Skiing in Chamonix

Chamonix. The name itself rings all the superlatives; the highest lift, the longest off-piste run and the most awe inspiring views the Alps have to offer. A Mecca too for the extreme off-pisters...but is this all this resort can offer? I think not; I think this is a ‘must –ski’ place for most, for a good number of reasons. <--break- />

Four of us have just returned from one of our best ski trips yet; skiing through the trees in untracked snow, cruising down the piste in glorious sun shine and going off-piste in two foot of fresh champagne powder in Italy! Our choice of accommodation in Chamonix. We chose our accommodation, the Chalet Grands du Bois in Les Houches, as we aimed to do at least a couple of days skiing in this charming little resort, plus we wanted a good location to explore other close-by resorts.

The chalet was ideal for us; neatly laid out and fully catered, but close enough to a few local bars to enjoy a drink in the evening. We also considered one of the Mountain Lodges in Argentiere, towards the end of the Chamonix valley. The Mountain Lodges offer top quality accommodation, suited for groups of practically any size - from a small group of 6 to 30+.

We love this little group of chalets as their location is simply unbeatable – bang opposite the Grands Montets, which is one of the best ski areas for mixed abilities, guaranteed good snow as most slopes are mainly north or north-west facing, which means great skiing right up to the end of the season.  The chalets are located a stone’s throw away (OK, a 5 minute complimentary shuttle ride) from Le Tour, ideal for beginners and back-country seekers,  where the best view of the Chamonix Valley and Mont Blanc can be had. If we really wanted to push the boat out we could have stayed in the top-end Chalet Cloud Nine, or the Chalet Zenith both in the middle of Chamonix itself.

Service and catering does simply not get better than this. Offering hot tubs, saunas and the Full Monty these really are the crème de la crème of luxury ski accommodation. Skiing in Chamonix, Les Houches. Within an hour of picking up the car hire at Geneva airport we were in Les Houches, a charming village at the start of the Chamonix valley, just 7km from the main town itself.

With its own piste/lift system, tree-runs and charming mountain restaurants, Les Houches is definitely worth a day or two of your time in the valley. On a good day great views of Mont Blanc are enjoyed; on the white-out days the lower tree-lined slopes offer good shelter. After picking up our skis from Cyprien Sports we bought a 4hr lift pass (€27 ) which was just enough time to get our ski legs back, enjoy some tree-runs and to finish off with the unmissable ‘beer on the slopes’.

Back to the chalet (via the creperie), and a few more beers in the Hotel du Bois, just below our chalet, and the thoughts for the next few days were considered. Choice of slopes. We woke up to overcast skies; decision time. The forecast was fairly unsettled, but there was some blue creeping out from behind the clouds. What to do? Do we risk going up high, to the Grands Montets above Argentiere, one of the most popular ski areas as it’s north facing which preserves the snow all season?

The height would have possibly meant we could get above the clouds, you can get up to 3275m on the Les Grands Montet cable car, but an additional fee is payable. Or, do we try heading up the south facing Brevent-Flegere ski area which is great on a sunny day and has good skiing for intermediates and advanced skiers and is just above Chamonix town itself? Or Italy – always an option when the weather is closing in as it is said that poor weather in Chamonix can lead to good weather over the border, just 25 minutes through the Mont Blanc tunnel and you could be in Courmayeur. In retrospect, we chose well, and headed back to Les Houches again, you know, just playing around like big kids in the snow.

Worth a mention was ‘lunch’; we re-visited Les Vieilles Luges, an absolute charming property owned and run by the lovely Julie and Claude. Accessible just off the blue ‘Allouds’ piste (look out for a small, tree-lined track on the left, signposted to the restaurant) the property retains many original features and family heirlooms; on display is the grandfather's luge, grandmother's ‘home made’ ice skates and uncle's crampons.

This place makes your usual mountain cafe incredibly plain! If you like charm, character, home cooked food and wonderful hospitality it’s definitely worth a stop and booking is essential between 12 and 2pm, which says a lot! It was in here where our discussion about the merits of Chamonix started; Chamonix is just a brilliant location to be based for a winter ski holiday.

