Skiing in the French Alps at Chamonix
While France might be our closest European neighbour, it is worth remembering that its Alpine ski slopes and resorts are in the far south and east of the country. To be frank, I usually follow the temptation to drive out, as it is possible, with some effort, to reach the resorts in around a day’s travel time. Mind you, I have been pretty knackered doing that and, despite the snow-enthusiasm, which starts from the instant you view the white-capped mountains through the windscreen, it can take a day to recover from the road trip! Perhaps it is because I am just getting older.
Naturally, the choice of transportation is entirely yours and there can be a number of advantages to selfdriving to Chamonix, which is still, by far and away, my favourite French ski resort. Personally, I love the drive across France, heading to Reims from Calais, cruising south from there on the Autoroute de Soleil (A8), before tackling the Autoroute Blanche, with its truly breathtaking vistas, then bypassing Geneva and arriving at the hotel. I have broken up the journey on occasions, by staying overnight at Troyes (pro: ‘Trr-wah’), which is a gorgeous medieval town en-route.
While I could have found a delightful place in the centre of the picturesque town, I have usually taken the hassle-free option of either of the pair of Hotel Ibis that exists on the outskirts…comfortable rooms, good beds, pleasant restaurant and a Euros58 bill to settle. Of course, the road tolls do add up (around £55, payable by card, or cash) and, these days, there are fewer opportunities to exceed the speed limits (130kph/80mph) and insta-fines, issued by unforgiving Gallic gendarmerie, whose command of the English language now supersedes any typical British excuses, are very much the order of the day, if you are snapped at the roadside.
When you finally reach Chamonix (do not forget to pronounce the ‘ix’, which is how the locals say it), you will have to locate your accommodation. The town is much larger than you might expect it to be, although its purpose, in a valley that runs from Servoz at its southwest end to the Col Du Balme above the village of Le Tour in the north, is abundantly clear. All the while, Mont Blanc casts its awe-inspiring shadow over the Haute Savoie region from the south-east. While this is not an inexpensive part of the world, it is possible to enjoy a cost-effective winter sports holiday here, as long as you are prepared to reside in shared accommodation.
The sense of excitement and anticipation in the air is all-consuming. The pubs and clubs really rock and, judging by the amount of bleached-blonde dreadlocks and vibrantly multi-coloured clothing, happy people having a good time is very much on the cards. Of course, carousing is not the only pastime in Chamonix, even though, as a centre, it has become renowned for providing extreme thrills on the hills, which is what attracts largely the same crowd as populate surfing beaches for the other half of the year. The fact is, some of the most delightful hotels and boutique residences are also part of the accommodation make-up and, within their portals, measured calm, classical elegance and serene comfort provide an antidote to mountainous derring-do.
Yet, it is the winter sports scene that we are contemplating and, although local experts tell us that an average summer day is now busier in the resort than during winter, the choice of activities, at whichever extreme you might wish to enjoy them, is extensive. Of course, skiing at any of the five main areas is at the head of the list followed very closely by snowboarding, although I cannot say, personally, that it is my favourite method of descending a mountain run. Les Houches and Le Tour are brilliant for families, as they have beginners’ and skilled areas. Although the red and black runs at Grands Montet and the Brevent are more to the tastes of skilled exponents. Naturally, telemarking and crosscountry skiing, which is more my style, are exceptionally mature sports in Chamonix and the variety of tracks and courses available will mean that you need never traverse the same ground again during a typical fortnight’s vacation.
On the other hand, mountaineering, with the added seasonal weather challenges, has grown in relevance and there are several climbing zones that will suit all talent levels from novice to professional, including iceclimbing. Ski tours are a fascinating diversion that will allow groups to experience the culture and history of the area, under the watchful eyes of a couple of guides. However, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, paragliding, dogsledding and ice-skating are all possible pursuits in this ‘Capital of Extreme’. High mountain guides are available for any of the edgier pursuits, especially for any potential off-piste excursions.
As stated earlier, it is possible to make a few cost savings but an adult season ticket does cost just over £422 (Euros499) for 13 consecutive days. Of course, it does include drop-in access to Verbier, free, unbridled access to the Courmayeur ski area, free use of the Chamonix bus service and discounted access to several other areas and even the Mont Blanc Tunnel. All you need to remember is that Chamonix is not a ski-in, skiout purpose-built resort. It is an alpine town that grew to accommodate what became the European centre of the skiing scene and the world capital of mountaineering.
Chamonix ski facts:
Getting there: flying from any of London’s airports is possible. A typical Heathrow to Geneva flight (with BA, or SkyJet) will cost around £140pp return, although deals are possible from as little as £63 return, in mid to late- January. If you do not wish to fly, you can also catch the Eurostar Ski Train from London St Pancras every Saturday in-season. Of course, driving is my
preferred mode but fly-drive might be useful too.
Staying there: It is always going to be beneficial to book flights and accommodation together, as savings can be made. Fourteen nights for two in a one bed Chamonix centre apartment will cost around £1,400 but that does not include transport or passes. Meanwhile, selecting from the 3-Star hotels in town, a fortnight can cost from £708 per room at the Maeva Residence La Riviere. Yet, through Iglu Ski, it is possible to obtain a seven nights holiday, in late-December from just £420pp inc. flights.
Getting about: You can rely on excellent public transport services, which are often included with the resort ‘passports’.