Chamonix: the French ski resort for those in the know
With its seracs, spas and Michelin stars, can Chamonix give Courcheval a run for its money?
Which is your favourite ski resort? For those who like to get up close and personal with seracs and crevasses, the answer is often Chamonix. The town on Mont Blanc’s north face has revelled in its proximity to danger since Western Europe’s highest mountain was conquered by a crystal hunter and a local doctor in 1786. Their expedition is immortalised in a bronze tableau located on the banks of the Arve in Chamonix, where a muscular Jacques Balmet points out their domed summit to portly Dr Michel-Gabriel Pacccard in perpetuity.
In 1924, Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics and the world’s most famous climbers’ town claimed its place in the growing ski market. Almost a century later, 13,000 permanent residents welcome 60,000 summer visitors to the town and 30,000 during the winter, an imbalance that puts skiers and snowboarders in a buyer’s market for accommodation and restaurant reservations.
The traditional tone has been hardcore, the subtext crampons and carabiners clattering to the floor in eateries specialising in affordable refuelling. More recently, however, changing lifestyle expectations have persuaded Chamonix to look to the Alpine ski resort of Courchevel and do the maths. So many oligarchs, so many super deluxe hotels, so many uber chalets; no Mont Blanc, not much history, no crevasses.
It is logical that Chamonix’s leap into the future is founded on a past that Courchevel can never rival. In 1903, Joseph Carrier opened a simple railway hotel in the town and today Le Hameau Albert 1er is in its fifth generation – the domain of Perrine, Carrier’s great-granddaughter, and her husband, Pierre Maillet. Perrine’s father, Robert Carrier, was a renowned chef who earned two Michelin stars, which are now in the gifted hands of Monsieur Maillet. The welcome is generously old style, but the concept is contemporary. The handsome chalet-style annex houses La Maison Carrier, which specialises in Savoyard dishes, while the sumptuous indoor/outdoor swimming pool offers expansive mountain views.
Hotel Mont Blanc was the second of Chamonix’s original grand hotels when it opened in 1849. Last year, it emerged from a three-year shutdown and after a total renovation boasts a splendidly ornate period style. The hotel’s Le Matefan is a showcase for Mickey Bourdillat, formerly Michelin starred at the Bistrot de Chamonix and now hoping for further recognition in his sparkling new kitchens. Judging by my dinner, he won’t be waiting long.
The Grand Palace of Savoy, another venerable building, is now in its third coming. It opened in 1912, with the keys later handed to Club Med, and made a dramatic return for the 2019 season as La Folie Douce Hotel. This is a toe in new waters for the brand that invented lunchtime apres, blasting the Tarentaise valley with live band action through long slopeside afternoons. In the hotel, 248 bedrooms provide dance-until-you-drop patrons with an easier exit line than skiing back to base, provided they can handle the striped decor.
For a more traditional feel, the Hotel Gustavia, conveniently located opposite the railway station, offers a less frenetic nightlife/overnight combination. At street level, Chambre Neuf is lively when the lifts shut and becomes livelier still as the Cinderella hour comes and goes, but patrons need only clang the iron gates shut and ride the museum lift to the fourth floor to find the warmest of welcomes. A total of 24 rooms have been refurbished for 2019.
The Savoy nursery lift to the Plan Praz cable car up to Brevent-La Flegere, Chamonix’s main town slopes, allows La Folie Douce to promote itself as the only ski-in, ski-out hotel in town. But skiers roam further afield in a long valley that has spawned lift stations since winter sports arrived. Beginners and early intermediates do best in the bookend outposts, La Tour, at the top of the valley near the Swiss border, and forested Les Houches, popular for glade runs with the best white-out visibility, at the bottom.
There is also the option of a visit to Les Grands Montets at Argentiere. The village bars pull in mountaineering wannabes, but the closure of the two-stage Grands Montets cable car due to a fire last September will keep most visitors off the heights this season. The new gondola up to Plan Joran and the Bochard gondola offer limited access to vintage challenges, including the North Face descent, but those looking to weave among turquoise glacier caves and ice pinnacles will have to walk. Given the length and pitch of the ascent, most will find the “haute montagne” deserted.
For less experienced adventurers, the trophy trip is the Vallee Blanche, accessed from downtown Chamonix on the Aiguille du Midi cable car. Rise to the 3,842-metre Summit Terrace to look Mont Blanc in the eye before roping up to follow the precipitous ridge down to where you started. The 20-kilometre off-piste run, a prized adrenalin classic, eases gently into a crevasse field near the bottom. There is no need to worry – if you can stop on your guide’s command, you will negotiate it with confidence.
After that, enjoy the glow that comes on a 430-step ascent to Montenvers, the departure point for the cog railway back to Chamonix. In the mid-18th century, English aristocrats walked through these pastures and stared at unruly ice fields bursting out from their true course – the first foreign sightings of the magnificent Mer de Glace. The glacier has retreated back up the mountain as a result of global warming, but even in this diminished form, it is spectacular.
To enjoy it to the max, stay overnight in the Terminal Neige Refuge du Montenvers, near the station. This is a re-invention of the 1880 Grand Hotel du Montenvers, a fitting replacement in every 21st-century sense. The formidable granite cube was built to last, but inside is a cosy escape from the elements. Seventeen rooms and suites, named after literary giants, such as Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, have wooden walls and ceilings with red trim fittings; for groups, there is a dormitory that sleeps 10.
Once the last train leaves at 4pm, sofas in the bar and large tables in the restaurant encourage conviviality as the full moon rises over Mont Blanc. In the morning, dogs play in the forests while guests have breakfast in the conservatory – the Mer de Glace is theirs alone until the first train at 10am.
Saunas became a must for every three-star hotel around 20 years ago, with complexes featuring hot, temperate and cool rooms, hot and cold baths, treatment rooms and relaxation chambers to recover physically and mentally. Construct all of that with contemporary materials and you have a wellness centre to wow the crowds.
QC Terme, which opened in August last year, is Chamonix’s contribution. Accessed by a woodland stroll along the Arve, it has outdoor swimming pools of varying temperatures, all with jets and water massages, set in snowfields with views of Mont Blanc. Indoors, pick from 10 experiences, including a rain forest and variegated scented steam rooms. Or relax on a water bed with scenes projected on the ceiling.
Eat your heart out, Courchevel. Chamonix is snapping at your heels.
Updated: January 31, 2019 06:31 PM