Stunning in winter, Chamonix and its surrounding area in the shadow of Mont Blanc is even more beautiful in summer, finds Nan Spowart
First dubbed the playground of Europe by Sir Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf, Chamonix could still lay claim to that title today, nearly 150 years later.
Stephen was just one of the many British people to fall in love with the Alpine town which is framed by a spectacular range of mountains, including Mont Blanc, the highest in Europe.
When he published his book, The Playground of Europe in 1871, it was just after the Golden Age of Alpinism which reached its climax in 1865 and saw – over a period of just ten years – 65 first ascents by climbers from Britain, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France.
These climbers included Dumfries-born Lord Francis Douglas, whose death along with three others in an Alpine tragedy, ended the Golden Age and triggered a public outcry at the perceived folly of mountaineering, provoking calls for it to be banned.
However, paradoxically, the publicity over the accident generated even more interest in places like Chamonix with many visiting to see the stunning scenery, including Napoleon III who, while marvelling at the extraordinary beauty of the mountains and glaciers, was so appalled at the poor access to the town that he ordered immediate improvements to the roads.
In 1865 it took 18 hours from Paris to Geneva by rail, then ten hours by horse drawn cab from Geneva to Chamonix; now a cheap flight from Edinburgh takes travellers from Scotland to Geneva in less than two hours and then it is an easy drive of just over an hour to the resort.
This makes it a popular destination for skiers in winter but in summer the beauty of the area is, if anything, more stunning as the snow-covered high peaks look even more magnificent as they loom over the contrasting green of the forests and meadows of the lower slopes.
Surrounded by jagged mountains, Chamonix sits snugly beside a fast flowing river and its pedestrian centre is a pleasure to meander through, with the quaint, historic buildings housing bustling restaurants, bars and shops.
Higher up the valley on the way to Switzerland, lies the village of Vallorcine which, although tiny, is blessed with three excellent restaurants and a multitude of fantastic walks.
It is also on the route of one of the most scenic train rides in the world, the Mont-Blanc Express, and it is possible to travel either down to Chamonix and beyond or over the border to Switzerland.
Our lovely apartment, complete with balcony offering views of the mountains, was in the five star Vallorcine Mont-Blanc Residence and Spa which has its own pool and sauna as well as crazy golf and outdoor chess.
We found it provided the best of both worlds as it was peaceful but within easy reach of Chamonix.
Travelling with two teenagers who are not overly fond of walking, we did wonder if the area was the best choice for a family holiday, but there is a host of activities to choose from for all ages from white water rafting to summer sledging. Our plan was to mix some of these activities with the walking to keep everyone happy but, as it turned out, the walks were so breathtakingly beautiful that there were, amazingly, no complaints at all.
We began with a visit to the Chamonix Adventure Park which is an elevated adventure course with graded routes from easy (green) to difficult (black). It was fun to traverse the obstacles high in the trees and speed along the zip wires and we spent hours there, rewarding ourselves afterwards with a large ice-cream in town.
River rafting was another highlight with our guide Ben adding to the fun by pushing us at regular intervals into the icy river – fortunately we were supplied with wetsuits. The whitewater is grade two to three so it is exciting without being completely terrifying.
A trip to Switzerland also went down well as we took the train from Vallorcine, getting off at Le Chatelard to take the world’s steepest funicular to the Emosson Dam. From the top of the funicular a miniature train takes passengers around the mountain to a mini funicular for the last part of the journey. From here it is a pleasant, if airy, two to three hour walk back to Vallorcine. Like most of the trails in these mountains, there are railings at particularly steep parts which is a comfort for those with no head for heights.
Another highlight was our trip by cable car to the top of the Aguille du Midi, so called because the sun sits directly above the needle-like peak at midday.
Two cable car journeys from Chamonix take passengers to a height of 3,777m where viewing platforms offer spectacular views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountains.
Here it is possible to “step into the void” thanks to a glass platform that juts out from the very top of the mountain at 3,842m, giving the unnerving impression that one is standing on nothing but thin air with a vertiginous drop below.
Once sated with the views, if that is possible, ride the cable car halfway down the mountain for another spectacular two to three hour walk which ends with a train ride back to Chamonix from the edge of the Mer de Glace glacier.
This makes a fantastic day out but be warned; it’s extremely popular so to avoid the queues arrive as soon as the cable car opens.
A meal in town is a good way to finish off the day – Bar Tavel in the main square serves excellent pizzas and in good weather it is possible to sit outside and watch the world go by.
While cable cars are expensive, meals out are a similar price, or cheaper, than in Scotland and very good quality.
Le Cafe Comptoir in Vallorcine is worth seeking out as the locally sourced food is extremely good and again, reasonably priced.
This was recommended by our guide Cecile who showed us some of the walks in the area and gave us useful tips on finding our way around. As we only had one week our three hour walk with Cecile at the start of the holiday was a good investment as she took us to a powerful waterful, the Cascade de Bérard, and a beautiful walk to the Bérard mountain refuge, pointing out places of interest en route.
On another day we followed her recommendation of a hike to Lac Blanc and we picnicked beside its clear waters before walking back down the mountain.
Our holiday ended with some treatments at the Vallorcine spa which offers facials and massages – very welcome after all the hiking.
• Vallorcine Mont-Blanc Residence and Spa costs from €135/£104 per night for a self-catered 1 bedroom apartment (27 sqm), and from €165/£127 per night for a two bedroom apartment (50 sqm). For more information visit www.chamonix-vacances.com. A day trip with a guide costs €37/£28.50 per adult and €25/£19 per child, www.chamonix-guides.eu. River rafting in Chamonix costs €40/£31pp for two hours, www.cham-aventure.com. A return trip by train to Le Chatelard from Vallorcine and the funicular to the Emosson Dam costs 36€/£27pp, verticalp-emosson.ch/en/decouvrez. For more information on trips and activities in the area go to www.compagniedumontblanc.co.uk