Chloe Govan challenges the misconception that this stunning stretch of alpine valley is only for winter sports
Known as “the birthplace of extreme skiing”, with many seasoned professionals calling the steeper than average slopes here home, it’s little surprise that non-skiiers or novices might find Chamonix slightly intimidating. Yet there’s enough here to keep even non-skiiers thoroughly entertained for days, proving that there’s no need to indulge in the sport for this alpine idyll to be worthy of your time. Contrary to the popular stereotypes, anyone can easily enjoy a long weekend of entertainment here, without so much as setting foot on the slopes once. One of Europe’s most beautiful mountain locations, here are just a few reasons why Chamonix could be the best location in the Alps even for those who are sans skis.
1) Stay in a high altitude mountain paradise and enjoy alpine panoramas
Once a simple mountain refuge to shelter exhausted climbers from bitterly cold winds, Grand Hotel Du Montenvers has since been transformed into an ultra-comfortable hotel with one of the most thrilling and luxurious views in all of France. Unlike its beginnings in the 1700s, when mules were the most luxurious form of transport available, now it’s a mountain train that whisks travellers effortlessly up to the refuge – the first in the country of its kind.
The biggest draw is the chance to perch on this high altitude paradise and enjoy the panoramic mountain views all to yourself once the last visitor train has gone home. No cars, shops or houses – just pure, invigorating, alpine air.
By day, trains transport visitors up the mountain to take in the views and visit the famous Mer de Glace. However after 4.30pm, anyone not staying at the location’s single hotel has retreated back to the valley below, leaving the fortunate few with the ultimate luxury – an interrupted view. Without doubt, this has to be the best hotel experience it’s possible to have in the Chamonix valley. Finding yourself one of the sole inhabitants on the mountain, walking in the snow without a single passer-by, is exhilarating. Later, after dusk falls, it’s all about feasting on fondue in the wood-panelled dining room while the owners’ amiable husky occasionally trots over with a hopeful gaze in his eyes to inspect your choice of cuisine. Hearty mountain fare in front of a roaring log fire, a selection of board games and then slumbering in one of the toasty traditional rooms completes the experience. A two night stay is recommended to soak up the scenery at leisure. Plus, of course, no visitor should leave without filming video footage of the little train chugging past outside your bedroom window. It’s not just a hotel, but a tourist attraction in its own right. A mountain refuge with the bonus of comfort and luxury – and without the need to climb!
2) Visit the largest glacier in France
Ever heard of an indestructible animal that can survive underwater without the need to breathe? If not, perhaps you should satiate your curiosity at the Mer de Glace. The miniscule tardigrade – also nicknamed the “water bear” – is hiding in pockets of ice all over the French Alps. No matter whether it’s blasted with UV radiation, suffocated underwater or even sent into space, this miracle creature consistently defies death.
Facts about it comprise just one of the exhibits that can be seen once the Montenvers mountain train reaches its summit.
A perfect activity in combination with a stay at Grand Hotel Montenvers– but equally worth a visit for day-trippers too– every visitor taking the train will be headed straight for the Mer de Glace. This is a location originally discovered by two British men, who made it fashionable to take trips there; prior to that, it had played host only to farmers and their cattle.
On arrival, a short glide in a gondola leads visitors to one of the most breathtaking panoramas in the country. Then, after taking in the views at an altitude of almost 2000m, visitors can descend the 550 steps to reach the ice caves below. This amount of stairs might seem extreme, but it’s a number that is constantly increasing as global warming accelerates and threatens to decimate the glacier altogether. Over the past three decades, it is said to have lost more than 100m in depth. With new steps added annually, it could one day become impractical to make the trip at all, so perhaps the time to take this high altitude hike is now.
On the way back up, it will quickly become obvious why signs recommend to take your time and admire the views. Meanwhile any regrets that non-skiers might be having about not venturing onto the slopes may evaporate as quickly as the ice on their snow boots when they catch sight of the droves around them struggling breathlessly up the steps with their heavy skis and snowboards strapped to their backs. With zero luggage, it’s easy to enjoy the glowing blue ice grotto, which plays host to ice sculptures and exhibits, while the Glaciorium at the summit above plays videos demonstrating dramatic mountain rescues and movie scenes. Particularly memorable is a scene from the film Malabar Princess, depicting bellydancing in the very ice cave you have just seen. The plot incorporates a real life plane crash that occurred in the region in the 1950s. Besides the movie trivia, there is also a small crystal gallery. A great place to spend most of the day.
