France: Ski challenges at the sharp end

By Adam Ruck

The original French Alpine retreat has much appeal for the modern snowboard and ski traveller, writes Adam Ruck.
The slopes at Chamonix Mont Blanc serve everyone from beginners to experts. Photo / Alamy
The slopes at Chamonix Mont Blanc serve everyone from beginners to experts. Photo / Alamy

Chamonix Mont Blanc has been at the sharp end of Alpine adventure since 1760, when a Genevois scientist offered a prize for the first ascent of the highest Alp. It had its first growth spurt in the Victorian era, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and has re-emerged on the freeride wave as the capital of all-mountain adventure.

This steep-sided valley, draped with tumbling glaciers beneath a crown of rocky spires, is where snowsports and mountaineering meet.

Instructors and mountain guides come here to qualify, and every dedicated skier and snowboarder puts it on the bucket list to see how they'll measure up to the challenge.

The best way to get the most out of the off piste is to hire a professional guide, who will have the experience, expertise and equipment to find the best terrain and ensure you stay safe.

There are nursery slopes and blissful fast-cruising pistes as well as all the rough stuff.

And you don't need to be an expert to enjoy the famous 20km Vallee Blanche glacier run.

But this resort town, with its four ski areas spread out along the valley, is never going to be an easy holiday. Queues and bus rides are part of the package, and call for patience and planning.

The reward, when you emerge from the lift, is an empty mountain and a long descent that may leave you grateful for the chance to recover in a queue.

The range is exceptional - long runs below the tree line offer good sport in bad weather, and big glacier runs at high altitude are often at their best in April. This is a landscape built on a heroic scale that makes other resorts seem tame.

Ski areas

Balme-Vallorcine is good for starting a holiday. With its gentle, open slopes and reliable snow, it's ideal for confidence building and entry-level off piste.

Les Houches is also an appealing option for getting the legs back, with easy cruising and long runs through woods of a kind more often associated with Austria.

Brevent-Flegere is Chamonix's staple area for intermediates, with plenty of red and blue runs. The area is a game of two halves - each side has a broad fan of intermediate pistes above steep forest, with a single black run down to the valley, on the map but rarely open.

Argentière, with the Grands Montets ski area above, is the place for challenging terrain. The upper Grands Montets cable car serves an immense freeride playground, much of it glacier, punctuated by two long black pistes. The lift operator tries to manage the high demand for the lift, the current system being a combination of free-for-all and advance reservations online.

There's also the Aiguille du Midi lift, which goes to the Vallee Blanche (an unmarked, unmaintained, unpatrolled off-piste itinerary).

The classic route is a long, scenic cruise down through the glaciers to Chamonix, with a few tight sections between gaping crevasses - fairly easy, but dangerous.

For mountain dining, the reasonably priced L'Alpage de Balme in the Balme-Vallorcine ski area specialises in rösti - arrive early to be sure of a table.

Apres ski

The resort of Chamonix is a busy town of 10,000 permanent residents. It's hardly a tranquil Alpine retreat, but its setting is tremendous, and doesn't lack charm. Its old buildings have kept their sedate Victorian and more fanciful Belle Epoque look and, now that the centre is traffic-free, it offers pleasant strolling, with cafes overhanging the river Arve's torrent and a wealth of interesting shops.

The apres scene is varied, ranging from classic cocktails to all-night partying. In the early evening, the main youth focus in town is a triangle of bars on Avenue Michel Croz - the mellow Elevation 1904, the hectic-to-messy Chambre 9, and Moo, which opened last winter. At around 11pm, people move on to the Rue des Moulins for the Mix Bar, the Bar du Moulin and Les Caves. Late-night options include L'Amnesia in Chamonix Sud.

Chamonix also offers very fine dining. For an evening of decadence, the elegant Albert Premier hotel complex has a two-Michelin-star restaurant, and the more reasonably priced Cap Horn, beside the Arve on the Rue des Moulins, specialises in seafood. Casa Valerio (website in French) on Rue Lyret is a cheerful trattoria, open until 2am.

Where to stay

Chamonix, like many other Alpine resorts, has joined the upgrading race. But it caters for all budgets, from no-expense-spared pampering to dormitory subsistence. A holiday based in Chamonix town is quite different in atmosphere from an out-of-town hotel or chalet-based stay.

Budget: Gite Le Belvedere in Argentiere is the favoured shoestring crash pad. Only 365m from the Grands Montets cable car, it's extremely convenient, and the new management promises smarter accommodation this season.

Mid range: L'Arve is a neat, much-cherished hotel in Chamonix town centre, serving good food in the Cafe de l'Arve. And Grands Montets in Argentière is a well-run chalet-hotel next to the Grands Montets cable car station.

Top end: The five-star Hotel Mont Blanc is a super-luxury option offering, among other things, a fancy spa, opulent design and a renowned head chef.

Chalets: Chalet Collineige is the valley's established luxury specialist, with flexible catering, mountain-guiding arrangements and the best local knowledge.

Valhalla (sleeps 12 to 17) is in a peaceful and scenic position within walking distance of the town centre.

Hip Chalets also has a selection of luxury chalets, including Le Marti in Argentière (sleeps 16).

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to Paris via Hong Kong. Trains run daily from Paris to Chamonix.

Further information: See chamonix.com.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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