The Alps are 120 miles wide and span across Europe from France to Slovenia. Until the mid 1800’s few travelers made it to the region and popular mythology held the mountainous area to be filled with dragons and demons. In fact, Catholic priests would perform exorcisms on the glaciers on behalf of villages in peril by the advancing ice. During the age of enlightenment, a steady stream of scientists and adventurers started pouring in.
Little by little, the mountains became a destination and took firm root in the public imagination. The doors to the first guest house in Chamonix opened in the late 1700’s. At the time, around 1500 visitors were making the trip each year to the valley. The charming alpine village of Chamonix is nestled in the valley at the base of France’s crown peak, Mont Blanc – the tallest in the alps at 15,777 feet above sea level. A first ascent of the mountain was completed just 10 years after American Independence.
The valley increased in popularity over time and attracted more tourists. The construction of the railway at the beginning of nineteenth century really set the stage for tourism in its present day form of winter skiing, summer trekking and mountaineering.
There are many ski resorts in the area. Some are more modern and fashionable like Mégeve, Courchevelles and Meribel, but can be outrageously expensive. There’s just something special about Chamonix. It’s a classic place with mystique wrapped in a tradition of adventure and rich alpine heritage.
Then there’s the nature. You might be a cold-hearted and twice-baked zombie if the jagged peaks fail to impress you. No matter what activity or leisurely pastime you’re doing … skiing down the mountainside, paragliding on thermals, or slowly sipping an aperitif, a look towards the mountains and the enchantment sinks in – this is what brings people back year after year.
It’s almost certain that you’ll encounter a stuffy resident or two. But don’t let that deter you from visiting this unique destination. I’ve read opinion forums written by and for the French themselves that express disgust over the snobby inhabitants of Chamonix. Just keep a metaphorical miniature hearth fireplace brush in your back pocket to sweep any of that nonsense right off your shoulder.
Having less than two days to explore the valley is almost criminal. But if you’re short on time, a well-managed and well-rounded experience can be achieved in thirty-six hours (which should be your absolute minimum).
I arrive bright and early in Chamonix by bus from the Geneva International Airport. The air was fresh and brisk so I walk to the center of town and settle into a cafe. The friendly female owner fries me up a humongous fromage omelette aux champignons served with slices of warm baguette and café au lait. Extremely delicious, I speak up and give my congratulations to the French chickens for laying such high quality eggs. Afterwards, I make my way to the winter sports shop at the bottom of the Planpraz chairlift to rent ski equipment.
I spent a full morning skiing the sun-kissed southern slopes of the Brévent-Fleger area before returning down to town via gondola around one o’clock. I meander through town, window shop, and, oh, salivate with envy at the selection of outdoor gear available. Fromageries and delicatessens abound, baitiing passers-by with a panoply of cheesy and meaty samples; showcasing the delights of the Haute-Savoie department of the Rhone-Alps region.
I arrive at the Station du Montenvers-Mer de Glace to take the three o’clock train north. The train du Montenvers is an adorable and toy-like bright red cog railway that winds its way 5.1 kilometers up the mountain by rack and pinion to the terminus at an altitude of 7,000 feet. I climbed aboard for the twenty-five minute ride at a max incline of 22%.
Stepping off down onto the platform at the end of the line reveals a jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring panoramic view of the country’s largest glacier, the Mer de Glace, or sea of ice. But my final destination for the night is a quick three minute walk away to the Terminal Neige Refuge, also known as the Grand Hotel du Montenvers.
The impressive establishment is perched at the edge of the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif in a setting that is second-to-none. The granite facade of the building looks like a vivid scene right out of director Wes Anderson’s, Grand Budapest Hotel.
The refuge was built in the 1880’s as accommodation for the first explorers and mountaineers to the area. The hotel is historic but has been recently renovated and restored with beautifully crafted woods, tasteful decoration and atmospheric lighting. An excellent job was done as much of the original charm and authenticity has been kept as a place dedicated to the men of the mountain.
The inside is warm and welcoming and the staff are very pleasant and helpful. A fire is kept lit during the winter months and a table full of complimentary vin chaud, hot chocolate and homemade cakes await you at the reception.
There are twenty private rooms, suites and dormitory beds available on the premise. Each space is well designed and furnished. Rates run from 115 euros for a dormitory style bed to 300 euros per night per suite. Prices include snacks, dinner and breakfast. In general, Chamonix runs on the expensive side, so all things considering, a really nice bunk with a tab of $115 that includes food is a pretty darn good deal. There happens to be availability, so I book a stay for the night.
I follow the concierge to the room. It’s the ultimate in alpine mountain coziness – an extremely comfortable mountain escape. But it’s the view from the tall glass-paned window that takes my breath away. I prop my elbows on the sill, rest my chin in my hands and stare out of it utterly agog at what I see.
A room with the most spectacular view of my life. The Mer de Glace glacier slithers below and the mythical peak, Aiguille des Drus, pierces the heavens like a natural rock spire off to my left. I pinch myself, twice, to make sure that I’m not in the middle of a lucid dream.
A three course dinner is served in the dining room from 7 to 9 pm. Everything on the menu is produced locally and wonderfully prepared. I order the homestyle salad for a starter, the roasted farmer’s chicken with Savoyarde Matouille as the main course, and platter of fruit for desert and pair it all with a high quality glass of French dry red wine.
The breakfast is every bit as good as dinner with an abundant selection and is usually served in the second room that is gorgeous with expansive windows on three sides. I fill up on a fresh croissant, soft-boiled eggs and cups of steaming coffee before heading down into the belly of the glacier.
Snowshoes are available for guests to trek around the snowy premises on either clearly marked paths or off-piste, depending on how brave you are. It’s an opportunity to get higher in elevation and away from the crowds for a perfect meditative or photographic experience; you are sure to find stellar vantage points of the glacier or quiet spots of solitude.
The terminus of the train is also the point where you access the Mer de Glace and the ice cave. As a leisurely tourist, you have the option of footpath or gondola followed by 420 stairs down to the bottom. The number of stairs increases every year as the glacier retreats backwards. A visit takes 30 to 45 minutes and is well-worth the time. Placards along the way indicate how much the glacier has retreated in a little under 100 years.
I return in time to catch the eleven o’clock train back down to Chamonix. I make a few souvenir purchases and find a popular local eatery for a fixed-price lunch. I wave goodbye to legendary Chamonix and pine my departure from its magical nature. I stroll over to the SUD bus station to return to the airport – an easy ride that takes a little over an hour.
Chamonix represents the golden age of mountaineering and will always hold a spot in the hearts of adventurous-minded souls. The pristine environment will never disappoint those who appreciate the outdoors and mountain sports. The Terminal Neige Refuge du Montenvers stands out among the boutique hotels of the world for its exquisite location and history. While I was expecting my stay to be a special experience, it turned out a spectacular one.