By Mark Hodson
Among the most popular tourist attractions in France is the Aiguille du Midi cable car in the Alpine resort of Chamonix. Last year it clocked up 450,000 visitors.
Interestingly, only a brave few of those visitors planned to ski off the top, which sits at a head-spinning 3,777m. Most take the 20-minute ride just to admire the view, which is still spectacular even on a cloudy day, because you are so far above the clouds.
The attraction is busiest during the summer months when Chamonix is a one-night stop for many Asian tourists on a whistlestop tour of Europe. This year it is likely to become even more popular with the opening of Step into the Void, a 2m x 2m box of clear toughened glass suspended 1,000m over the mountains below. It’s a thrilling new attraction, included in the price of the cable car ticket.
Last month I spent three days in Chamonix in a new four-star hotel – L’Heliopic – located a few metres from the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi cable car station. Any excuse is a good one for me, because I believe Chamonix is the greatest mountain resort in Europe, and possibly the world.
Chamonix is a thrilling ski resort – better for experienced snow hounds rather than beginners or families – but it’s a lot more than that. The venue for the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924, it oozes heritage and authenticity, and it’s a real town with a sizeable year-round population. It has kind of the aura and prestige that a resort like Sochi might achieve in another 100 years or so.
The Heliopic is a stylish modern hotel newly built at a cost of €15million and exclusively featured in the UK by Inghams Holidays. The design is slick and modern – lots of grey and stone – and there’s a fabulous spa in the basement that makes a perfect apres-ski destination. There’s a ski shop, a deli and takeaway, a kids corner, wifi throughout the hotel and some attractive family rooms with cabin beds.
Chamonix is arguably the best Alpine ski resort for a short stay of two or three nights. It’s only an hour’s drive from Geneva and there are plenty of hotels rather than chalets (which often need to be booked for a week). It pays to rent a car at Geneva so you don’t spend your limited time waiting for bus connections to the various slopes.
Our small group of journalists had planned to ski the Vallée Blanche, a popular high mountain route that links Chamonix with the Italian resort of Courmayeur about 20km away. It’s a thrilling day’s outing for which you need a guide, so you can negotiate the snow bridges and avoid the potentially deadly crevasses.
We hired a guide from the excellent Evolution 2 school, who put us through our paces on the Grands-Montets. This is one of the most exciting ski areas in Chamonix, particularly if you take the cable car to the very top at 3,275m, where the only way down is a vast unpisted black run offering stunning views across the valley to the glassy blue mass of the Argentiere Glacier.
It was tough skiing but we were deemed capable enough to tackle the Vallée Blanche the next day. Until … the clouds came down. We woke in the morning to discover the entire valley swathed in thick cloud making the trip impossible, and – because the best thing about the Vallée Blanche is the views – frankly pointless.
Fortunately, weather in these parts can be extremely localised. So after checking the forecast on our smartphones, we jumped in the Evolution 2 minibus and drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur.
This may seem a wild extravagance, but if you pay a little more for the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass, rather than the regular Chamonix pass, Courmayeur is included.
When we emerged at the other end of the tunnel, the scene was magical: brilliant sunshine and perfect skiing conditions. We booted up in the car park and took to the slopes, lapping up the rolling blues and swift reds for which Courmayeur is renowned.
We took one dramatic off-piste route from the top of the Arp cable car, a tiny ancient contraption with only room for about six people. There are no pistes at the top but the views down into the empty expanses of the Dolonne valley are sensational. It took up 1 hour 20 minutes to negotiate our way down, across a vast bowl of powder, then down steep bumps and finally onto a narrow forested track that criss-crossed a small stream.
We lunched at La Chaumiere, a gorgeous family-run restaurant with a sun-drenched terrace overlooking the slopes. The pasta dishes – all around €12 – were superb and we shared a bottle of locally-brewed HY beer which is served in a champagne bottle, packs a punch at 11% proof and costs a weighty €19.
Even if you don’t get to ski the Vallée Blanche, Chamonix won’t disappoint. To get the most from it, hire a guide and a car, get the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass – and be prepared to change our plans depending on the conditions.
How to do it
Seven nights half-board at the Hotel Heliopic costs from £815 per person including flights from Gatwick to Geneva and resort transfers with Inghams Holidays (01483 791 114). Flights are also available from Cambridge (+£29), Southampton (+£29), Bristol (+£29), Exeter (+£29), Birmingham (+£29), Manchester (+£39), Leeds-Bradford (+£39), Newcastle (+£29), Edinburgh (+£49), Glasgow (+£59) and Belfast (+£59).
A 6-day Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass costs from £189. The Chamonix local pass costs from £175. More details about the resort at www.chamonix.com.