Conor Power explores the historic ski station of Chamonix
It was only as I was finally arriving in Chamonix that the full realisation of why it always refers to itself as “Chamonix-Mont-Blanc” hit me: It is right beside the famously huge mountain of Mont Blanc (Western Europe’s highest at 4,810m). The entrance to the tunnel that was burrowed out of the solid rock by Italian and French workers in 1965 is just down the road.
The position of Chamonix itself is dramatic. Set in the valley floor with the tallest peaks of the Alpine range towering above you in menacing fashion on both sides, it cuts an elegant and urbane presence.
Chamonix really developed during the 19th century so it wears that quintessentially French 2nd-Empire-era kind of garb like a middle-aged lady of timeless elegance who still knows how to hold her head up high and swing those hips.
We arrived at the southwestern end of town at our hotel of choice – the 4-star Heliopic – just as the sun was setting. There’s none of that olde charm immediately obvious at this end of Chamonix but a pedestrian village by Chamonix Sud provides a pleasant degree of more modern charm and was just behind our hotel. Even closer, was the main ski lift up to Aiguille du Midi – Europe’s highest cable car that goes all way to a dizzying, lung-bursting height of over 3,800 metres.
Rain (of all things) was falling as we pulled in. They had just experienced an unusual blast of warm weather but that was about to return to more normal freezing temperatures and heavy snow. We opted to park our hired Fiat 500 in the free public car park next door rather than in the covered underground hotel park.
Once inside the modern hotel, the long open space that reaches right to the rear of the hotel and the restaurant induces a satisfactory sigh. The decor is bright, clean and relaxing, with shades of nostalgic 70s going on in their touches of grey and orange amidst much brightness, a tempting array of comfy seats and books, play areas for children, sweet dispensers (for children and adults), coffee kitchen area and a long lounge. Here, the vibe is warm and tempting, with live music in the evening and large windows overlooking the tempting spa area that silently calls to you like a siren.
The next morning, we were up like very excited schoolchildren on a snow day and after a hearty breakfast, we picked up our gear at the ski hire shop Ski Loc. It’s located within the hotel, where a patient assistant ensured we had snugly fitted ski boots and well-adjusted skis.
We met our instructor Éric from École du ski Français at the door. He was a smiling local – born and bred on skis in Chamonix – and he advised us that we should start at the more sheltered resort of Les Houches; where, he said, there would be no wind today. Conditions were a bit icy after the unexpected rain and there was still quite a bit of wind about generally.
The Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Valley is a ski area that covers five resorts (Servoz, Les Houches, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, Argentière and Vallorcine) and all are linked in one way or another – via bus, cable-car, gondola or tram. With a Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass, you can access all of it freely, even going over the border into the Italian resort of Courmayeur. The layout of Chamonix is more like the Austrian set-up: i.e. with a real village or town at the heart of a valley, from where you take public transport and cable-car or gondola up to the ski area. Unlike many French resorts, it isn’t the purpose-built type with ski-in-ski-out facilities.
Les Houches is a decent-sized resort in its own right and its famous “Verte” slope has hosted many top-class slalom events, such as the Men’s Slalom World Cup, that took place here on the 8th and 9th of February 2020. We began with some blue runs at the top of the Prarion cable car, fighting our way through the sometimes tough conditions of ice covered in snow. However, most of it was good. Just as Éric had predicted, there was little wind and the grey weather meant that it wasn’t crowded – perfect for finding our ski legs after an absence of three years.
After a very physical but highly enjoyable few hours, we were ready to return to base and soak our aching muscles and bones. The Heliopic possesses a spa of superb appointment – the Nuxe Spa. It’s so relaxing there that it’s tempting to spend half one’s day skiing and the other half down there, sipping warm herb infusions by the pool while reading a book, stopping occasionally to have a swim, a steam bath followed by plunge pool or fall asleep in the suspended ‘nest’ chairs (my own personal highlight).
Exploring the town proper is well worth the stroll. the main street runs in a more-or-less north-south axis, following Rue du Docteur Paccard and Rue Joseph Vallot, by way of Place Balmat. Around the latter, you get the full-on Belle Epoque vibe, with its pretty central buildings and grandiose 19th century architecture. Chamonix was the original mountaineering town (see main pic of statue of Jacques Balmat & Dr Paccard – the first to conquer Mont Blanc in 1786), becoming popular with British climbers from the early Victorian era onwards. As a result, the town had a number of Victorian-era palace hotels. They’re all still standing today but the only one that continues to be used as a hotel is the Folie Douce – the notoriously fun-filled hotel chain for those who like their avant- and après-ski fun turned up to eleven. It’s on Allée Recteur Payot, close to the Tourist Office.
