Known as an Alpine playground, the French resort of Chamonix is now making attempts to go greener, in a bid to secure its future popularity with skiers and non-skiers alike
Chamonix (or Cham, as it’s known to locals) lies beneath Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, and has been a mountaineering Mecca ever since the 1786 ascent of the peak. It’s now famed as a party town (this isn’t the place for a ski holiday with tots, but older teens will love it), a high-altitude playground that's more 'hardcore' than other Alpine sports resorts.
That's not how it's being marketed now, though: the Office de Tourisme Chamonix Mont-Blanc promotes the valley with grungy graphics but with Earth-friendly messages; the key words are ‘fragile’ and ‘sensitive’. The fact is that the valley needs visitors to take care of the area, or the area won’t get as many visitors. And Chamonix is almost wholly reliant on the tourist trade - it's been on the tourist trail since 1770, and wants to stay there.
The height of the resorts on this mountain chain has been the key to Chamonix’s success: 90 per cent of the ski areas are above 2000m. The Grands Montets offers skiing up to 3,300m and is almost always the last Alpine resort to close each year, shutting for skis in mid-May.
There are three other high-level ski areas and four lower altitude areas, suitable for children and beginners. Chamonix is also known the world over for its off-piste skiing: Pas de Chevre, Glacier Rond and the Col du Plan will delight freeriders. Guides know the best routes and the best times of day to do them.
Even non-skiers can experience the grandeur of the high mountains: the Aiguille du Midi téléphérique takes passengers up the highest vertical ascent cable car ride in the world, from 1035m to 3842m. At the top, the views to Mont Blanc and many more of the big alpine peaks can be glorious on a good day. The 24km Vallée Blanche, the longest off-piste ski descent in Europe, starts from Aiguille du Midi; romantic skiers can book a moonlight descent with a guiding company.
Another treat for non-skiers is to take the 101-year-old cog railway to Montenvers and experience the glacial views down to the route of the Vallée Blanche and the Mer de Glace, the second largest glacier in the Alps. The fact that Chamonix’s glaciers are receding is another reason for the greening of the town's image.
One of Chamonix's newest sports (even though it’s more ancient than skiing) is snow-shoeing, an out-of-the-back-door-and-up-the-slope activity, powered by milk and cornflakes. Strapping on raquettes de neige meshes with the greening of the town, all part of the eco makeover that it hopes will guarantee its future.
Where to stay
Le Vert Hotel is chic, but not boutique. It’s the ‘in’ place to stay, especially with pro riders (the in-house Pro Shop is the genuine article) but also a great bar and restaurant hang-out for non-residents. Want to watch the Premier League? The bar in this Anglocentric hotel has UK Sky TV. The hotel staff can hook you up with the valley’s best guides.
Chalet Les Cîmes is a five-star chalet, housing 12 in superior comfort. If you’ve not burnt off enough energy on the slopes, hit the chalet’s surprisingly well-equipped gym. Chalet Les Pelerins also houses 12 people in comfort but isn’t ultra-luxe. It more than makes up for it, though, with gourmet evening meals and green credentials: it was the first solar-powered chalet in town.
Where to eat
There are 13 mountain restaurants, with predictably wonderful vistas, but prices to match. Most are owned by the lift company and, with a captive audience, are not thrilling. However, the eateries in Les Houches are independently-owned and much more eager to please. La Vieille Luge and La Tanière are the stand-outs, with the latter being pricier and classier: it’s tucked away just off the Plan du Croz piste. For al fresco eats Fournil Chamoniard is Chamonix’s main bakery. It opens from 6am for baguettes and croissants, and of course, a mouth-watering selection of mountain energy food, otherwise known as cakes.
Where to drink
You’re really spoilt for choice. Arguably the best bar in town (mainly for the fresh beer) is the Micro Brasserie de Chamonix, known as the MBC. Owned by four Canadians, the MBC has live bands, dancing, and exceptional curly chips. The eight pine-cladded fermenting vessels behind the bar aren't ornamental: that's where the microbrews are produced. As well as a beer of the month, always on tap are Blonde de Chamonix, a German-style pilsner; the Blanche des Guides, a cloudy white beer; and Granite Pale Ale, using North American hops. Open since 2002, the MBC is on the main road out to Argentière and is a favourite of hardcore guides, especially English-speaking ones. Monkey Bar in Chamonix Sud has cheap beer, trendy live bands and free wi-fi.
Hotel Aiglon, with its Deep Nature Spa, was refurbished in spring 2009. It has an outdoor pool, open year-round. Heating outdoor pools isn’t terribly eco-conscious but this one is greener than most. The hotel received grants to install a wood-chip boiler to keep the pool warm. The rest of the hotel is heated by natural gas and many other eco measures have been put in place (and not just the standard ‘towels on the rail or floor’ greenwash). So when you go for an après-ski roast in the spa’s Kraxen oven, you’ll know that the "invigorating hay vapour" is nearly as green as the grass it was derived from.
A short drive from Chamonix, via the Mont Blanc tunnel, is a traditional spa at the head of the Aosta valley, near to the ski town of Courmayeur. The hot springs at Pré-Saint-Didier have been easing aching muscles since Roman times, although the current spa building dates from 1834. The water is a delicious 37°C and a not-quite-so-delicious saline-acidulous-arsenious-ferruginous solution with moderate radioactivity.
Plane: easyjet flies to Geneva from three London airports as well as many regional UK airports. Swiss flies from London airports, including City Airport.
Train: travel by sleeper train from London to St Gervais, and then take a local train to Chamonix, a 20-minute journey. Or go Paris to Geneva (a three-and-a-half-hour journey).
Shuttles: there are many shuttle services from Geneva to Chamonix, including Mountain Drop-Offs and, the cheapest at €19 one way, AlpyBus. A shuttle from Geneva airport to Chamonix takes about two and a half hours.
Car: Chamonix is 870kms from Calais. It’s autoroute all the way – about eight hours. Toll fees will be about €65. Chamonix is 86kms from Geneva, via the Autoroute Blanche, the White Motorway.
Chamonix is a busy town: at peak times there are 10 times as many visitors as residents - but downtown is not yet choked with traffic. And the town wants to keep it this way, discouraging car use with carrots. Tourists get free travel on ‘Les Mulets’ town shuttles and free short hops on the SNCF railway. The Aiguille du Midi cable car, built in 1955, is busy year-round: it's best to pre-book. An adult ticket is €40 return.