transparent and mirrored hexagonal panels, giving unimpeded views to the wilderness, while at the same time blending into it. When the snow conditions allow, Jean-Francois also builds igloos for intrepid overnighters. Guests are whisked away in the morning on the back of skidoos, a thrilling end to an authentic winter adventure.   

Snow starts to fall as guests make their way to the lantern-lit tipi. A central wood fire crackles, sheepskin blankets are spread across bench seats, and on the wall hangs flags, cowskin rugs and a hiking boot strapped to a tennis racquet. “B Spargo’s snowshoe, circa 1921,” reads the sign hanging below, a waggish tribute to Bill Spargo, a pioneering prospector and skier who, legend has it, was the first person to live through a winter on Mt Hotham, and whose 97-year-old hut above Swindlers Creek survives as one of the oldest remaining structures in the area.

Dinner is more a tribute to Jean-Francois’ grandmother, whose chalet in the resort town of Tignes was a favourite holiday haunt of the young Jean-Francois. “I’d ride my sled to the farm next door to collect fresh cows’ milk, and bring the pail back for my grandmother, who’d scoop the cream off the top to make butter,” he says. “I still remember the taste of freshly made butter.”

The fondue making – which strictly follows grandma’s recipe – is a bonding experience, with guests pitching in to grate cheese, coat the cooking pots with garlic, and slice the bread into bite-sized pieces, to be skewered and dunked into the bubbling cheese. “If you drop your bread in the fondue it’s 3 laps of the tipi barefoot in the snow,” Jean-Francois warns, to nervous laughter.   

While the cheese is French, all other produce is sourced locally. The eco-village is fully licenced and stocked with wines from Rutherglen and beers from Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth. After dinner Jean-Francois produces a very special bottle of herbal liqueur called génépi, distilled from an alpine flower Jean-Francois used to go foraging for in the French Alps, and traditionally enjoyed as a post-fondue digestif. “This is the only place in Australia you can have it,” he says. “And it’s the only place where it makes sense to have it.” 

In the dead of night the eco-village looks almost extraterrestrial, the sleeping domes glowing psychedelic colours among the snow gums. Inside, they’re a haven of comfort, warmed by a crackling wood fire and furnished with a plush bed layered in a fleece liner, fur blanket and a sleeping bag that could melt an iceberg. The skylight in the roof offers a portal to the stars, and when the lights are flicked off it feels like you’re floating in a bubble through space – an illusion shattered only in the morning, when you wake surrounded by snow, grounded in the all-too-real grandeur of a High Country winter.