OK, it’s not the usual ski-in ski-out, ski-all-week-from-the-chalet type resort but in a way this is exactly why it is so good. You really can wake up in the morning and decide which way to head, weather and/or conditions depending. It does boast its own amazing ski areas, each with their own individual qualities (although not interlinked) as well as easy access to a dozen others, if you are prepared to make the journey. Get this: with drives from 30 minutes to just over an hour you can ski in a host of other French ski resorts (Les Contamines, St Gervais, Megeve, Les Gets, Morzine, Avoriaz, Flaine to name a few) or nip into Italy (Courmayeur) or over the Cols du Montets and into Switzerland (to ski in Verbier and Nendaz).

Which other resort has this varied choice? Not many for sure. This topic of conversation continued for the duration of the trip, but as far as the remainder of the day was concerned, the famous Khandahar Olympic run (la Verte), was challenged for approximately 20 seconds, just try and straight line it... believe me after barely 10 seconds which seems like 10 minutes you’re pulling up with your legs trembling! Time to head back to the trees and powder and then back to the chalet for more beers.

Sunshine and Blue Skies on Brevent-Flegere. When the sun shines and the Vitamin D needs topping up, there is no better place to ski than Brevent-Flegere, providing glorious views over the mighty Mont Blanc and the whole of the Chamonix valley. Brevent is most suited for intermediates and advanced skiers due the lack of green runs (well, there is one). If you like a challenge then you should try the Charles Bozon run down to Plan Praz or after some snow you have virtually unlimited off piste skiing ranging from in between the pistes to very steep gulleys and big bowls. Flegere is linked to Brevent by a cable car but can also be accessed from the Flegere car park. Flegere is an all round ski area, great for piste skiers of all abilities and those looking to enjoy some off piste skiing.

Like Brevent, the ski area can be bathed in sunshine right up to the end of the ski day. So there it was, sun, views and the vertical excitement of Brevent-Flegere left us feeling happy, sunburnt but contented. Beers enjoyed in the delightful Le Delice and if it wasn’t for the great food in the chalet, a bite to eat in here would have gone down a treat, by the look and smell of the stuff!! Powder and Pizza - skiing in Courmayeur. This is my point. This sums up the great location. 25 minutes, yes, 25 MINUTES (!!) from Les Houches and we were buying our lift tickets for a day’s perfect skiing in Courmayeur in Italy. Lift pass for the day = 42 Euros, (+ the return fee for the 11.6 km Mont Blanc Tunnel at 45 Euros) but what a DAY! On the mountain and skiing within 45 minutes from leaving our chalet! Now, let’s be honest; by the time you’ve stomped up the road in your ski boots or waited for the resort bus you’d struggle to beat that in any resort! And the day just got better.

2 foot of fresh Steamboat-coined (and trademarked) Champagne Powder, sprinkled over the mountain, just for us. I have never skied in anything like it. Groomed pistes and tree-dotted off-piste with up to 24 inches of the lightest, fluffiest stuff I have ever known. A true classic powder day! The slopes were virtually empty, skiing in February this seemed unreal. A great value lunch, of Parma-style ham and melted cheese + a beer for 10 Euros topped off a great day, and with a ‘Ciao’, we left with fond memories and with promises to return.

In summary - Chamonix offers a wide range of skiing – basic beginners though to extreme off piste and the resorts 3 distinct areas provide varied skiing for all conditions. Other close by resorts offer excellent options which allow you to take advantage of conditions day by day! - If you want flexibility, 'accommodation-only' holidays are great value, and basing you or your group for a week can prove to be the most varied holiday you could have. But be prepared to travel a little from your base! - Consider buying your lift pass every day, after deciding where to ski, rather than buyingf a weekly pass.

This does work out slightly more expensive but will give you the flexibility and freedom of deciding that morning where to go, weather and snow conditions permitting. - If going on an ‘accommodation-only' holiday, check to see if the operator provides bus transfers or we would recommend hiring a car at the airport, meaning a quick and easy transfer to and from resort, and, ditto; will give you the flexibility and freedom of deciding that morning where to go, weather and snow conditions permitting.

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