Chamonix could not be more different from the archetypal high-altitude, purpose-built French resort. It hasn't been designed to deliver the smoothest possible experience to the widest possible market. It hasn't been designed. You don't have to be an expert to enjoy the place - Editor Gill once took his blue-run-skiing wife and novice kids for a week here, and lived to tell the tale. But it is the expert and the adventurous would-be expert who really must give Chamonix a permanent place on their shortlist, despite its serious drawbacks. Chamonix is a long-established, year-round tourist town that spreads for miles along the valley in the shadow of Mont Blanc. On either side of the centre, just within walking distance, are base stations of the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi (for the famous Vallée Blanche glacier run) and a gondola to Le Brévent. A third high-altitude area, La Flégère, is linked to Le Brévent by cable car and reached by its own cable car from the village of Les Praz. At the top of the valley are the villages of Argentière, beneath the Grands Montets and Le Tour, at the foot of the Balme slopes (with an alternative base at Vallorcine). These villages are described at the end of the chapter, but their slopes are taken in to the main part of the chapter. Down the valley is Les Houches, with the most sheltered slopes in the valley. This is wholly described at the end of the chapter; its lifts are not covered by the normal Chamonix pass. Free ski-buses link all these points but can get very crowded ('even in January') and be 'infrequent and unreliable'. Don't expect additional buses to meet varying demand, such as when everyone wants to get to Les Houches in bad weather. There are also hourly trains along the valley, free with a guest card, and usually recommended by reporters. The Mont Blanc Unlimited lift pass covers not only Les Houches but also Verbier in Switzerland and Courmayeur in Italy. The first is a major expedition; the second is of more practical use, not least because the weather can be good in Italy when it is lousy in Chamonix. And there are buses through the Mont Blanc tunnel several times daily. Having a car is useful in lots of ways, and makes that outing to Verbier a more practical proposition.
Pros

A lot of very tough terrain, especially off-piste

Amazing cable car to the Aiguille du Midi, for the famous Vallée Blanche

Stunning views wherever you are

Other resorts covered on extended lift pass, notably sunny Courmayeur

Cons

Several separate mountains, widely separated; bad for mixed abilities

Inadequate bus services

Bad weather can shut the best runs

Still some old lifts, and serious queues in key spots

Getting there

  • Geneva airport: 1.5 hours

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