Sunday Express, 16 May, 2010

Action-packed Chamonix where the sky’s the limit

Off season, the ski hot spot is a spectacular playground for all manner of outdoor pursuits, as DUNCAN CRAIG discovers

THE SKIES were cloudless yet shadows skidded across the valley floor. Squinting into the sun, the source of this anomaly soon became clear: paragliders, dozens of them, riding the thermals far above and swooping in to land on grassland dotted around the town.

Following the trajectory of one, my gaze was caught by a thread of mountain bikers on a distant descent through the larch and pine foothills. Up ahead, silver-headed hikers rested on trekking poles and watched kayaks glide past beneath an artificial wall specked with climbers. If activity is your thing, then Chamonix in summer is your sort of place.

Even as a non-skier, I was aware of Chamonix, one of the premier winter resorts. Off-season, ironically, it is even more popular, a dazzlingly lit playground framed by an Alpine amphitheatre of awe-inspiring verticality. The focal point is 15,780ft Mont Blanc, the highest in Western Europe, a perennially snow-capped massif of spire-like pinnacles and lolling tongues of ice.

From gentle ambles to glacier hikes, Alpine fishing to whitewater rafting, the list of activities is as long as its appeal is broad. Add in easy access (Chamonix is just an hour’s drive from Geneva airport) and it is little wonder thousands throng the town’s narrow, pretty streets during the summer months.

It’s perfectly possible to escape the crowds. While not a name you want to be shouting on the slopes in winter, Le Lavancher – a hamlet three miles north of Chamonix – is blissfully quiet, with a traditional, rustic feel. We stayed at Chalet Hotel Le Jeu de Paume (“day of the apple”, as my bilingual travel companion Blake helpfully pointed out), a 23-room, ochre-hued chalet with ornately carved terraces and luxuriant window boxes.

At the hotel’s valley-renowned Le Rosebud restaurant, our waiter introduced each exquisite dish on our set menu and explained how the hotel got its name: “Game of the hand” was an early French precursor of tennis, apparently. Blake, my monolingual travel companion, stared at his tartine.

The thin air provides the perfect excuse for lethargy. Switching from sun-kissed terrace to indoor pool or Jacuzzi was about as vigorous as it got

The village is 800ft higher than Chamonix, which itself is the same altitude as Snowdon. The thin air provides the perfect excuse for lethargy. Switching from sun-kissed terrace to indoor pool or Jacuzzi was about as vigorous as it got.

As our bodies adapted, we ventured out into the network of mountain trails abutting the hotel. In the still air, our breathing and the torrent of the River Arve far below were the only sounds.

Relocating to Chamonix, we signed up for as many activities as we could pack in: scrambling over boulders and jumping into invigoratingly icy pools on a half-day canyoning trip; taking out a two-man “canoe-raft” on the glacial, silt-coloured Arve; and venturing into the mountains to test our nerves on the Via Ferrata, a suspended iron walkway.

Another high point was a dawn ride to the Aiguille du Midi, the “needle of midday”. This distinctive peak is accessed by the world’s steepest vertical-climb cable car, which departs from what is surely the world’s ugliest building, in Chamonix Sud.

Don’t be put off, the views improve exponentially as you climb. By the summit you’ll be lost for words.

Sightseeing works up an appetite as surely as activity does. Chamonix caters equally well for both sit-down and grazing. For the latter, try Le Fournil Chamoniard pâtisserie on Avenue de L’Aiguille du Midi. Here, I enjoyed a holiday romance with a fruity tart by the name of Grille Myrtille, a pastry and blackberry slice for which I still yearn.

The hubs of Place Balmat and Place de Garmisch are awash with good al-fresco eateries serving regional staples such as tartiflette, a calorific cheese and potato dish. For charm, however, take to the back streets.

Here, we found Le Sérac, its elevated, street-side terrace the perfect spot for a feast of fondue bourguignonne and mussels in breadcrumbs, washed down with a caramelly Pelforth Brune.

The waiter-attended Jacuzzi had just enough room for two German couples, we grudgingly noted

Chamonix is admirably, if occasionally frustratingly, eco. It’s a surprise birthday party of a town, the lights of seemingly every room you enter triggered by your arrival. This ethos is at the heart of Hotel Le Morgane, a carbon-neutral, chocolate-and-taupe structure that boasts of “mountain range authenticity”. No ibexes in the rooms, sadly, just chic, modern furnishings and, to our amusement, “Bogner” toiletries.

The Deep Nature Spa, at Le Morgane’s nearby sister hotel, Les Aiglons, operates under the unappetising slogan “Dive Into Yourself”. Undeterred, I enjoyed an “initiatic massage”, which I thought might involve strange handshakes but was in fact a blissful rub down with oils.

We reconvened at the steaming outdoor pool as the sun dipped over the fanged horizon. The waiter-attended Jacuzzi had just enough room for two German couples, we grudgingly noted.

To reclaim our manhood we opted for an adrenaline-packed finale, riding the 8,000ft Brévent cable car to the paragliding launchpad. Waiting for me here was bubbly “pilot” Patrice, who has been running off cliffs with strangers for 20 years.

I strapped in to the bucket seat on his front and waddled as fast as I could down the mountain as instructed. The canopy swooped up behind us and suddenly the 12-mile-long Chamonix Valley opened up below, majestic in the late-afternoon sunshine.

I settled back and let Patrice skillfully locate the thermals. After a frenzied week in Chamonix, to be honest it was nice to have a bit of a sit down.

 

* GETTING THERE: easyJet (0871 244 2366/www.easyjet.com) offers return flights from London City to Geneva from £54. Mountain Drop-Offs (020 7043 4874/www.mountaindropoffs.com) offers return transfers from Geneva to Chamonix from £43pp. Hotel Le Jeu de Paume (dialling from the UK: 00 33 450 540 376/www.jeudepaumechamonix.com) offers doubles from £142 (two sharing), B&B. Hotel Le Morgane (450 535 715/www.morgane-hotel-chamonix.com) offers doubles from £142 (two sharing), B&B. Evolution 2 (450 555 357/www.evolution2-chamonix.com) offers a range of activities from £17.
Chamonix Mont-Blanc Tourism: 450 530 024/www.chamonix.com