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I am not a great skier, having begun too late in life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love ski resorts, and I am sure most of you non-skiers feel the same way. Who doesn’t want to be surrounded by massifs, breathing fresh air, eating melted cheese in all forms, while drinking local white wines? Needless to say, I quickly fell in love with Chamonix.
Chamonix? One of the technically hardest places to ski in the world? Well, that was the whole point. My M.O. was to discover other ways a non-skier could experience the snow while the bombers* were cutting up the slopes.
Even if you aren’t a skier, you have to try it at least once during every trip. Of course, it’s always much nicer to be accompanied by a handsome French ski instructor pushing you to your limits. Fred from the Ecole du Ski Francais was mine, at least for a few hours. He picked us up from the hotel and took us straight up to the Brévent ski station. A few minutes later, we were half-way up the side of a mountain and I was skiing down. (He did say that he was glad it was cloudy, so I wouldn’t see how far the drop in front of us was, if I went out of control and over the side. Merci Fred.)
The clouds parted and the sky cleared after a night of heavy snowfall, making it perfect conditions for climbing up a mountain and back down again – in snowshoes! The skiers have it easy – let me tell you. I thought Fred was tough, but our mountain guide, Francoise, was relentless in a good way.
Up we went into the fresh snow, alone and in the quiet, seeing no one and hearing only our heavy breathing. As we descended through the fresh snow, Francoise was hoping we would be gazelle-like, jumping up and down through the snow with grace. More like elephants we were, but just as much fun was had.
Halfway up, she took us to a small pool and we sampled “pure mountain water.” Sad Easter Island-like sculptures sat in a field of snow in front of us – the remnants of trees that had been destroyed in a storm a few years back…reminders that nature was a tricky old woman sometimes.
Technically, an Alpine Combined is a downhill and a slalom race, but with dog-sledding you have the combo of dogs, a sled and no control. You are at the mercy of the dogs, and although there is a brake, you can still go head first into a tree, like I did. Still I was going about 5mph, so no bones broken. Had no idea until after, that the dogs spoke French and I could have just said: gauche or droit and no tree would have been harmed.
For a dog-lover like me, this was one of the best things I have ever done. An hour over hill & dale, being tugged by Siberian and Alaskan huskies, was my kind of fun and the dogs seemed to love it too.
A rest from activities came in the form of a city-tour of Chamonix and what a history it had! Unlike most ski resorts, Chamonix was a prosperous town before it attracted the schussers. In the 1700s, a visit to Chamonix was included in the Grand Tour, then the climbing began in the 1800s and skiing followed in the 1900s.
Of course, there would be no Chamonix if Mont Blanc weren’t peering down from above. People came from near and far to reach her summit. In 1820, the first accident happened and La Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix set up the next year. Today, hundreds of guides lead hundreds of trekkers up and down the mountain. The town’s Alpine Museum is a must.
By the time we got to our hotel every night we had a layer of ice attached to every surface. Thank goodness, each place we stayed had a heated outdoor pool and a very warm indoor spa.
Hotel staying is another activity in Chamonix that should not be overlooked. Our first two nights were spent at the delicious Hameau Albert 1er, a Relais & Chateaux property. Alpine chic combined with savvy touches of modernism and food to die for. It’s home to the only Michelin starred restaurant in town, as well as, its Maison Carrier, which was our choice for dinner. Had to order the Quenelles with Lobster Sauce, something I only eat in France, which makes them all the more better. I also could not resist homemade donuts with prunes in a Savoie Red Wine sauce for dessert.
Our next stop was the Mont Blanc Hotel where every snow bunny would feel at home with its tres chic intérieur, Clarins Spa and wonderful restaurant Matafan. Huge beds with down pillows make it hard to get out of bed, but journeying from bed to sauna, with a stop for a drink at the fabulous bar, is really not that taxing.
Do I need to tell you that the shopping is fantastic here – every brand from Moncler to North Face has a presence in this tiny town. You can arrange for all your equipment at Sanglad, the one-stop shop for ski rentals, to be dropped off and picked up at your hotel.
Although it was way past Christmas, Chamonix hadn’t been informed and the windows were still decorated and the treats themed. These were my favourite at the Aux Petits Gourmands as well as a killer hot chocolate.
Don’t miss the Saturday market if you want to grab your fair share of saussisons and fromage to take back home when you are pining for a little Chamonix at home. Brew up your own vin chaud and close your eyes.
Alp Chic is the one place in town to get these mod cards – a bit different from the usual tourist photo of Mont Blanc.
Eating and drinking are just as much a part of the schussing experience as all of the other bits and Chamonix has everything you could want. From local wine tasting to cheese fondue aplenty, but don’t leave without trying Cap Horn, La Télécabine and lunch time fav Poco Loco. Read all my other Bite-Sized Bits of Chamonix!
You just can’t come all this way without seeing the Mer de Glace – the largest glacier in France. The little rack & pinion red train takes you up to the top where you can get the most amazing view – if the weather is on your side. I arrived and it was clear and then, not even thirty minutes later, it was covered by clouds.
At the top, there is the famous Grand Hotel du Montenvers which opened to the intrepid in the 1880’s. It’s still a hotel in the summer, but, as they have no heat in the winter, only lunch is served and the last train down is at 4:30pm.
Above the restaurant, there is a tiny museum to honor those who made it all the way up before the train was built. The manager also took me down to the basement, where they used to bring the dead, those not so lucky in their pursuit to the summit. He said, without a doubt, that he had been visited by their ghosts wanting tartiflette & glass of wine.
Did I mention that Chamonix is absolutely gorgeous and if that’s not a reason to visit, I don’t know what is.
- Bomber: Slang term for a skier or snowboarder flying down a slope in an out of control fashion.
- Schussing: Skiing straight downhill without turning.
- Powder: Fresh, dry and lightweight snow that for many is the Holy Grail of skiing and snowboarding. Large amounts of fresh powder make for epic skiing conditions.
- Alpine Combined: A downhill and a slalom race either held intentionally as a combined event, or the linking of two races on the calendar to produce a combined result. Result of a combined competition was once derived from mathematically computing FIS points. Today it is done by adding up the times.
- Bunny Slope: An easy and flat area for beginner’s. This area is almost always found near the base area as this is the first lesson stop for a never-ever.
- Crust: Refers to a frozen layer either covering softer snow or buried under a fresh dusting of snow.
- Yard Sale: A crash in which a skier’s or snowboarder’s gear – skis, poles, hats, gloves, etc – end up scattered around the slope.
- Après-Ski: The day’s over – time for drinks and swapping war stories from the slopes.
- Kicker: A cheese-wedge shaped jump, often built in the backcountry for trick sessions.
NB: I was the guest of the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Tourism Board and I can’t thank them enough. My opinions are always my own!