Working in the ski industry we have a lot of chats with people who describe some of the lesser-known resorts as hidden gems or national treasures. Hidden gems is pretty obvious, but what is a national treasure? Stephen Fry? The Beatles? The Crown Jewels? Obviously we looked to Google to translate for us:
Chamonix is a really special place to ski – it’s located at the foot of Mont Blanc and has pretty much endless amounts of off-piste and freeride skiing. Unlike many other French resorts Chamonix is a large vibrant town which makes it great off the slopes with lots of shops selling the latest ski tech as well as a huge selection of restaurants and bars. As the host of the first ever Winter Olympics, and one of France’s oldest resorts, Chamonix is great if you’re looking for a more traditional French experience.
But why is it a national treasure? Let’s find out.
The history of Chamonix
Being nestled right underneath Mont Blanc has meant that Chamonix has been popular with explorers for centuries. The Englishmen, William Wyndham and Richard Pococke came to Chamonix in 1741. They were part of a group of toffs called “The Common Room” who pranced around Europe having a lovely time. They appear to have been the first recorded travellers for pleasure in the region, scaling Montenvers with the aid of local guides and naming the local glacier the “Mer de Glace”.
After the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, many people came from around Europe to attempt the climb. This meant that visitors were usually around in summer, when conditions up the mountain were a bit more manageable, but by the end of the 19th century, adventurers started to realise that these new-fangled things called skis could be quite fun to bomb around on. Arnold Lunn, a pioneer in popularising downhill skiing, was one of the first tourists to ski in Chamonix in 1898. As well as loving skiing, he also worked hard to get it recognised as an Olympic sport, and brought the first Winter Olympics to Chamonix in 1924 – although at the time it was known as “Winter Sports Week” and wasn’t officially known as the Winter Olympics until after the event happened, in 1925. Nothing like sorting things out before they actually happen.
Thanks to the Mont Blanc, many notable people have been to the Chamonix valley and have left their mark – great painters like Turner, writers like Byron and Goethe, and even scientists like Pasteur have enjoyed the area. Not bad for a ski resort. If you’d like to find out more about the history of mountaineering on the Mont Blanc massif, try visiting the Alpine Museum, currently showing new exhibits in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the golden age of mountaineering.
What’s Chamonix like today?
Now the town is a fascinating mix of old and new. As there’s been 4 centuries of tourism, the town includes magnificent 18th century farmhouses, 19th century hotels and private villas, and 3 superb hotel palaces dating from the early 1900’s (a consequence of the Golden Age of Tourism and “les années folles”.) Nowadays, as Chamonix feels a bit more like a luxury destination, there are loads of high-end modern hotels as well. You really are spoilt for choice.
Chamonix has a tremendous Savoyard identity, but it’s also a melting pot of many different nationalities, and it’s this diversity which gives the place such a buzz. This is perfectly reflected in the restaurant scene and there probably isn’t a better variety anywhere in the Alps – Michelin star restaurants, Savoyard, Asian fusion, Swedish, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Irish, Italian…
What are the oldest traditions?
The Mountain Guides’ Festival which takes place every year on 15th August is a good one. Founded in 1821, the Compagnie des Guides is a flagship enterprise reflecting Chamonix’s pioneering past, present and indeed future in the world of mountaineering and skiing. There are only about 250 members in the world at the moment. This festival combines tradition (a religious ceremony to bless ice-axes and ropes), and some awesome modern enhancements (sound and light festival with impressive aerial and rock face demonstrations).
Another tradition is the Arlberg Kandahar downhill race, which Chamonix first hosted in 1948. At the time, the race took place on the Glaciers ski run, beneath the north face of the Aiguille du Midi. The young Chamoniard skier, James Couttet, from the village of Les Bossons, won the downhill and the combined events that year. In 1952 the ski run, judged to be too dangerous, was abandoned and the race moved to Les Houches. Since then, the Kandahar on la Verte in Les Houches has played host to some of the greatest skiers of all time.
What would be a perfect day in Chamonix?
Start off with breakfast at Chalet 4810. A lovely wooden and rock cristal décor with superb bread and pastries and brunch options for late breakfasts.
Then head to the Grand Montets ski area – especially if there’s been a bit of powder. Great glacier skiing and amazing views.
For lunch go for the refuge de Lognan which overlooks the Argentière glacier, or the Crémerie d’Argentière, tucked away in the forest at the foot of the Pierre à Ric run.
After lunch, head to the Brevent-Flégère ski area for superb views overlooking the Mont-Blanc Massif. Sunny slopes and extensive intermediate skiing and a challenging black run from the top of the Brevent. The Floriaz is a wonderful powder bowl to the right of the Flégère with exceptional views of the Mer de Glace.
We’d then give the Boarder Coaster Luge a go. It’s awesome fun for all the family and is included in the MBU lift pass. A rollercoaster in the mountains? Yes please.
Now, choosing somewhere to eat is a bit of a challenge. We couldn’t decide, so we spoke to Claire from the Chamonix tourist board, who said:
There are over 200 restaurants in the Chamonix Valley, so this is pretty difficult. The Albert Premier is good for a gourmet meal (2 michelin stars), the new Telecabine in the centre of Chamonix is also great for a gourmet meal (no stars yet, but excellent food), numerous excellent restaurants and bars in the Rue des Moulins (Mill street) which is Chamonix’s oldest street. In Vallorcine it has to be the café Comptoir, in Argentière la Petite Verte, and in Les Houches-Servoz, the restaurant the Gorges de la Diosaz is a must.
Take your pick.
What’s the skiing like?
Amazing. As well as the Grand Monets and Brevent-Flégère areas, you’ve got Les Houches and Balme as well, which are better for families and beginner skiers.
However, the best run, although it is not a run, has to be the legendary Valley Blanche. A 22km off-piste glacier descent which you access by the famous Aiguille du Midi cable car. The 360° view from the summit is absolutely stunning and makes the journey up there worth it. Allow 4 hours for an incredible journey through ice seracs and a glacier wonderland. A mountain guide is massively recommended. It really is such an unbelievable opportunity and experience – one of our favourite places to ski in the world.
Beyond the piste
The Chamonix Unlimited Festival showcases the world’s greatest electronic music on epic stages all over the Mont-Blanc mountain range. With 4 full days of parties and events both on and off the slopes, it’s a whirlwind of music, skiing and special guests, all in one of the best spots in the Alps. With a mix of Alpine, urban and sporty vibes and the introduction of fresh and exciting artists, the festival has become one of the late season’s major events. This year the festival is running from the 7 to the 11 April 2016, so grab your goggles and head down the Chamonix Valley.
Sum up Chamonix in 2 words