The X in Chamonix may be silent – but for thrill-seekers in the Alps, it chimes in neatly with the resort's reputation for eXtreme ski and snowboarding. If off-piste adventure is your thing, read on…
Chamonix – set in the vertiginous, narrow valley of the same name – is close to the point in the Haute-Savoie Alps where the French, Swiss and Italian borders meet. Due to it's fortunate location, it has long been a mecca for intrepid mountain pioneers of every nationality. Many regard it as the ultimate destination in Europe for extreme ski and snowboarding, but it is equally revered by the hikers and climbers who visit during the summer months.
Expect to see plenty of full-face helmets, protective gear and tracker devices – and virtually no snow-ploughs or timid beginners nervously plotting their way down a green or rolling blue run. With conspicuously few of these about, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (to give it its full name) is not the natural habitat of the lesser-spotted novice. Nor is it a viable option for groups of mixed ability.
Regulars enthusiastically plan their day’s itinerary in advance, head for one specific mountain region (see The Context, below) and enjoy the awesome and extensive steeps and deeps that it has to offer. Chamonix does not try to be an ersatz, efficient, purpose-built ski resort in the modern French style, like something off a production line; that is not what the place is about. The resort is authentic and epic in every sense – and it is far from perfect. For the devoted, however, it offers thrills that nowhere else can match.
Chamonix is a bustling market town cowering at the foot of Mont Blanc – "the roof of Europe" and, at 4,810m (15,780ft), the continent's highest mountain. Being the fourth-largest commune in mainland France, Chamonix is no quaint village. It is, for some, off-puttingly large – albeit with pedestrianised cobbled streets and a good selection of cafés, restaurants and shops. The resort has a distinctly "Anglo" feel about it, having been virtually invaded by British skiers in recent years.
A steep walk from the centre of town is the new 10-seater gondola serving Le Brévent (see The Context, below) while another cable car links with La Flégère. A third cable car, the Aiguille du Midi , takes you up from the town in two stages to the highest lift in Europe. From here, you can descend the famous Vallée Blanche off-piste run – and even if you don't, the trip will be worth it just for the amazing drama of the view. Cable cars and chairs also access Grands Montets, above Argentière. All of this is explained below.
Chamonix is part of the Mont Blanc region, which also comprises the resorts of Megève, Combloux, St Gervais, Les Contamines, St Nicholas de Veroce and Demi Quartier. Immediately surrounding Chamonix are five distinct mountain areas. Grands Montets, L'Aiguille du Midi and Le Tour are off-piste zones only, while Le Brévent and La Flégère are the best options for scenic, pisted runs suitable for intermediates – and the only two ski areas linked by cable car in the entire Valley. However, it is a fairly old télégraphique which is frequently closed in high winds.
If you want to visit other ski areas in the broader Chamonix Valley area, access is inconvenient to say the least. They invariably require a bus ride or a car to reach them – and buses can be a chore here, making car ownership of rental pretty much essential. This unfortunately leads to other problems, mainly a lack of parking spaces in and around the town of Chamonix itself.
If dialling from the UK, prefix all telephone numbers below with 00 33 and omit the first zero.
This is what Chamonix is all about – so don't forget to book a guide. Chamonix Experience (0450 540936) is very good. Experts should try the off-piste action at Grands Montets, including the steep La Face and the picturesque views of Pointe de Vue. Less confident off-piste skiers could try Les Houches or Le Tour.
As mentioned previously, Chamonix is not really a resort for beginners – or groups of mixed ability. However, there are ski schools; try ESF (0450 53 22 57) or Evolution 2 (0450 55 90 22).
Intermediates should head to the Col de Balme area above Le Tour for some crowd-free cruising. You can enjoy the shaded runs on the north side of Tête de Balme – and, when conditions are good, head down to Vollorcine. For good intermediates, Le Brevent and La Flégère offer lovely blue and red pisted runs (and plenty of the ubiquitous and challenging off-piste), while the Grands Montets Glacier above Argentière has the greatest number of challenging runs. However, it can get overcrowded at times, leading to long queue bottle-necks at the lift stations. It is worth a trip up to Les Houches, which has plenty of intermediate terrain – but this will require a full Mont Blanc ski pass. Le Tour is also a quieter and more varied area, with some lovely tree-lined powder to explore.
