As an avid (and slightly obsessed) skier, the words “Alpine town” and “snow-topped mountains” are synonymous with perfection, but with activities that cater for all tastes, Chamonix goes far beyond that. The Chamonix valley stretches through France towards the Swiss border, from Servoz to Vallorcine, with an awe-inspiring backdrop of the highest mountain range in Europe. The valley hosts five key resorts, which should all be visited as part of the Chamonix experience, but the centre, Chamonix Town, is a real gem. It encapsulates French Savoyard charm with action-packed energy and made its name as the world capital for mountaineering before becoming well-known around the world for its downhill ski slopes.
The Aiguille du Midi (above) is the highest accessible point of the Mont Blanc glacier, and sister to Mont Blanc itself. After a cable car ride, you’ll find yourself at 3,777m and a little extra lift will take you up to 3,842m. Here, you will be presented with a vista not only of the Mont Blanc Massif in all its stunning beauty, but of France, Italy and Switzerland. At the top, there is a restaurant serving local cuisine to reenergise after having your senses stolen by the views, as well as a museum-style information point. And for the daring, the wonder doesn’t stop here. One of the new additions over recent years is a glass platform just waiting for you to walk on. Needless to say, it’s not one for the faint of heart. Standing among the clouds and staring at the snowy skyline doesn’t come cheap – a return ride in the cable car is around RO24 per adult – but it’s worth every baisa. There is, however, the option for a single ride, at RO20 per adult. Of course, this comes with the expectation that you will make your own way down, skiing or snowboarding an off-piste route known to winter sports fanatics as “La Vallée Blanche”. This exhilarating 20km-long run has vertical descents in parts, making it a challenge for any adrenaline junky. Many local tour operators arrange guided descents down La Vallée Blanche and while it is possible to go it alone, some travel insurance policies won’t cover accidents off-piste when unaccompanied, so be sure to check it out first.
If the sight of a bright blue sky punctuated with snow-capped peaks isn’t enough, then the summer spectacle of paragliders soaring above will really give this scene the “wow” factor. Take a seat down in the valley, sipping strong black coffee and breakfasting on croissants or pain au chocolat in a traditional French boulangerie and just enjoy the wondrous skyline. If you want to really feel part of the view, then consider trying out the paragliding yourself. Paragliding is a wonderful way to not only witness brilliance, but also to feel like you’re flying. Many operators offer paragliding where you can fly tandem with an instructor or solo for the more experienced.
One of the delights of staying in Chamonix is not feeling restricted to the same shops, restaurants, ski slopes or trekking routes. For me, each morning held an element of spontaneity as I awoke wondering whether to visit Les Bossons, Le Tour or Les Praz. All these options are made possible with the help of a convenient bus service. But for many, “holiday” means being able to relax in an environment where all the action, activities and amenities are within a close vicinity. For those who want everything just a stone’s throw away, this may not be your destination of choice.
Each resort in the valley holds its own market throughout the week, but if you only make it to one, make sure it’s the market in Chamonix Town. The traditional agriculture of the area is predominantly based on dairy farming, which lends itself to some spectacular (if a little smelly) Savoyard cheeses being showcased on market day: Reblochon, Tomme, Morbier and Beaufort are regional specials that are the key ingredient in alpine dishes like raclette and tartiflette. Alongside the cheese, French pain et patisseries, fruits and vegetables and some non-consumables are also available at Chamonix markets.
The breadth of accommodation on offer can make choosing where to rest your head a little daunting. Yet because the Chamonix valley is tailored to an array of needs and desires, ask yourself: What kind of holiday are you after?’ For family breaks, Les Houches has charm for children, whilst the hamlet of Argentière is catered more to those with a taste for traditional 19th-century architecture and baroque churches. As the valley’s capital, Chamonix Town is the busiest place to stay. It offers restaurants and nightlife, along with a selection of self-catered accommodation and upmarket hotels. Thanks to the fantastic free bus service that runs between the resorts, valley-venturing has never been so easy and you’ll never feel restricted to the village or town that you choose to stay in.