Chamonix trip - March 2016
Chamonix is a beautiful village, located in a spectacular valley at the foot of Mont Blanc. There is a lot of history in the area. It was first settled almost 1,000 years ago and a Benedictine priory was established there in the early 1200’s. The mountain history and recreation in the area is what draws most visitors today. Mont Blanc was first climbed in 1786 by two local alpinists Balmat and Paccard – a feat that is still considered one of the greatest in the annals of mountaineering. You can find their statues in the pedestrian area. Balmat was a notoriously arrogant character while Paccard was much more down to earth, which probably explains why they have separate statues.
Chamonix was the site of the very first Winter Olympics in 1924 and is now the base area for several excellent ski areas that are close by: Le Brevent/Flegere, Argentiere-Les Grands Montets and Les Houches. It is also the site of the Aiguille du Midi cable car – with the longest vertical gain of any lift in the world at 9,210 feet – which takes you up to the spectacular starting point of the Vallee Blanche.
The village itself is quite compact and relatively flat, so it is easy to get around. The pedestrian area (Rue Docteur Paccard – Rue Joseph Vallot) is a very entertaining stroll full of excellent restaurants, outdoor cafes and mountain sports equipment retailers. It also contains Chamonix’s biggest grocery store and pharmacy. Most areas of the village offer excellent views of Mont Blanc.
The easiest way to get there is to fly to Geneva (GVA) and then take a private shuttle. Chamonix is 55 miles (approx. one hour travel time) from GVA. Travel by train is a little more complicated as two of the main train stations in Geneva are being completely renovated and will not reopen until 2018. Under normal circumstances, the train trip from GVA to Chamonix takes about 3 hours.
Le Brevent/Flegere: This is a large ski area on the sunny side of the valley, with exceptional views of the Mont Blanc massif. The easiest way to get there is to take the Plan Praz gondola from Chamonix. Most hotels are within a short walk of the gondola but the free shuttle bus will take you right there, if you don’t feel like walking. On a powder day, Le Brevent/Flegere doesn’t tracked out nearly as quickly as Argentiere/Les Grands Montets.
Argentiere/Les Grands Montets: The largest and most popular ski area in the Chamonix Valley, with 6,700 vertical feet of skiing. Take the free shuttle bus from Chamonix. There is not much terrain for beginners but you will find the gentlest slopes in the Marmottons area. We recommend that you hire a guide if skiing on the glaciers that are accessed from the Grands Montets cable car.
Les Houches: A smaller ski area, better suited for beginners and intermediate skiers. You can access the area via the free shuttle service. A heads-up for snowboarders - Les Houches has quite a few drag lifts.
Aiguille du Midi: The Vallee Blanche is a must-do for intermediate and advanced skiers. The run is more than 12 miles long and drops nearly 9,000 vertical feet. The main feature, however, is the incredible scenery. Only recommended with a mountain guide and on a clear day, it is an unforgettable alpine experience. The cable car leaves from Chamonix.
Hotel Mont-Blanc (5 stars): Just a block from the main pedestrian section, this hotel has undergone a full renovation within the last few years and is a really nice blend of elegance and contemporary innovation. The property has a beautiful spa, outdoor pool and private shuttle service. You won't be disappointed if you stay here. Highly recommended.
Heliopic (4 stars): Situated right next door to the Aiguille du Midi cable car station, the Heliopic is a 5 minute walk from the pedestrian area and the ski shuttle stop. Decorated in a contemporary Scandinavian style, the property was nice enough but seemed to lack warmth and atmosphere. I also found the bathrooms to be fairly small for such a new property. There are 90 rooms (34 standard, 38 superior and 18 family).
Grand Hotel des Alpes (4 stars): Located right in the center of the pedestrian area, this is a very nice 4 star property. The property backs onto the river – it might be worth requesting a room on the river side of the hotel if you are mostly there for skiing and not the nightlife. All rooms have split king beds and balconies are assigned by request. The hotel is a short walk from the shuttle bus stop. Bed and breakfast only is offered. Given that there are 50 restaurants within a 5 minute walk of the property, you won’t mind that there is no half-board option.
Morgane (4 stars): The Morgane has 56 rooms and is generally offered with bed only, or bed and breakfast (15 Euros extra per person per day). Half-board is offered during high season. One block from the pedestrian area, it is a short walk from the hotel to the ski shuttle stop. They also offer a private shuttle to Le Brevent for guests. Standard rooms have queen beds but all others have a split king. Balconies are a good size and the Junior Suites have a split king plus a queen sleeper-sofa. Like most nicer properties, it has a spa area with pool, sauna and hammam.
Hotel Les Aiglons (4 stars): This is a huge hotel with 107 rooms, probably best suited for groups. All rooms have balconies and split king beds. The superior rooms have the split king as well as a twin sleeper-sofa and views of Mont Blanc. The ski shuttle stops right outside. They have a huge restaurant that is going to be remodeled after this winter season. The hotel has a huge outdoor pool as well as steam room and sauna. I found the property to be a little dirty and somewhat overrated at 4 stars.
Les Balcons du Savoy (4 stars): Perfect for those who prefer to stay in a condo style of lodging. The property has 33 one and two bedroom apartments. Very family oriented, it has a huge game room, pool, sauna and hammam. It is located right beside the Savoy Samaran beginners area and just a short walk from the Plan Praz gondola that accesses Le Brevent. There are two buildings at the property and each has a laundry room. The apartments have kitchenettes rather than full kitchens but they are nice and traditionally decorated.
Hotel Le Prieure (3 stars): A hidden gem. This property just went through a major renovation and now features a contemporary style of décor. It is waaaaay nicer than other 3 stars and even many 4 star properties. It has a total of 97 rooms and offers bed and breakfast or half-board options. All rooms have split king beds and balconies and there are connection options throughout. One interesting possibility is connecting a family room with a standard room – this would give 2 split kings plus a queen sleeper-sofa and would include two full bathrooms. Walking distance to the ski shuttle, the property also has a ski shop, hammam, sauna and hot tub. Their half board package also includes dinner at the other local hotels within their ownership group – Mercure, Alpina and Croix Blanche.
Hotel de l’Arve (3 stars): The hotel has 37 rooms and 6 apartments. They offer bed and breakfast or half-board. Some rooms have balconies. This is an older, traditional-style property and has not been renovated in a long time, so expect small bathrooms and not much storage space in the rooms. It is only a short walk from the ski shuttle and pedestrian area and is a good option for people with a low budget and low expectations.