The numbers give a clue as to Chamonix’s stellar pedigree. Resort height: 1035m. Top lift: 3842m. The range is exceptional and it spells versatility – long runs below the tree line offer good sport in bad weather, and big glacier runs at high altitude are often at their best in April. This is a landscape built on a heroic scale that makes other resorts seem tame by comparison. No two days are the same in this hugely varied ski area.
Chamonix’s smaller neighbours offer the same top-quality slopes but a quieter holiday. Les Houches, Argentière and half a dozen smaller resorts all count as Chamonix, for lift pass purposes if not after dark. Close to the Swiss border in a no-man’s-land between road passes, Vallorcine is a more remote satellite.
Chamonix resort itself is a busy town of 10, 000 permanent residents at the foot of Mont Blanc, just below the French entrance to the Mont Blanc road tunnel, a major transalpine freight route. A steady stream of heavy trucks schlepping up through the hairpins does nothing for the mountain ambience or the air quality.
A tranquil Alpine retreat it may not be, but Chamonix’s setting beneath the cliffs and tumbling glaciers of the Mont Blanc massif is tremendous, and the bustling town doesn't lack charm. Its old buildings have kept their sedate Victorian and more fanciful Belle Epoque look and, now that the centre is traffic-free, it offers pleasant strolling, with cafés overhanging the river Arve’s torrent and a wealth of interesting shops – galleries, bookshops and speciality food, as well as souvenirs and the latest technical snowsports clothing and hardware. At the centre of it all stands the statue of the young hunter and collector of crystals Jacques Balmat showing de Saussure the way up Mont Blanc. The Alpine museum (chamonix.fr) doesn't have much information in English but is worth visiting and often has good temporary exhibitions. There's also an open air market at Chamonix every Saturday morning, at Argentière on Sundays and at Les Houches on Mondays.
Proximity to Geneva and its all-round, year-round active lifestyle appeal has made Chamonix a popular place to settle and set up shop, creating a uniquely cosmopolitan, colourful and dynamic entrepreneurial scene. There are legions of photographers, independent guides and instructors, taxi drivers, caterers, chalet girl placement agencies, magazine publishers and publicans, baby sitters, crèche operators and property agencies. Visit chamonix.com (the official tourist office site) and chamonet.com (one of several independent sites) to discover more about the area.
Chamonix expert Adam Ruck: "In Janaury 1981, I bought a £99 chalet holiday to a low resort I had never heard of, with an unimpressive tally of seven lifts - Argentière. The slopes were a revelation, and I learned the difference between quality and quantity. Since then no season has passed without a few trips to the top, to confront 2, 000 vertical metres of rough and tumble. Never a dull moment in Cham'."
Fly to Geneva with Swiss (swiss.com – it has the benefit of free ski carriage), British Airways (ba.com), easyJet (easyjet.com) or Flybe (flybe.com). EasyJet offers the widest choice of UK airports. Swiss flies from London City and Heathrow airport, Flybe from Cardiff, Exeter and Southampton and BA from London Heathrow, Gatwick and City airports.
Chamonix is 100km (one hour and 15 minutes' drive) from Geneva airport, mostly by toll motorway, and 900km (eight hours' drive) from Calais via Reims, Troyes and Bourg en Bresse. Chains are rarely needed for access to or getting around the valley, but may be necessary for getting to Le Lavancher, Vallorcine or Verbier.
Travelling to the Alps by train (voyages-sncf.com, raileurope.co.uk, eurostar.com) – via Eurostar to Paris, usually – is a comfortable alternative to flying, and financially viable if you book well in advance (four months ahead for the best Eurostar fares, three months ahead for domestic French rail travel, except for a few peak periods).
Chamonix, Argentière and Vallorcine are all stops on the line that connects the main Swiss and French rail networks at Martigny and St Gervais Le Fayet.
The night train from Paris to St Gervais gets to Chamonix in time for a day on the slopes (from £35 in a couchette, women-only compartments available on request). By day, the quickest route is via Bellegarde (five hours 45 minutes from Paris, from about £45). Alternatively, combine a journey to Geneva by train via Lille or Paris with a bus transfer or hired car for the airport-to-resort transfer. Bus transfers to and from Geneva airport are competitively priced (from £20 each way –showtrain.com, resortrides.com, chamexpress.com oralpybus.com). However, a hired car is very useful to have in resort. easyBus (easybus.co.uk), easyJet's coach operator sibling, has a transfer service from Geneva Airport to Chamonix, with fares starting at €5.
Insider ratings (out of three)
Snow reliability **
Off piste/Powder ***
Village charm *
Terrain parks *
Families No stars
Off slope activities/facilities **