Chamonix provides unlimited off-piste challenges. There are phenomenal and prodigious runs around Grands Montets, accounting for the crowds on the glacier and the popularity of the village below – Argentière. Point de Vue and Pylones offer exceptional views and long, exhausting but exhilarating runs. Le Tour is often overlooked, as it is at lower altitude and has suitable off-piste for decent intermediates rather than experts. However, its tree-lined areas are a serene and scenic option when bad weather closes in.
This has to be the famous 23km off-piste run, Vallée Blanche – one of the world's finest descents. Beginning at the highest lift in Europe (at 3,840m), it winds down through gorgeous scenery for 15 miles – right into Chamonix itself. Taking an advanced direct route, with a guide, takes about 80 minutes. If snow cover is poor lower down the mountain, there is a rack-and-pinion railway to take you back into town.
This run is well within the capabilities of a competent intermediate, as long as you go with a guide (essential) who can match the route to your experience; in bad snow conditions, it can be a little tricky. From the cafe at the top lift station, the views are simply intoxicating. The only drawback is that it can get very busy (see the photographs accompanying this guide, top right); the best time to go is early on a weekday.
CHAMONIX AT A GLANCE
Number of ifts 50
Cable cars Eight
Chair lifts 17
Drag lifts 20
Uplift capacity per hour 52,660
Mountain restaurants 14
Beginner pistes 20 per cent
Intermediate pistes 67 per cent
Expert pistes 13 per cent
NB: percentages do not reveal the extent of expert terrain, most of which is off-piste
Pros and cons
Lots of extreme terrain
Famous Vallée Blanche run and views
Spectacular views and scenery
Inconveniently located ski areas
Mostly unlinked terrain
Unreliable bus service
Bad weather can shut best runs
Crowds and long queues likely
Lack of parking spaces
Busy, noisy town, not tranquil
If only Chamonix provided as many thrills for those eating on the mountain as it does for skiers. Sadly, it doesn't – which is not surprising, given that visitors are more focused on the sport than they are on sitting back and admiring the views. However, there are a handful of good places:
Plan Joran (04 50 54 05 77) This is my personal favourite – located at the top of the Plan Joran chair, at the bottom of the Dream Forest chairs on Grands Montets. It serves the best mountain food in the valley, with a choice of waiter- or self-service. Lovely French country cooking and great pizzas can be enjoyed here – along with stunning views from the sunny terrace. Highly recommended.
La Crèmerie du Glacier (0450 55 90 10) Located above Argentière – in a wooded, secluded area just to the right of the bottom of the Pierre à Ric home run – this traditional, rustic mountain cabin serves excellent homely food.
La Bergerie de Planpraz (0450 53 05 42) Take the gondola up to Planpraz to eat here – the best restaurant on offer in the Brevent area. Good for steaks, it has waiter service upstairs plus self-service and a terrace below.
Le Panoramic (0450 53 44 11) Situated at the top of Le Brevent, this restaurant is well-named: it certainly gets top marks for the views – and the food won't distract you too much. Let's just say it's a good place for a snack, or a short stop for a vin chaud.
Chalet Refuge de Lognan (0688 56 03 54) Tucked away off the beaten track at Lognan, thsi place does really good homely French cooking. To get there, ski the blacks from the top of Grands Montets (Point de Vue or Pylons/Blanchots). It's very popular, so book ahead.
While food options on the mountain may disappoint, the town of Chamonix is a different proposition. It has something for all tastes and pockets – Chinese, Indian, Spanish, you name it. Below, I have focused more on restaurants serving the best in Savoyard cuisine.
Albert 1er (0450 53 05 09, www.hameaualbert.fr), 119 impasse du Montenvers. Located in the hotel of the same name, this is the place to go for Michelin-starred, multi-course nouvelle cuisine with formal service. Expect to pay €100 per head with wine.
