x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Magic in the snow at Chamonix, Europe's winter wonderland

My kind of Place The scenic French valley is one of the continent's top winter playgrounds.

Why Chamonix?

When you step outside your wood-clad, shuttered chalet near the historic heart of Chamonix and hear the crackling noise of fresh snow under your boots, feel the warm caress of sun on your skin, breathe in the clean mountain air and look up at the snow-capped peaks leading up to the summit of Mont Blanc, the question "Why?" needs no answer.

The Chamonix valley is busy all year but winter is one of the best times to visit, because when the snow covers everything, the entire area becomes a playground. It doesn't matter that the 49 lifts and 152km of groomed piste are split between three ski areas because they are connected by free buses and a lift pass that is valid for all of them and costs €42 (Dh215) per day or €237.50 (Dh1,213) for a week.

There are slopes for all abilities at each ski area but Le Tour is best for beginners and families. Brévent-Flégère is the place for intermediates and also for sun lovers because of the south-facing slopes, while Argentière/Grands-Montets is the place for advanced and off-piste skiers. My secret spot: the off-piste next to Retour Pendant at Grands-Montets.

If you're skiing well towards the end of your holiday, book a guide (www.guides-du-montblanc.com; 00 33 450 532 705) for €75 (Dh384) to tackle the Vallee Blanche, one of the world's most famous ski tours. Take the cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m (return ticket €42.50 [Dh215] but free with an unlimited valley ski pass), then set off down the Mer de Glace. This 24km route is not especially steep but it's an ungroomed and unpatrolled run on a glacier with the risk of crevasses, so the guide is necessary.

If downhill skiing is not your thing, Chamonix also sports other winter activities - snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice climbing (www.chamonixguiding.com) and dog sledding (www.huskydalen.com; 00 33 450 477 724). There's also a big swimming pool (entrance €5 [Dh25] for adults) with a water slide for children and an ice skating rink at the Chamonix Centre Sportif at the entrance to town.

A comfortable bed

Hotel Le Morgane (www.bestwestern-morgane.com; 00 33 450 535 715) is a modern four-star hotel centrally located between Chamonix's main shopping street and the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi. It has an in-house spa (perfect after skiing), a chic bar and a one Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Bistrot, run by chef Michael Bourdillat. Double rooms cost from €130 (Dh660) per night - ask for one with a view of Mont Blanc.

For a chalet, the three-star Hotel Les Grands Montets (www.hotel-grands-montets.com; 00 33 450 540 666) lies just a few hundred metres from Argentière ski area. A double room costs from €130 (Dh660) per night. For Flégère, Hotel Le Labrador (www.hotel-labrador.com; 0033 450 559 009) is located on the Chamonix golf course and has a grandstand view of Mont Blanc. Double rooms cost from €107 (Dh540) per night.

Find your feet

Coming from Geneva on the Autoroute Blanche highway, you'll enter the Chamonix valley by passing Les Houches (another lovely ski village). From here, the road follows a series of villages, including Les Praz de Chamonix (from which Flégère is reached) and Argentière, before finishing in Le Tour at the far side of the valley. At the epicentre sits the town of Chamonix itself, the heart of which is easily explored by foot.

Meet the locals

Beside the slopes or apres-ski places such as Chambre Nine (www.hotelgustavia.eu; 00 33 450 530 031) or MBC (www.mbchx.com; 00 33 450 536 159), the best place to meet some real Chamoniards is at one of the matches of the locally revered Chamonix ice hockey club (www.chamonixhockey.com). Entrance is €11 (Dh55) per person.

Book a table

With all that activity, a good meal is warranted and, like all of France, the Savoyards are passionate about food. Head to La Calèche (www.restaurant-caleche.com) for local specialities served in the alpine atmosphere of this museum-like restaurant. Mains cost from €20 (Dh102).

For something more modern, try the Asian fusion food prepared by a Swedish chef at Munchies (www.munchie.eu: 0033 450 534 541). The duck (€21; Dh107) is recommended, although the 14-piece sushi (same price) or the chicken in cashew sauce (€19; Dh97) are also delicious. You'll need to reserve a table.

For a romantic dinner, L'Atmosphère (www.restaurant-atmosphere.com; 00 33 450 559 797) with its covered veranda over the river Arve, is the perfect choice. The duck foie gras with caramelised apples (€21.50; Dh109), followed by roasted lamb (€27; Dh137) and baked figs (€7.50; Dh38) make an excellent, albeit quite heavy, dinner. A budget-conscious option is the three-course menu for €30 (Dh152).

Shoppers' paradise

Rue Paccard, running through the centre of Chamonix town, is the main shopping street. Stock up on some fine regional food at Le Refuge Payot (No 255), try a delicious French pastry at Patisserie Richard (No 10) and equip yourself for skiing or climbing at Patagonia (No 249), Peak Performance (No 231), Snell (No 104) or Quicksilver (No 61). You can also try on some of the fashionably funky clothes at Bo-Aime (No 184) or buy that tiny bag from Chanel (No 101). This street has it all, mixed with restaurants, cafes and some sandwich shops (try the one with fries inside the sandwich, a must).

Another shopping zone is down towards the river on Avenue Michel Croz. Check out the North Face store (No 31), continue past McDonald's and a small mini-market (perfect for last-minute needs) and finish at Pro Ski Montagne (No 220).

What to avoid

The school holidays from February 11 to March 10, when Chamonix fills up with French, Swiss and Swedish families and teenagers.

Don't miss

If the weather permits, take the cable car up 3,300 metres to the Aiguille des Grands-Montets. The ride is definitely worth the long queues and additional €10 (Dh51) per head.