[Chamonix Mont Blanc Tourist Board]

New Heights

In the shadow of the highest mountain in the Alps, the Chamonix Valley is a year-round paradise. Sam Bradley discovers its wild side

In the 1700s mountains weren’t considered beautiful. In fact, they were often referred to as boils or warts, and travellers were even known to blindfold themselves while travelling through mountain ranges. The reason for their unpopularity? The fact they couldn’t be tamed: no human order could be imposed on their rugged peaks and they were useless for agriculture or commerce.

Three hundred years later and we still haven’t obtained mastery over the mountains, especially towering great peaks like the Mont Blanc range in France. However, instead of trying to blindfold ourselves to their existence, we’ve turned them into a magnificent playground.

The Chamonix Valley is 25 kilometres long and made up of the villages of Chamonix, Les Houches Argentiere and Vallorcine on the Swiss border. Towering over them, large enough to be impossible to ignore, lies the ever-imposing Mont Blanc range.

In winter the mountains are covered in a decadent snow blanket, turning the region into a magical winter wonderland. The 145 kilometres of ski runs make up the five ski regions, from the family-friendly Les Houches slopes to the wilder Grands Montets area.

Both skiers and non-skiers will want to visit the Aiguille du Midi, a station 3,842 metres above sea level with 360 degree views out over the French, Swiss and Italian Alps. The sights are stupendous, as is the glass cage with views out over the 1,000 metre precipice below. In good conditions it’s possible to ski all the way from the station down to Chamonix – a descent of 2,700 metres over a 20km ski route.

The postcard pretty village of Chamonix, nestled high in the Alps and surrounded by snow and pine trees, is always going to attract non-skiers – and there is plenty to keep them entertained. Outdoor attractions for the whole family include a one-kilometre luge-boarding track, dog sledding with professional mushers, and ski joering (a traditional winter activity of being pulled along on skis by horses).

There are also plenty of routes for hikes and snow shoeing, and for the very adventurous there’s paragliding, ice climbing and snow-kiting – a crazy combination of skiing, kiteboarding and paragliding. In summer the snow clears away and the area becomes perfect for river rafting, hiking, mountain biking and trail running.

Whatever the season, guests will enjoy relaxing in the picturesque alpine villages after a busy day of activities. There are spas and indoor pools to enjoy, as well as an alpine museum and glaciarium (an exhibition centre focused on glaciers).

Base camp for our skiing adventure was the funky Rockypop Hotel in Les Houches. Everything about the hotel creates a relaxed and fun vibe, from the large retro-looking astronaut prop in the reception area to the 1980’s style Pac-Man decorations and the super-friendly, enthusiastic staff. The communal area has great buffet breakfasts in the mornings and is transformed into a lively bar area in the evenings, complete with old-school video games for the gaming geeks. The bottom floor also has a fully kitted out ski shop and rental area, and the hotel is well located close to all the ski slopes. The Chamonix Valley has free buses available to all guests, including non-skiers.

It’s true that travellers of old probably wouldn’t have fully appreciated the beauty of the wild and untameable Mont Blanc range. However, in our perfectly planned modern day lives, where everything from our daily schedules to our room temperature is carefully controlled, isn’t a holiday on the wild side just what we need?

Get me there:

Chamonix sits in the south east of France, less than 15 kilometres from the Swiss and Italian borders. The closest airport is in Geneva (88km) with regular buses to Chamonix.