Photo Courtesy of Erik Harström
It's not hard to validate the popular opinion that Chamonix – in southeastern France, just a short hop to Switzerland and Italy – is one of the world's finest ski resorts, thanks to its vast array of lift-accessible off-piste terrain, four diverse ski areas, and Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc. Gr…ands Montets, Brévent-Flégere, Domaine de Balme, and Les Houches all offer freestyle, free-ride, and tracked terrain. When the sun dips behind the ragged peaks, bars and clubs pulse to live music and talk of mountainous adventures. When summer comes around, the resort is popular with climbers, bikers, and hikers keen to take advantage of the stunning natural scenery.
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Aside from the world-class extreme sports scene, which is the main draw for most visitors, Chamonix has some subtler attractions worth getting off-slope to see. The town itself invites aimless wandering. In the summer, small cafes and tea shops set up sidewalk tables, while in winter the glow from the glistening shop windows and overhanging street lights illuminate the snow. Diverse live music and late-night clubs ensure that the party-loving set stay satisfied, while events such as the free CosmoJazz Festival in July and various evening ski competitions make for a great atmosphere. The fine selection of luxury spas may not be the main draw for the town, but you'll welcome them when your muscles and aching limbs beg for intervention.
Chamonix does nothing to harm the French reputation for producing some of the finest cuisine in the world. Alongside the fabulous traditional fondue is a selection of the most delicate, delicious desserts you can imagine. These are best enjoyed in one of the many restaurants in the town or in the wooden chalets hidden away on the mountainsides. Look for several that hold Michelin stars, including Albert 1er (two stars) and Le Serac. Cuisine from bordering Switzerland and Italy can be found everywhere, and there are plenty of opportunities to drink good wine. The popular MBC bar brews its own beer, while late-night clubs serve some extraordinary cocktails.
The charm of Chamonix is in its picture-perfect Alpine cabins, the European après-ski culture, and the area's elegant cuisine. But this relaxing image of the good life is coupled with the equally strong extreme sports culture. In winter, the hunt is on for the highest drops, most daring powder lines, and longest routes possible. Friends spend the evenings licking their wounds and discussing the following day's forecast over a beer. In summer, the atmosphere is less frantic, and long, traditional French lunches are taken with glass after glass of wine. Every day, though, groups of lean, Lycra-clad climbers arrive with only one thing in mind—tackling the extreme mountain challenges.
French is the offical language in Chamonix; the currency is the euro. Tipping is recommended, unless the service charge is included on the bill. No visa is required for stays up to three months. You may have to show your passport when crossing the border into Italy or Switzerland. Electricity is 220–240 volts. so you may need an adapter (France uses C and E type plugs), and an adapter if the voltage in your home country (including the U.S.) uses 110-volt currents.
Chamonix's winter season can last from the end of December to the beginning of May, but once the snow melts there's still plenty of outdoor pursuits to choose from, from hiking and mountain biking to whitewater rafting and horseback riding.
The town is easily accessible from Geneva International Airport, in Switzerland, which is about a one-hour drive, or via high-speed trains from various destinations in Europe. Once in Chamonix, trains and buses are free within the valley if you hold a ski pass. Buses to the Italian resort Courmayeur are also free with the unlimited ski pass.
Simon is a travel writer and freelance journalist flirting with both South America and Europe. He has contributed to the Washington Post, Independent, Yorkshire Post, Colombia Reports and Argentina Independent, among other publications. Simon is a sports nut, and when he is not adventure-seeking he is following his beloved Barnsley Football Club.