France has so much to offer outside of Paris. As an American expat, I like to take advantage of my time in France to see beyond the capital city and explore the rest of the country. I’ve been to Lyon, Annecy, Reims, Epernay, Versailles, Normandy, Giverny, Nice and Cannes. After feeling stressed and wanting a bit of a retreat, opportunity rang in the form of a SNCF rail sale. I took advantage and booked 75 euro roundtrip tickets to Chamonix, France!
Chamonix? Where is that?
Chamonix is located in the Haute-Savoie/Rhône-Alpes region of France. It’s actually only two hours from Annecy, and many trains connect through there. Chamonix is known for being the village at the foot of Mont Blanc – the highest point in France and part of the French Alps. Due to Chamonix’s prime location in the mountainous region, it’s well known for winter sports – it’s a fantastic location for skiing.
Chamonix hosted the very first Winter Olympics in 1924. This town is no slouch when it comes to tourism – around 5 million people visit per year.
If you’re coming from the US, try flying Air France to Geneva, Switzerland. It’s only about an hour ride from Geneva to Chamonix.
Chamonix is more than winter sports
I chose to visit Chamonix because there’s more to do than skiing. I tried skiing many years ago for a friend’s birthday in the Catskills and it was not a good look for me.
Chamonix has more to offer than winter sports and it’s a great getaway for anyone looking to escape the city smog and take in some sights. Even if you’re not a skier, the top attractions are still the Alps – particularly Mont Blanc.
Aiguille du Midi(12,605 feet high/3,842 meters)in the Mont Blanc mountain range has a cable car that will take you to the top of the mountain – the highest cable car in Europe. As someone who is obsessed with Everest, I was elated to experience the summit of a mountain without doing intense mountaineering. Although Mont Blanc is only 4,808 meters tall (15,781 feet high), as opposed to the 8,848 meters of Everest, it’s one of the most deadly mountains in the world. This has been attributed to inexperienced mountaineers attempting summit pushes. About 100 people die on average per year on Mont Blanc.
To get to the top of Aiguille du Midi, you go to the Aiguille du Midi cable car, which stops at the Plan d’Aiguille. From here, many alpinists get off to ski down or snowboard down the mountain. To reach the summit of Aiguille du Midi, you switch to a cable car to the top. The summit is more than just amazing views – there’s a restaurant, a museum and you can even “step into the void” by walking into a glass bottomed box and getting your picture taken. One of the more peculiar sights you’ll see from the summit is wreckage from the Air India 101 crash on Mont Blanc from 1966. It sounds creepy because it is. The bulk of the wreckage was removed years ago but various parts of the plane still exist. Hikers are recovering items around the mountain from the crash, including a discovery of human remains in July 2017. Mont Blanc is similar of Everest in this way – a reminder of many tragedies.
Although I didn’t get to do Aiguille du Midi, I did do the Le Brévent cable car, which offers the best views of Mont Blanc. Le Brévent is a mountain (8,284 feet high/2,525 meters) located directly across from Mont Blanc and has amazing views of the peak. Yes, you miss out on the “Step into the Void” experience, but hopefully you can do that as well.
A few things to know about the Le Brévent cable car:
- It is extremely high. My sister, who has a fear of heights, commented that she was able to do the Table Mountain cable car in South Africa, but the Le Brévent summit is 1,500 meters higher. That is the equivalent of 765 building stories.
- It is extremely cold at the top. The temperature drops 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit per every 1000 feet you ascend. Keep that in mind – if you think you have on enough layers, then add two more.
- The wind kicks up at the top and the snow and ice may freeze the doors. I waited for 20 minutes as the cable car operator attempted to close the doors at the summit of the mountain.
- Your iPhone can’t handle the temperature/altitude. My iPhone was good for about 7 minutes and then shut off and didn’t come back on until it was warm enough. Full disclosure: I put it in my bra to warm it back up. Make sure you take enough pictures in the beginning of your summit trip or bring electronics that can handle extreme temps.
I enjoyed my Le Brévent summit but I made the mistake of getting on to the first cable car by myself. I don’t consider myself afraid of heights – I’ve done trapeze in NYC, climbed the Great Wall of China and climbed 3 feet vertical ladders onto merchant mariner ships. HOWEVER, this was a completely different ballgame. The cable car to the main cable car is not only very high but also quite steep. I would not have been scared with other people but doing it alone was a serious misjudgment on my part.
In addition to Le Brévent and Aiguille du Midi for non-skiers, there are many other things to check out while in Chamonix. My trip was short, but I definitely want to return and see more.
If you’re looking for something else that’s not shopping or ski related, check out the Montenvers-Mer de Glace. I wanted to do this badly, but I didn’t have enough time! You can take the scenic red train through the mountains and forests and it takes you to a beautiful glacier – the Mer de Glace. After your train ride, you can disembark and walk through an ice cave and visit the nearby museum that tells the glacier’s story.
