Adam Ruck offers an insider's guide to Chamonix - the best French resort for all-mountain skiing.
Years ago, I arrived in the Chamonix valley with low expectations, having bought a £99 chalet holiday from a newspaper small ad in a low resort I had never heard of. Half a lifetime later I have given up hope of exhausting its skiing, never mind the other ski areas, which are separated by the glaciers, cliffs and other awkward terrain that characterise the exciting, dangerous and beautiful capital of Alpine adventure.
THE BEST CHALET PACKAGES
Because of the spread-out nature of Chamonix, it's important to check the location of your accommodation and transport arrangements before you book. Note that many local operators are unbonded so for peace of mind, it's worth booking with a UK-based company, such as those below. Prices quoted are per week.
Collineige (01483 579242; collineige.com). Chamonix specialist of more than 30 years, offering b & b at two apartments and eight chalets on a self-catering basis, including Chalet les Mazots (sleeps 12-14) from £10,000, including airport transfers and chalet board.
Chalet substitute … holiday in a mazot in the French Alps
Built to store valuables, some mazots in and around Chamonix, in the French Alps, have been converted into cute and cosy alternatives to larger ski chalet rentals.
Sunday clothes and paperwork, bridal chests, wedding dresses and embroidered tablecloths, documents, maps and harvest records, china, grains, seeds, cured meats, cheeses and preserves … these were the treasures those who lived in Alpine villages such as Chamonix in the early 1800s would do anything to protect.
Chamonix, as the Alps' largest town, seems to have more than most resorts and also boasts a passionate mazot converter: Colleen Olianti, who runs the Collineige ski and chalet company. She has transformed three mazots into romantic, stylish boltholes, alongside her larger chalets.
Couples and those with small children will love the fairytale feel of this tiny “grandma’s house” chalet set in pretty gardens with Mont Blanc as a backdrop. The all-wooden interior includes a small sitting room with a large picture window and mezzanine sleeping area for the kids, while upstairs there’s a cosy bedroom for mum and dad. Chamonix and Argentière are on the doorstep, so there’s lots to do in summer, including country walks along the banks of the River Arve.
While most chalets offer wood with everything, Villa Terrier, minutes from the centre of Chamonix, has more of a luxury townhouse feel. A venue for sophisticated soirées at the 1924 Winter Olympics, it’s lost none of its former grandeur: there are high ceilings and stucco on the walls, as well as huge rooms by chalet standards. The living room has a stone fireplace and comfy couches, and there are four en suite doubles with claw-feet baths. Children will love the attic that sleeps four, and the playroom, while adults can enjoy the sauna. Outside there are pretty gardens and a pool.
Why risk sharing a chalet with rowdy strangers, or even rowdier friends? Here's our pick of five romantic retreats in the Alps
Gemma Bowes, guardian.co.uk
Mazot les Tines, Chamonix, France
This cute cabin is total fairytale fantasy, all made of wood with little shutters, a small upstairs bedroom with balcony, reached by a ladder; a neat little wooden kitchen and dining room; plus a cosy lounge with a large bay window. It's between Chamonix and Argentière, with stunning views of the Mont Blanc range. If you have kids, you could squeeze them in on the mattresses on the mezzanine.
• collineige.com/chalet-mazot_les_tines-en.htm, from €785 in April
The slopes at Chamonix are never more invitingly empty than just after New Year, says Adam Ruck.
Self-styled without false modesty or undue vainglory as the world capital of mountaineering and skiing, Chamonix Mont Blanc is worth the journey at any time of year. However, just after New Year you'll find cheap flights and empty slopes. This is the prime time for skiing, without the high-season hassles of a large resort, only an hour from Geneva, with masses of accommodation and small ski-lifts that serve big skiing.
Another advantage at this time is that the valley floor is low – 1,000m at Chamonix, 1,250m at Argentière. Having long runs below the treeline is a bonus if a blizzard kicks in. The best tree skiing is on friendly woodland pistes above Les Houches, or off-piste in the forest at Argentière. And if the sun shines on plentiful snow, January skiers can fill their boots, tackling heroic descents of more than 6,000ft from top to bottom.