La Maison Carrier (0450 53 00 03), 44 route du Bouchet. This is a super little alternative in the same hotel complex as the Albert – but less formal and more affordable. Traditional Savoyard specialities are creatively put together in a cosy farmhouse atmosphere.
Le Bistrot (0450 53 57 64), 151 avenue de L'Aig du Midi. Located in the four-star Hotel Morgane, this award-winning restaurant is highly recommended. The chef and sommelier used to preside over the Albert.
Eden (0450 53 06 40) The best place in town for seafood, the Eden is (as its name suggests) at the Eden Hotel in the Les Praz suburb. It affords fantastic views of Mont Blanc.
Le Panier des 4 Saisons (0450 53 98 77), 24 galerie Blanc Neige. Another Savoyard epicurean delight –and with an excellent wine list.
Restaurant Atmosphère (0450 55 97 97, www.restaurant-atmosphere.com), 123 place Balmat. Right in the centre of Chamonix, this aptly named restaurant has a lovely ambience as well as good food. From its covered terrace, there are fine views of the river and Mont Blanc. Booking essential.
Le Matafan (0450 53 05 64) Located in the Mont Blanc Hotel, this has a cosy, traditional dining hall set around a large fireplace. For French fine dining and an extensive wine collection, look no further.
Munchies (0450 53 45 41), rue du Moulin. This Swedish-owned restaurant serves tasty and inventive Asian-fusion cuisine.
Restaurant L'Impossible (0450 53 20 36), 9 chemin du Cry. Set in an 18th-century farmhouse, this place has a fabulous country ambience and great food. Set menus from €20.
Le Rosebud – aka Jeu de Paume (0450 54 03 76, www.jeudepaumechamonix.com), Le Lavancher. Chef Eric De Ganck has earned high praise for the restaurant over which he presides – one of the best in the Chamonix Valley.
Le Dahu (0450 54 01 55), 325 rue Charlet-Stratton. A Valley institution for 40 years, this place serves superb traditional cuisine and is excellent value for money.
It will come as no surprise that the thrill-seekers who come to Chamonix want to party as hard as they ski and board. Accordingly, there is a good mix of bars and clubs where they can let their hair down.
Best place to start the night
Chambre Neuf (0450 55 89 81), opposite the train station. There are several cool bars nearby, but this is the most popular. A good mix of locals, Scandinavians and Brits flock here for an early (happy hour) drink. There is regular live music for a boogie.
Elevation 1904 Just across the road from Neuf – and just as lively.
Le Choucas (0450 53 29 10) Located on rue Paccard, this place is very popular with Brits and televises live sport.
Monkey Bar (0450 96 64 34), 81 place Edmond Desailloud, Chamonix-Sud. One of the best bars in town, this place serves good pub grub from 4pm-11pm and has several happy-hour offers. There is free Wi-Fi, and the après-ski starts with live music from 5pm every day, followed by DJs until 2am. Live sporting events are shown on the big screen.
The Jekyll (0450 55 99 70, www.thejekyll.com), 71 route Pelerins. This lively Swedish-run bar does good food, happy-hour deals from 4pm and live music most nights. It is situated next to the bowling alley in Chamonix-Sud.
MBC (0450 53 61 59) On the road leading to Argentière, just five minutes from town centre, this is a great place for homemade beer and attracts a mixed clientele. It also has the cheapest beer in town, plus regular live music.
Best wine bar
Le Lapin Agile (0450 53 61 59) If you want a quiet drink, check out this intimate, French wine bar and café – situated, like MBC, on the road towards Argentière.
Le Garage (0450 53 64 49) at the Aiguille du Midi cable-car station. This excellent club has a mixed clientele and quality DJs.
The Clubhouse (0450 90 96 56, www.clubhouse.fr), 74 promenade des Sonnailles. Set inside an old mansion house, this exclusive members' club is sister to the exclusive Milk & Honey in New York. Its amazing boutique bar serves the best cocktails you will have tasted. It costs €150 to join, and there is also an excellent restaurant and hotel on the premises.
