The beautiful French ski resort of Chamonix is surrounded in all directions by snow covered peaks including Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc (4,809m). It hosted the first Winter Olympics back in 1924 and has found its place on the wishlist of skiers from around the world ever since.
The resort itself is located at 1035m near the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel. The historic local ski lifts take visitors to as high as 3842m at Aiguille du Midi allowing for an enormous range of sensational skiing options which are referred to locally as Le Grand Ski. The main attraction for many is the 20km off-piste run of the Vallée Blanche which involves a memorable vertical decent of 2700m through simply stunning Alpine scenery.
Not surprisingly the resort is one of Europe’s most popular ski destinations attracting in the region of 5 million annual visitors. In spite of this influx of people the town has managed to retain an air of historic charm where you can find some lovely old hotels to stay in.
The evenings tend not to be as tranquil as they would have been in days gone by as a whole host of bars, restaurants and nightclubs have appeared over the years to serve the vast number of younger visitors to the town. For a little peace and quiet in the evenings you’d be better advised to consider one of the other smaller towns along the valley such as Argentière or Les Houches.
Skiing in Chamonix
Whilst Chamonix does have a selection of nursery slopes for beginners and a good range of intermediate options its reputation as a whole is one geared to more advanced skiers looking for off-piste thrills.
You’ll find the best slopes for children and beginners at La Vormaine, Les Chosalets, Le Savoy and Les Planards. Taking it up a notch, head for Brevent-Flegere or Le Domaine de Balme which both cater for beginners but are also suitable for intermediate skiers. For the best skiing you’ll need to go to Les Grands Montets where advanced skiers will find long slopes with dramatic descents. Hiring local ski guides is highly recommended to ensure you get the best advice on dealing with any off-piste skiing.
Perhaps the biggest downside of this ski region is the crowded transport services during the peak season. The Chamonix Ski Bus provides a very efficient service to lift terminals along the whole valley between Le Tour and Les Houches but sheer numbers of skiers at times means you have to wait in queues to get on these buses. This is not something to get too worked up about as the scenery once you step off the ski lift will make it all worthwhile.
Climbing Mont Blanc
It’s not only skiers from around the world that are drawn to Chamonix but also mountaineers who arrive with plans to scale Mont Blanc or one of the other 17 peaks over 4000m in the range. Mont Blanc was first climbed as far back as 1786, today it sees more than 20,000 climbers reach its summit.
As far as mountain challenges are concerned the ascent of Mont Blanc isn’t considered to be particularly difficult. However, the altitude together with the risk of avalanches and falling rocks mean that danger is never far away. All but the most experienced climbers should hire a local guide before setting out on the climb.
If abseiling and crampons aren’t your thing then head for the Teleferique l’Aiguille Du Midi which transports you 2800m in just 20 minutes to the top of Mont Blanc. The views from the top are simply sensational with the option to jump on a cablecar which crosses the Glacier du Geant to Pointe Helbronner. This spot is located on the Italian side of Mont Blanc where the viewpoint takes in a whole panoramic view of Alpine peaks above 4000m.
Getting to Chamonix
The gateway to Chamonix is Geneva International Airport which lies just 100km away on the southern shore of Lake Geneva. Transport by road is very straightforward following the A40 to the south-east. Specialist ski transfers with Shuttledirect are highly recommend. They will have an appropriate vehicle with driver awaiting your party on arrival in Geneva and will whisk you off to your accommodation near the slopes in around 1 hour 15 minutes.
The airport is well served by flights from all over the continent including budget operators easyJet and Flybe. Swiss deserve a special recommendation as they include the free transport of ski equipment in their fares in addition to their free baggage allowance.
Where to Stay in Chamonix
Hotel Mont-Blanc: (62 allee du Majestic) This 5-star property is the grandfather of Chamonix hotels having been open for business for more than a century. Whilst traditional on the outside, it has been fully renovated to the highest standards on the inside. It is perfectly located within easy walking distance of all that the town has to offer, it has its own excellent restaurant and an exceptional staff throughout. The hotel also has a relaxing spa and a swimming pool with mountain views. They provide guests with free shuttle transfers to the ski lifts.
Grand Hotel des Alpes: (75, Rue du Docteur Paccard) Also located right in the town centre, this charming 4-star option is a constant reminder of how Chamonix must have been before the masses arrived. Another place with stunning views towards Mont Blanc and a great team of workers who really go out of their way to look after their guests. The fabulous jacuzzi, sauna and swimming pool are all most welcome after a day on the slopes.
Hotel Le Faucigny: (118 Place de l’Eglise) For somewhere a little more affordable but still highly recommended take a look at this centrally located 3-star hotel. Whilst stylish it retains a traditional Alpine feel where you’ll be made to feel very welcome. Some rooms are a little on the small side but this is a small price to pay for the positive overall experience of staying here. Great spa and sauna.