Author of the Snowmole Guides and editor of ultimate-ski.com, Isobel Rostron has skied resorts all over the world, but Chamonix's are her alps of choix.
Chamonix rarely needs an introduction. With a reputation as colossal as its peaks, the French resort is perhaps the most judged of all the greats, and like Marmite you either love it or loathe it. True, Europe’s most famous ski town can’t compete with the postcard perfection of Zermatt or Val D’Isère, but for me (above centre) its charm is in this non-conformity. Many moan about what Chamonix’s not. ‘It’s not ski-in/ski-out.’ I say value the variety in six separate ski areas. ‘It’s not easy to get around the valley.’ Why rush when every journey offers a window seat on a landscape so tall, steep and scary it’s living drama? ‘It’s not après-tastic.’ Stick to Chamonix’s golden rule for first tracks – always anticipate a bluebird day – and you’ll know a good night’s sleep is what counts. Chamonix, despite your faults, we ❤ you.
Personally, my relationship with hot fromage is over after one post-fondue coma too many. Fortunately Chamonix’s restaurants offer plenty of other routes to culinary satisfaction. My top three? Sushi at Satsuki, Asian fusion at Alan Peru and Michelin stars a go-go at Le Bistrot – when somebody wants to treat me. If you must have a Savoyarde special just follow your nose. And take a tip from Alex here. Keep stirring!
Après in Chamonix is a battle of the bands. Chambre Neuf, the après HQ for the Swedes in town, is home to resident boyband The Balboas, while the Men of Melvil makes the stage their own at Le Choucas. Part of Gary and the Crevasseholes, my friends Cindy and Patty here are giving it their all at the MBC.
Nature is alive and kicking in Chamonix. Avalanches roar down steeps daily. Crevasses welcome with gaping mouths and swallow as willingly as Venus fly-traps. My friends at Icicle Mountaineering run regular avalanche days – it’s always amazing how long it takes to find a buried transceiver, so it’s good to practise when it won’t hurt.
The wild and fabulous scenery here inspires a resident community of writers, artists, photographers and sculptors. I’m looking forward to reading Cham, the new book from local author Jon Trigell, though we’re all hoping we’re not in it! To see Chamonix captured in artwork, head to Gallery Midnight. Wednesday night is ‘apero’ night when you can chinwag with artists over a glass of wine, though I’ve yet to haggle down Johny Midnight for his beautiful painting of the Drus (right).
SHORT-SIGHTED CYNICS belittle the Vallée Blanche as the most over-rated off-piste run in the world. Did they look at their feet all the way down the 22km stretch? I challenge them to recommend a more beautiful descent. Craggy peaks meet bottomless crevasses, glacial seracs tower over pristine snow. The finale is a bone-shaking traverse over the Mer de Glace, which is just what it says on le tin – a sea of ice. It’s even more magical at full moon (go with a guide!).
There’s a saying in Chamonix, ‘an old guide is a good guide’. Roland Couttet, here in the retro shades, is certainly both. A longstanding member of Chamonix’s Compagnie des Guides (www.chamonix-guides.com) he’s worked as a ski and mountain guide in the valley for over 40 years. A living encyclopaedia of Chamonix’s peaks and valleys, he’s got more stories than Jackanory. A living mountain legend.
Die-hard freeskiers congregate like moths to a flame at the Aiguille du Midi base station. Waists jangle with unfathomable bits of mountain kit, backpacks groan under the weight of ice-axes and harnesses, muscles strain the latest Goretex must-have and facial hair is de rigueur. Nirvana for outdoor girls, the scent of the adrenaline over my town is so powerful Lynx should bottle it.
The European alps’ curving east-west spine peaks, vertically speaking, in Chamonix. It’s impossible to ignore Mont Blanc, Europe’s biggest, baddest mountain – weather-maker, life-taker and responsible for more tourist ‘oooohs’ than should be decent in one cable car. The Aiguille du Midi gets you up close and personal to Blancy but there’s no lift to my favourite view of ‘The Daddy’. And no I’m not telling you where I took this shot!
CHAMONIX, FRANCE, www.chamonix.com
Getting there: Geneva is the closest airport. For cheapie flights book early on www.easyjet.com. Also check out BA (www.ba.com).
High-end: Original Travel (www.originaltravel.co.uk)
Mid-range: Inghams (www.inghams.co.uk)
Season dates: Dec - Apr. Vertical drop: 1,035 - 3,840m Terrain: 153km Snowmaking: 125 guns Lift passes: Chamonix le Pass gives access to several areas. Mountain munchies: the few good options include Bergerie de Planpraz Guiding: Companie des Guides (+ 33 450 530088) offers tours Snowpark: near Lognan
Eating/drinking: top-end hotels in resort serve quality food in their restaurants. Plenty of nightspots
Where may I water my goat?: Où puis-je trouver un trou d’eau pour ma chèvre?
Highlight: real town, real locals
Bummer: several seperate mountains to get lost in