Chamonix is steeped in history, with mentions of the valley recorded as far back as 1091. But it wasn’t until 1741 that it was “discovered’ by the British and until 1770 when the first hotel was built, Hotel d'Angleterre. It even played host to the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924. Nevertheless it was Mont Blanc and the steep Chamonix Aiguilles (needles) that have made it the mecca for alpine adventure.
Years later, Chamonix and Mont Blanc are still two of the most emblematic names in winter sports, attracting thousands of advanced-level skiers, snowboarders and ski-mountaineers from all over the world. But you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy Chamonix. There are more conventional ski areas in the Chamonix Valley, five in total, and the resort itself offers everything you’d expect from one of Europe’s premium ski resorts. It’s vibrant and cosmopolitan, with a pedestrianised centre and, as a bonus, it’s conveniently located just a short hop away from Geneva airport.
The first thing to know is that the Chamonix area is enormous. It's not a town. It's the entire valley and it’s made up of several villages and ski areas that are all inter-connected by a public transport network of free busses and trains, all within the domain of the Mont Blanc Unlimited lift pass.
At the top of the valley are the villages of Argentière, then there is Chamonix itself and down the valley you’ll find Les Houches and the most sheltered slopes in the area. Chamonix itself could not be more different from the archetypal high-altitude, purpose-built French resorts and as such it doesn’t always deliver the smoothest possible experience. It’s a busy, all-year-round town that sits on the valley floor at an altitude of 1035m. Much of its history and charm remain, and now that the centre is traffic-free, it’s a great place to experience the cafes, bars, restaurants, shops and galleries, many of which sit along the river bank and offer stunning views of the Mont Blanc massif.
If convenience and good location matters to you, be sure to book accommodation in the main town of Chamonix. On either side of the centre of Chamonix are base stations for the Aiguille du Midi and the gondola to Le Brévent with a third high-altitude ski area, La Flégère, linked by cable car. Before you go ahead and simply tick each of them off beware, the Aiguille du Midi lift leads to only ungroomed slopes. Think sightseeing and off-piste heaven. As a result, a lot of the accommodation run their own shuttle bus services to the Brévent lift and other ski areas around the valley to complement the free ski shuttle busses and hourly valley trains.
From a snowsports perspective, Chamonix is best known for its incredible and often daunting off-piste terrain, and for being the de facto capital of European big-mountain freeriding. The area is huge though, and there is actually something for everyone. Covered by glaciers on the higher slopes, the resort therefore enjoys year round snow cover, and 90% of the Valley’s skiing is located above 2000m, making it perfect for early and late season skiing, as well as everything in between.
So how to approach the mountain...The Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass is one of the world’s greatest lift tickets. It gives you access to one of the largest ski areas on the planet with a massive 900km of groomed piste, including not only half a dozen ski areas in the Chamonix Valley but also Courmayeur in Italy on the other side of Mont Blanc and Verbier in Switzerland. You can even use it to get in to public swimming pools and ice rinks in the Valley, or to ride the downhill mountain roller coaster ride.
Although it can be a major expedition to get to Verbier without a car, Courmayeur is more practical with buses heading there through the Mont Blanc tunnel several times a day. The weather can also be quite pleasant in Italy when it’s not so pleasant in Chamonix.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to ski locally, or you’re only there for a few days, a Chamonix Le Pass provides ample skiing in Brévent-Flegère-Balme and Grands Montets. As a beginner, you may be better off staying in the often overlooked Les Houches village just down the valley though and buying a Les Houches only pass. Both Balme and Les Houches offer wonderful family skiing and fun terrain parks, whilst Brevent -Flegere have a variety of south-facing intermediate slopes with breathtaking panoramas.
For the seasoned skier, nothing compares to the famous Vallée Blanche off-piste route, which is 20km long with a vertical descent of 2700m! It’s accessible via the Aiguille du Midi cable car but be sure to get a guide as it is not for the faint hearted. A less skied route from the Aiguille du Midi is on your left from the mid station down to town – it offers a stunning ski through the trees and ends near the bottom lift station.
The size and cosmopolitan mix of skiers and boarders from all over the world means that Chamonix has long held the reputation as one of the top party resorts in the French Alps. Check out the lively Rue des Moulins, which is home to a lot of the resort’s best bars. Popular choices for the Brits include the Monkey Bar, with live music and a long happy hour, and South Bar in Chamonix Sud, or the Elevation and Moo Bar on avenue Michel Croz, which are more popular with locals and the climbing fraternity.
The best news is, given Chamonix is much larger than most French resorts, there really is something for everyone. Check out MBC (Micro Brasserie Chamonix) if you’re looking for home brewed beers. They offer live music and do a decent burger too. For pool tables and live sport on big screen TVs, there is the Australian run Bard’UP on Rue des Moulins, Chamonix’s oldest street. Les Caves, Bar des Moulins and The Cabanon are slightly smarter options or The Bunker, Amnesia or the mainly French Cantina Club are there if you’re looking to dance the night away.
For a low-cost evening meal, check out Le Caveau in an ancient cattle cellar on Rue Dr Paccard, it’s great value. If you want something high-end, then the locals will likely be at the unremarkable looking Le Panier des Quatre Saisons, but don’t be fooled by its looks, the food is amazing. And if you really want to splash out, there’s the two Michelin starred Albert 1er.
Unfortunately most of the restaurants on the mountain in Chamonix are owned by the lift company, who aren’t hugely incentivised by competition to do anything spectacular. If you are skiing in Les Houches, though, there are some great spots for a mountain meal. La Tanière, on the side of the Plan du Croz piste, is run by Argentinians offering South American wine and huge steaks - it’s small, so booking is advisable. If they’re full then La Cha and La Vieille Luge are definitely worth a visit.
The resort opens for 2018 at the end of November (Grand Montets) with the full opening of the four major ski areas coming in the middle of December. Full information of the Chamonix area as provided by the tourist board can be found here.
Resort altitude: 1,035m
Highest point: 3,842m
Areas: Chamonix, Les Houches and Mont Blanc Unlimited
Skiing: 110km with a Chamonix pass (900km with a Mont Blanc Unlimited pass!)
Best spot for…
Après: Monkey Bar
A lavish meal: Le Panier des 4 Saisons
Casual meal: Le Caveau
Posh coffee: La Jonction Coffee
Airport transfers: Geneva - 1 hour
Nearest station: Chamonix