About the Chamonix, valleys and villages...
Chamonix is probably best known as the alpine captial of the world. As a destination it has a reputation for the extreme and this, whilst undoubtedly true, can mask a wide array of sporting and leisure activities (particularly in summer), peace and quiet, great nightlife, and superb scenery which can be enjoyed at whichever pace suits you. Chamonix is equally suited to a weekend break, a week's holiday, a season, or a lifetime!
Situated in the Haute-Savoie region of France, Chamonix is bordered by Switzerland and Italy and dominated by the spiky mountain chain which peaks at the top of the Mont Blanc (4811m) - the highest in Western Europe. There are two distinct seasons: summer and winter, and the area is busy for most of the year with different activities at the fore-front of people's minds. If you don't like to be bored, Chamonix is the place to come.
Whilst the principal town is of the same name 'Chamonix' is often used to cover the whole valley, stretching over 55km to the Swiss border. It is, however, made up of several distinct and charming villages including Servoz, Les Houches, Les Bossons - the 'base-camp' of alpinism, Les Praz, Les Tines, Argentiere, Montroc, and at the top of the valley: Le Tour.
Servoz (814m) has been built on the site of an ancient lake which over the centuries was eventually filled in by landslides. The village is extremely picturesque and there is a superb gorge to visit and wander through.
Les Houches (1010m) was really the first big settlement in the valley. With it's own lift-system and identity, it is the starting point for many attempts to climb Mont Blanc. Weather and snow permitting, the village annually hosts Le Kandahar World Cup ski race on its famous La Verte piste.
Les Bossons (1000m) is perhaps the 'base-camp' of alpinism as it is from here that the very first excursions to Mont Blanc used to depart from. The village is much calmer nowadays and has several chalets and hotels that enjoy spectacular views straight up the Glacier du Bossons and the Taconnaz Glacier.
Les Praz (1050m) is home to the Chamonix Golf Course, several fine hotels and chalets, and of course the La Flégère cable-car giving access to the ski area and Les Aiguilles Rouges nature reserve. Situated a short drive or 20 minutes walk from Chamonix Town, Les Praz is bordered by woodland and is the start or end of some great walks, runs, or hikes.
Les Tines is a small development of charming chalets (some of which are very luxurious!), again bordering on the golf course and giving superb views of Mont Blanc and the lower parts of the valley. On the plateau just above you will find the delightful hamlet of Le Lavancher, which is more than suited to a quiet getaway whilst remaining within easy reach of all the activities.
With the exception of Chamonix itself, Argentière (1250m) is the biggest village in the valley and sits at the foot of Les Grands Montets (1250-3300m). It has a great character of its own, with brightly coloured buildings, notable bars and resturants, and several choice chalets, hotels and apartments. As locations go you can't go far wrong with Argentière and it provides a more laid back atmosphere than Chamonix Town.
About the ski areas
Chamonix offers an unparalleled mix of skiing terrain, from beginner and great intermediate skiing and boarding on easy slopes to challenging black runs and extreme off piste, and always with incredible vistas. With numerous different ski area there is something for everyone in Chamonix.
Le Tour / Domaine du Balme and Vallorcine: A vast domain with lots of sun and good snow cover, offering skiing for all levels. Le Tour is on the Swiss border with scenic tree runs and largely undiscovered off piste bowls on the forested Swiss side, which avoid queues on even the busiest of days. The wide beginner and intermediate west facing slopes directly behind the chalet are perfect for learning new skills or relaxed afternoon cruising. Le Tour is one of the highest snowfall sites in France.
Argentière / Les Grand Montets: Characterised by large bowls and long runs, this area offers intermediate and advanced levels challenging and scenic descents with up to 2,100m vertical drop. As it is high and north facing, there is usually snow from November through till May . From the summit of Les Grands Montets (3,345m), the glacier runs offer skiers and boarders some of the most spectacular on and off-piste runs in the world.
La Flégère: This area is mostly for beginner and intermediate levels with some exciting off-piste routes in sunny "couloirs" (gullies). Outstanding views of the magnificent "Mer de Glace" ( Sea of Ice ) as well as the Mont Blanc chain.
Les Brévents: Located on the sunny side of the mountain directly opposite Mont Blanc, the highest in Europe . Suited to all levels of ability with good off-piste skiing routes and fabulous views. Brévent and Flégère are linked together (and it is usually quicker to go up the gondolas at Brévant and ski across than to queue for the cable car at Flégère).
Aiguille du Midi: One of the highest cable cars in Europe taking you to 3,800m and a spectacular view of the Alps. This is the beginning of the famous "Vallée Blanche" a 20km day trip. Intermediate skiers and boarders can take the classic route, while for advanced levels there are more challenging variations and many off-piste itineraries.
A detailed summary of the Chamonix Ski Area can be found on www.compagniedumontblanc.fr or you can buy your ski passes at www.chamonixskipasses.com arrange transfers on www.chamonixskitransfers.com or book a guide on www.chamonixskiguides.com too.
Other Areas Nearby
Les Houches: 10 minutes past Chamonix , this is a good area for beginner to intermediate levels with wide carving runs and great family restaurants on the piste. Most suited to days when other areas are covered in high cloud, as Les Houches is at lower altitudes with long tree runs to aid visability.
Courmayeur: On the other side of Mont Blanc and a 20 minutes drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel, this classic Italian resort is a fun day trip to experience skiing "the Italian way" with 20 restaurants to choose from. Any stay in Chamonix is not quite complete without a day trip to Courmayeur. The skiing on-piste is gentle, well groomed and tree-lined for the most part. The skiing off-piste ranges from steep trees above the village to wide open bowls on the Helbronner faces of the Mont Blanc. Courmayeur is building a huge new lift to access the Helbronner side of the mountain scheduled to be open in 2015.
Megève/St Gervais: 40 minutes drive from Chamonix, Megève is a charming village and an ideal day trip to explore the many intermediate slopes. The lower altitude slopes of Megève have a different microclimate to Chamonix and may be an alternative when weather conditions make Chamonix difficult. It is best to access it the ski area from the St Gervais section with the gondola parking on the road just after the St Gervais village on the road to Megeve (30 minutes from Chamonix).
Verbier If the above choices are still not enough, Verbier in Switzerland is 45 minutes drive away from Le Tour and roughly an hour from Chamonix across the beautiful Col de Montet and Col de Forclaz. The pisted domain now encompasses four valleys and 410kms. The off piste is legendary too including the back side of the Mont Fort and of course the world famous Tortin mogul run! The ski area is now immensely connected and provides skiing for all levels.