3) Go dog-sledding in the snow-sprinkled valley
“GOOGLE!” the musher hollers at one of his boisterous sled dogs, who clearly doesn’t always live up to his name. While Google — along with canine friends including iPhone and iPad — have navigational skills that sometimes leave a little to be desired, a husky sledding ride in the heart of this alpine valley is nonetheless one of the most fun sensory experiences around. Even if calls of “à droite” are occasionally ignored and the huskies might make an impromptu stop for a moment for no other reason than to roll around delightedly in the snow, ice crystals sparkling brightly on their bellies, few could begrudge them their fun. In fact, even the hardest of hearts could not fail to be melted by these adorable creatures’ charm.
Those booking with the company Evolution 2 can choose between being a passenger in the sledge, or a musher commanding the dogs. This powerful breed loves running, typically burning and consuming up to 15,000 calories per day to maintain their activity level, so passengers will witness an impressive display of their strength. One signal from the head musher at the front of the line sends his pack of dogs rushing off at breakneck speed, tugging the sledge behind them, while the guest mushers and their dogs follow in hot pursuit. It’s a team effort demonstrating how well man and his best friend can work together to succeed in alpine surroundings. Not a dog person? You will be by the end of your ride.
Meanwhile for more dog-related activities, it’s also possible to visit the Saint Bernard kennels in the village of Servoz and hear the story of this breed’s commendable role in rescuing climbers and protecting them from the perils of the mountain. Plus, if your visit coincides with the annual La Grande Odyssée sled dog tournament each January — a competitive race across the Alps covering more than 1,000km over 11 days — then it could be well worth slotting part of it into your itinerary to see the top professionals in action.
4) Take a ride on the highest cable car in Europe
The Aiguille du Midi cable car takes passengers the closest it’s possible to get to the summit of the majestic Mont Blanc without being mountain climbers. At a gulp-worthy altitude of 3842m, the views at the top station present the French, Swiss and Italian Alps all at once. On a clear and sunny day, it’s a sight to behold. Don’t be deterred by signs announcing that the temperature at the top is, for example, -13C – this close to the sun, the wind chill is far less intimidating than it sounds. Plus as the old adage goes, there is no such thing as poor weather, only inadequate clothing.
This journey breaks global records, boasting the highest vertical ascent in the world. Plus the summit is also a stepping stone for cable car trips across the border into Italy, in case you crave a view of the French Alps from a different angle. However many travellers will be content to admire the equally excellent views on French territory, satiate their hunger at the 3842 restaurant — one of the highest dining spots in the world — and then embark on the biggest highlight of all, billed as a trip “into the void”. A transparent glass box, see-through on all four sides, it offers the ultimate view, plus a heart-racing reminder below your feet of how far you are from the ground. Dare to do as others have done before you and film yourself making a cartwheel entrance into the legendary void, or simply stand still and peer in awe at the sheer drop below you. Early morning arrivals are recommended to avoid the crowds, as nothing is more of an anti-climax than a speedy interruption by all the (understandably impatient) photo-seekers in the queue. Finally, while tales of altitude sickness might seem concerning, only those with heart or lung conditions — plus the very elderly or very young — are asked to venture no further than the mid-station. The majority will feel no ill effects even at the top. Enjoy!
5) Learn about alpine history in one of the city’s museums
To pleasure-seeking travellers, the glaciers and peaks of the Alps are simply a visually exciting novelty, but for the mountaineers of the past who called Chamonix home, the gruelling challenges of an alpine environment were everyday life. It can be easy for the average thrill-seeker to forget the struggles of days gone by as they whizz around the mountain on a succession of motorised cable cars, trains and trams, but the Musée Alpin reminds us of the days when the most sophisticated method of transport was a mule. The museum displays the first ever poster produced to advertise train travel at Montenvers, a service which began barely more than a century ago. Also on display is the battered satchel belonging to the first ever climber to successfully ascend Mont Blanc, and a tribute to the woman who first invented skiing. You’ll also find telescopes, primitive early versions of snowshoes and skis, and testimonies of local heroes so legendary for their climbing that some of the surrounding streets are named after them. There is even a shockingly indecipherable copy of the first ever land registry which will make you thankful for today’s maps and computerised records! Plus the roll-the-dice board game is a fun way to virtually climb Mont Blanc without the frostbite or altitude sickness risk; just watch out for the multiple squares that resign you to slipping in the snow!