January is also best for sampling other winter sports: dog-sledding at Le Tour, skijoring (horse-drawn skiing) at Les Houches, cross-country skiing and snowshoe rambles.
Spend the first day…
Skiing. The weather and your competence will dictate which of the five areas to choose and which lift pass to buy: Brévent/Flégère for sunny pistes and scenery; Les Houches for woodland pistes in a white-out; Argentière for a serious workout. To sample Chamonix's famous off-piste, reserve a mountain guide (about £270 a day) and follow his/her lead; Jean-Marie Olianti, contactable through chalet operator Collineige (01483 579242), will not disappoint.
Aussi confortables que des hotels, la tranquillité en plus, les chalets avec services se multiplient.
Les Tissourds, vue Mont Blanc.
Colleen ne pensait pas restait trente ans lorsqu'elle venue passer l'hiver à Chamonix. Attachée à la vallée et à son guide de mari, la Sud-Africaine des contreforts du Lesotho a retrouvé des montagnes où ses amis lui demandaient d'organiser des séjours. Elle s'est donc lancée dans l'achat et la location de chalets avec services. "Au debut, nous louions juste aux Anglais, sans aucun confort. Ensuite, ils ont demandé du standing. Aujour'hui, la clientèle est internationale, avec pas mal de Français", confie-t-elle.
Six days, six resorts. Or rather, 16 resorts, because as well as Zermatt, St-Luc, Verbier, Champéry, Samoëns and Chamonix there would be side trips to Zinal, Chandolin, Siviez, Avoriaz, Morzine, Chatel, Les Carroz, Flaine, Sixt Fer à Cheval and Argentière.
The challenge: to pack a week's skiing into each day before driving to the next resort. I would be sleeping in a different bed every night, skiing with a different guide every day, and revelling in the chance to visit some old favourites and discover a few new ones.
Chamonix and Argentiere
By the time we reached Chamonix, we were exhausted. We were staying at the Hôtel Eden in Les Praz and our expectations were not high for the two-star establishment. But we were in for a surprise. A large, comfortable, two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with Wi-Fi and a top restaurant where we had the €29 (£25) menu – scallops, lamb, chocolate mousse – perfectly presented, not fussy, just delicious. The following night we moved to Val d'Arve, luxury self-catering apartments managed by Collineige, the Chamonix specialist, also excellent.
For our final day's skiing, we were met by Camille, who was to guide us around the slopes of Chamonix and Argentière. We completed a rapid circuit of Brévent and Flegère, then made our way to Argentière. The on-piste skiing is excellent in the Chamonix valley, but it's not the reason anybody skis here. It's for the non-pisted slopes, the powder, the gullies, the couloirs and the back country. It's all about finding fresh snow and sniffing out new routes.
There was just one drive left, back to Geneva airport just over an hour away.
And The Winners Are...
This summer we launched our first-ever easyJet Traveller Readers' Awards, asking you, our passengers, to vote for your favourite products, places and services across the network. We had an overwhelming response so we're planning more award for next year and are excited to announce the winners in all 10 categories for 2009.
1 BEST DESTINATION
Chamonix is one of the world's best off-piste resorts, a great place for intermediates to take a course in skiing powder, says Gwyn Topham.
....It's a good course to do if you're alone, mixing daytime sociability with relaxed evenings: back in the resort, I want to do little other than eat and crash at the chalet, run by Collineige, whose chefs are plucked from some of Australia and London's top restaurants – even a banana cake at afternoon tea comes with a personalised flourish of, I was told, "an Earl Grey-infused crème anglaise". By Wednesday, when I reluctantly leave chef James's cooking for one of Collineige's central self-catered apartments, après ski has become nothing more than a quest for food, a hot bath, and an 11-hour sleep.
Which nationalities have the best equipment? What’s the most adventurous thing to do with a family? How tough is the training? Jean-Marie Olianti, an experienced Chamonix mountain guide for over 30 years, explains the attraction of Europe’s finest outdoor playground
40 late travel deals for ski holidays
You are so lucky - the best snow for 30 years and there are still tons of bargain breaks out there
THE best snow for three decades, and still it's falling - Austria and Switzerland have seen another two metres in the past week, reports Ski Info.