La Cantina Club (0450 53 83 80), 37 impasse des Rhododendrons. For late nights and early mornings, follow the young, energetic crowd to La Cantina in the town centre. Featuring great DJs from around Europe, it specialises in underground and indie music.
BPM (0676 38 25 69), Chamonix-Sud. The most risqué club in town; look out for fliers to see what's on.
No Escape/7th Heaven (0450 93 80 65, www.noescape.fr), 27 rue de la Tour. This is a glamorous new nightclub – and, in the 7th Heaven, there are some gorgeous dancers. Open 9pm-4am.
Rusticana (0450 55 88 28), 216 rue Charlet Stratton. Known around town as as Rusty, this lively bar serves Guinness, provides free Wi-Fi access and broadcasts live matches on the big screen.
Office Bar and Restaurant (0450 54 15 46) Good-value drinks and food are the draw at this popular watering-hole packed with Brits. Full dinner menu 6pm-10pm daily; two-for-one deals on house cocktails on Mondays; live music Tuesdays and Thursdays; DJs and special guests, 5pm-7pm Saturdays.
Best (and only) nightclub
Foo Bar (0450 90 68 20) The only late bar/club in Argentière was previously the old Bushwacker. Regular DJs, big-screen TV and pool are among the recreations.
Best for luxury
Grand Hotel des Alpes 4* Next door to the prestigious Chanel on rue Dr Paccard, this stylish, Italian-owned hotel is the perfect place for luxury. Centrally located and close to all the main bars and restaurants, it provides wonderful views of Mont Blanc from some rooms (request a Mont Blanc view when booking). Bonuses include an underground car park, sauna, steam room, swimming pool – and very friendly staff.
Hotel Mont Blanc 4* at 62 allée du Majestic. Its great location in the centre of town makes this one of the best places to stay. Rooms are pleasant and the food excellent.
Auberge du Bois-Prin 4* This stately hotel is located just out of town. Quiet, relaxed and cosy, it has rooms done out in beautiful dark wood with brass and gold fixtures. This is the best place to stay for views of Mont Blanc.
Le Jeu de Paume Chalet Hotel 4* Situated above the village of Le Lavancher, this is a lovely luxury hotel – perfect for those wanting a bit of peace and quiet. It has an indoor/outdoor pool.
Best for value
Hotel de L'Arve 2* For good value and a central Chamonix location, look no further. This place has friendly staff, clean and comfortable rooms, a good restaurant and a decent bar on-site.
Hotel Les Grands Montets 2* If you prefer to stay in Argentière, try this family-friendly hotel on chemin des Arberons – more or less at the bottom of the Grands Montets chair lift. It's known for its friendly staff, good breakfasts and comfortable rooms with excellent views.
BA, BMI Baby, Easyjet, Flybe and Swiss Air all fly from the UK to Geneva, a one-hour drive away.
For car hire from the airport, try Alamo (0870 400 4562, www.alamo.co.uk); Avis (0844 581 0147, www.avis.co.uk); Budget (0844 581 2231, www.budget.com); Easycar (08710 500 444, www.easycar.com); and Sixt (0844 248 6620, www.sixt.com).
From Geneva, take the A40 and follow the signs to Chamonix (toll roads). After 80km, you will go over a viaduct into the Chamonix Valley. Les Houches is the first ski resort you encounter.
From Calais, use the Autoroute Blanche motorway and follow the signs to the resort. Approximate driving time: 8-10 hours.
Lots of companies run bus transfers from Geneva for as little as €25. See www.tumbl.it/busitfor25euros.
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is the name of the train station in Chamonix. SNCF, the French rail service, has regular routes to it. The best way to check trains and times, even within France, is on the Swiss SBB site. See www.tumbl.it/traintimetables
ABAC Taxi Gopee (0607 02 22 13)
Cham Taxi (0450 53 19 14)
Taxi Monard (0450 55 86 28)
Chamonix Tourist Office (0450 53 00 24, www.chamonix.com).
Mountain Rescue (0450 53 16 89)
Ambulance (0450 53 46 20)