Finally those who find that the crystal hammer display catches their eye may also be interested to check out the town’s dedicated crystal museum (renovation schedules are planned in 2020, so it’s best to confirm exact opening hours before arriving). Here it’s possible to find out more about the fruits of the mountain, their sparkles so tantalising to mineralogists that they repeatedly climbed Mont Blanc in search of them. Renowned for its quartz, the region saw many crystal harvests in its past, while some argue that “without the crystal hunters, mountaineering would never have got off the ground.”
6) Travel on the highest railway in France… plus the best of the rest
Besides the above, no visit to Chamonix would be complete without a ride on the Mont Blanc tramway, the highest railway in France. The romance of the rickety tram climbing up the snow-covered rails is indescribable. Plus as the tram rapidly gathers altitude on its climactic journey, travellers can find themselves transported from green grass to thick snow within minutes. At winter time, the final stop is the accurately named ‘Bellevue’, a snow white wonderland which you can share with skiers and non-skiers alike. A perfectly perched alpine snack bar completes the picture. Be sure to grab a video of the tram departing back down the hillside, and then for an alternative route down — especially if running short on time at the end of the day — consider taking the cable car for a descent at Les Houches.
Then, for relaxation and health, consider choosing the Italian spa brand QC Terme, which has recently made its debut in central Chamonix, and perhaps enjoy the bracing combination of cold and warm with a dip in the heated outdoor waters. On the other hand, if you seek more lively ways to unwind, the Folie Douce cabaret offers a brand of ‘après‘ which is unlikely to disappoint.
7) Hotels With Attitude
While not all hotels can match the altitude of the Grand at Montenvers, some can certainly provide the attitude. A great example is the four star Les Grand Montets hotel in the Argentière area. Locally known as the James Bond village, where scenes from The World Is Not Enough were filmed, it is both scenic and perfectly placed – and the hotel is within a two minute walk of the bus stop. Some rooms boast spacious balconies, while anyone travelling with a ski bunny can benefit from the proximity to the cable car up to the slopes.
If you prefer a more intimate feel, the family-run Aiguille du Midi hotel in Les Bossons is a cosy residence with wood-clad rooms and the vibe of a comfortable chalet. Its location is excellent, too, in proximity to all the main sights. It is especially close to the Glacier des Bossons, where the plane crash referenced in Malabar Princess took place.
Finally, the Rockypop hotel – similar in style to the Citizen M brand – is crammed with quirky ornaments and unique style, from the characterful rotary dial telephones in the rooms to the emojis on the furnishings.
Completely unpretentious, it is sociable, family friendly and has all the après vibe anyone could need after darkness falls in the valley. The reception desk is a matter of a few footsteps from the restaurant and bar areas, which provide delightfully stodgy burgers and pizzas throughout the evening. There are also arcade machines loaded with hundreds of games, and carpets and ceilings decorated with their characters. According to a tweet emblazoned on the wall of the lift, Kim Kardashian had wanted to stay at this hotel with husband Kanye West “forever”, while there are also shout-outs from Beyoncé and Justin Bieber. Although it’s not centrally located, there’s a bus stop right outside the front door – and enough entertainment indoors to keep you occupied all evening.
Depending on your needs – James Bond adventure spot, romantic chalet-style bolthole, or a young at heart party spot for all ages, there’s a hotel option to suit most appetites.
In conclusion, the world’s highest museum, Europe’s highest cable car and railway, France’s largest glacier and snow scenes spectacular enough to have featured in a Bond movie are just a few of the many reasons to choose Chamonix for your next winter holiday, regardless of whether or not you set foot on the slopes. Don’t dismiss it as just another sports town, as it also guarantees some of the best sensory delights in Europe – and it will demonstrate that sometimes the best luxury of all is simply experiencing nature in the raw.