But the credit crunch has seen some regulars stay away this season and it's become a late buyers' market, particularly for chalet holidays in France (and we've more ideas for ski weekend breaks in The Times today).
We've put together 40 current deals, from more than 30 tour operators, and only made available in the past 24 hours - all discounted, and most with more than one-third off. And all with deep links straight to the deal or property.
When: Mar 22-29
What: Villa Terrier, sleeps eight, fully catered chaletm return airport transfers (Geneva/Chamonix), breakfast, tea and four-course dinner with wine on five of the seven nights, linen & towels, minibus shuttle service for drop off to the slopes in the morning and a collection at the end of the day, representative service.
How much: £3,775 for the chalet (was £7,550)
Who with: Collineige
FORMER England star Austin Healey’s rugby career is going downhill fast – but he would not have it any other way.
Austin, now 34 and playing for humble Hertfordshire side Bishop’s Stortford, tackled an opponent tougher than All Blacks giant Jonah Lomu as he took on the Collineige Ski Challenge in Chamonix.
The plucky ski novice was given a crash course — with the emphasis on crash — to help him ski the feared Vallee Blanche off-piste run at the foot of France’s Mont Blanc.
And he showed enough fancy footwork in the snow to suggest he will waltz it when he stars in Strictly Come Dancing.
My stay at the Chalet Valhalla was one of the best travel lodging options in quite a while. The comfort level and amenities outstanding and service impeccable. The selection of properties that are handled by the company is extensive and covers a gamut of prices and type of stay. It was truly a pleasure.
It was a glorious summer’s day in the Alps, and I was standing on the edge of a 6,000 ft drop with a small Frenchwoman strapped to my back.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t have minded, but she was very clear about what I needed to do and unless I did exactly as she said there was a good chance we would end up hurtling towards the distant valley floor.
The rail renaissance in Europe is racing ahead like a 320kph TGV yet Guillaume Pepy, head of SNCF, sees risks as well as opportunities as he celebrates the centenary of the reborn Mont Blanc Express aboard one of its six new electric traction trains.
Last weekend saw the start of the French summer holiday season and 1.3 million people thronged Paris's stations as they headed for the mountains and sea. The elongated twin-set TGVs pulling out of the Gare de Lyon virtually every five minutes are packed with up to 1,000 passengers. The concourse and platforms are so crammed with anxious families and international backpackers it's surprising they all get on board on time.
Even in the driving rain sweeping through the French Alps, accompanied by thunder and lightning, drenched walkers and climbers rush to join the "express" linking St Gervais with Vallorcine on the Franco-Swiss border and offering stunning views of the Mer de Glace.
If you're a fan of all things rugby (the Six Nations tournament kicks off today) and skiing, combine your two passions by hitting Chamonix's slopes tomorrow. Collineige (01276 24262, www.collineige.com) is hosting former England greats Austin Healey, Will Greenwood and Mike Catt, right, there next week. You can ski the Vallée Blanche with them, and there's a question-and-answer session with the gents on Tuesday. Transfers from Geneva and half-board accommodation from £645pp for a week, excluding flights.
And then there was one…. I am alone in Chamonix and still at the fabulous Chalet Valhalla. It is one of those places that I wish I could click my heels and make Lil suddenly be here! In fact I wish the world could check in for a bit and see the sun sinking over Mt. Blanc and the other snow capped peaks. It is best done from the hot tub on the Valhalla’s deck. Many thanks go to Collineige and in particular Colleen Olianti, they offer such great alternatives to hotel stays. This place sleeps so many and is perfect for a Chamonix base as many do, even from Aspen.
As a member of the England rugby squad I've done some pretty scary things. One training camp experience that springs to mind was sitting in the body of a helicopter as it was submerged upside down in a swimming pool — the idea being to teach us to keep our cool.
So when I was invited to ski the world-renowned Vallee Blanche — a 20 km run down from 3,880m up Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe — I didn't hesitate. This, despite the fact I had only done five days skiing before in my life (the words rugby, insurance and skiing don't work in the same sentence).