Beyond this, the town spreads out again to an area on the south bank of the River Arve where there are multiple sporting facilities – climbing walls, public swimming pools, football pitches, ice rinks and (the latest addition) a new spa called QC Terme. It’s is the first of this Italian spa chain to open outside of its native country (which is only just over the mountains or through the Mont Blanc Tunnel) and it seems to be re-defining the spa in a number of ways.
Forget about the traditional view you might have of spas being a little boring and frequented more by a middle-aged set. The QC Terme hosts a much younger clientele who are looking for a bit more to do and see in a spa.
Thus, the QC Terme in Chamonix has been a huge hit less than a year after its opening, with many people travelling specifically for the spa and with absolutely no intention of going skiing. We had to go and see why for ourselves: For a start, it has that space and range of treatments and fun experiences to while away your time that I haven’t seen in any other spa I’ve visited. It’s rather like the grand old Budapest spas with a modern cool Italian twist. One of the highlights in the Chamonix branch is the outdoor area on the roof, where you can relax in warm waters amidst light dreamlike clouds of water vapour and marvel at the mountains towering around you while the stars begin to twinkle above your head. It’s pretty magnifico, you’d have to say. The only complaint is that the crowd are a little on the loud side, chattering away in Italian or French and blatantly ignoring the “Silence” signs. Or else I’m getting too old for the QC Terme…
Eating and drinking around Chamonix has plenty of choice. Be aware, however, that you are in a resort where rich Russians roll into town in their Maserati SUVs and adrenaline-seeking backpackers saunter in off the train. Chamonix provides for both sets of customer and everyone else in between. In an around the main square, you are likely to run into some head-scratching prices, such as 500ml of local craft beer for €9.50 (such as the gorgeously located but overpriced ‘Irish Coffee’), but just around the corner (such as Boogie-Woogie) you can find happy-hour metric pints at €4. It’s a similar story with restauration in the town, with some very fine restaurants and cafes in the heart of the town but some of the best value to be found slightly south of the town centre.
The next day, we awoke to dazzling sunshine after a fresh thick fall of snow. We resolved to try the other side of the valley this time – starting by taking the Flégère cable-car, skiing that part and then taking the liaison gondola that links it to Brévent (whose cable car celebrates its 90th birthday this year). An avalanche risque at Flégère meant that we had to do it the other way around while the local authorities did what they had to do with dynamite (to trigger avalanches and make the area safe). Both of these ski areas offer tear-inducing beautiful views of the Mont Blanc Massif – dazzling white in the winter sunshine, with powdered snow blowing off its peaks. The journey up to them is as sheer a cable-car ride as you could have and you really get feeling that you’re on top of the world.
Brévent is also popular with the wingsuit brigade, who regularly fling themselves off its cliff and fly down into the valley. For intermediate skiing around the age of 50, I couldn’t recommend the Brévent-Flégère axis highly enough – sunny, easy, magnificent views and a nice restaurant (on the Flégère side).
There are plenty more highlights in Chamonix that we didn’t get to visit. These include the superb Mer de Glace – a wonderful glacier that allows skiing all year round. You can take a train from Chamonix to Montenvers and you can also travel over the border into Italy to Courmayeur if the notion takes you. The ten-minute cable-car ride to the Aiguille du Midi (3,842m) is another pleasure we had to forego on this occasion as cloudy/windy weather meant it was closed during our short two-day stay.
We stayed at the 4-star Heliopic Hotel & Spa, 60 Route Blanche, 74400 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France. Tel +220.127.116.11.55.56. For reservations, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Rooms are extremely comfortable and well-appointed, breakfast is superb with a great range of food to set you up in a healthy way for a day on the mountains.
The Akashon is the hotel’s signature restaurant, offering a superb level of dining, mixing the innovative with the traditional in a relaxed semi-formal atmosphere. Awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin in 2020.
For something cheaper, you get an exceptional bang for your buck at Chez Paolo, 73 Avenue Ravanel le Rouge, 74400 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France. Tel +18.104.22.168.30.83. Very tasty pizzas and pasta bakes.
For more information, see www.chamonix.com. If you’re visiting, you can download their app, which gives you up-to-date information on what ski lifts and runs are open, as well general tourist info and the state of the roads.