Where to stay in Chamonix
I partnered with Temmos Hotels for my trip and I couldn’t be happier. As a non-skier, I struggled to find hotels that suited my needs (i.e.- not on the mountain and in the city center) and had the modern décor I like versus the spooky all wood interior of ski chalet décor.
For my first night, I stayed at the Le Refuge des Aiglons. This hotel is on the edge of town and I’ll be honest, I didn’t know if I’d like it. However I had a great stay there and would recommend it to anyone. Le Refuge des Aiglons was recently renovated and has a hip and trendy vibe. The hotel is a 7-minute walk from the Chamonix Aiguille du Midi stop and conveniently located less than 5 minutes from the Aiguille du Midi cable car.
If you’re looking for a modern hotel with a young vibe, Le Refuge des Aiglons is it. Not only did I enjoy the tech amenities in my room (you can do screen mirroring from your phone to the TV) but there’s also a photo booth located in the lobby.
A snowstorm hit while I was staying in Le Refuge, so I had time to check out the hot tub and pool amenities. In addition to meeting making friends in the hot tub, the Deep Nature spa amenities were beautiful, particularly the relaxation room. If you stay in the hotel, make sure to book your spa appointments early – I wasn’t able to get an appointment! They’re in high demand, especially if you’re not skiing.
Le Morgane is a Temmos hotel located in the heart of the center of town – only a 2-minute walk from the Chamonix-Aiguille du Midi train station. Le Morgane is a classic hotel – the décor is less hip and trendy and more modern and clean. The views from Le Morgane are amazing and you can’t beat having such a great location.
I was able to secure a spa appointment at Le Morgane during the snowstorm for a massage and I was not disappointed. The spa facilities at Le Morgane are not as spacious as Le Refuge des Aiglons but are just as effective. It’s worth noting that if you want an outdoor hot tub/heated pool experience, only Le Refuge des Aiglons offers that. Le Morgane has a relaxation pool which is smaller and indoors.
My room in Le Morgane had double balconies – one facing Mont Blanc and the other facing the city. I only wish it were warmer during my visit so that I could take full advantage of both.
Le Morgane’s clientele seems to be slightly older than Le Refuge and more ski-heavy. In the morning, you’ll see several hotel guests waiting for a lift to the mountain for their daytime activities.
Here’s a video of my experience at Le Refuge des Aiglons and Le Morgane:
Where to Eat in Chamonix
Haute-Savoie region food is quickly becoming my favorite in France. Like in Annecy, there is raclette and tartiflette everywhere – and I’m not mad at it! I did deviate from the norm and eat at these places:
La Jonction Coffee: Okay okay, this is NOT a restaurant but they still serve food! La Jonction opened up less than 2 years ago after noticing a dearth of good coffee in Chamonix. The coffee shop offers not just coffee – there are many types of hot chocolate and even hot chocolate and coffee with Baileys. They serve avocado toasts and bagels – the latter of which I don’t see much of in France. I ordered a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese and I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint (it wasn’t an NY bagel, but what is!). I went here several times over the course of my trip.
L’Impossible: Chamonix is located at the border of Switzerland and Italy so I rightfully assumed there would be good Italian food available. L’Impossible, located near Le Refuge des Aiglons is a bit pricey but worth it. I arrived as a solo diner and they did their best to make sure I felt comfortable and well fed. I ordered the leeks, pumpkin and chestnut soup and the ravioli with chestnut, clarified butter and marjoram.
The food was delicious and the ambience was perfect. If you go, make sure you arrive early so that you won’t run into the group dinners of 8 or more.
Tips for your Chamonix Trip:
- Make sure to go for a decent amount of time. Weather is unpredictable and due to a freak snowstorm, I wasn’t’ able to do everything I wanted. If you have a few days there, you should be able to cover what you want.
- Bring snow boots! I thought about buying rain boots instead since they’re not used much in Paris, but I’m glad I bought them. Snowfall generally starts in January but it’s always best to be prepared.
- Don’t worry about racial demographics and language barriers. As a female African-American solo traveler, I get this question a lot. Yes, it’s a ski resort town. However, I heard more English and saw more black people in a short amount of time than I ever have in Paris. There were multiple African-American couples there on vacation as well as black French people enjoying the slopes. The language barrier was disappointing to me – I thought I’d be able to use my French in an environment more conducive to learning but everyone in Chamonix was an English/Australian or American tourist.
- Don’t go on the cable car alone. That bears repeating.
- Plan enough time for the cable cars. I ended up missing my train (and the 2nd one didn’t even show up) due to the time I spent waiting for the doors to de-ice and close on the cable car at Le Brévent. It’s not something that should be done in a short time period.
Still need more convincing? Check out the highlights of my Chamonix trip in this video:
*I was a guest of Temmos Hotels on my stay, but all opinions are my own*
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