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Chamonix For Summer

Jonathan Schofield finds it better in the mountains when the paragliders are soaring

Written by . Published on January 6th 2013.

Chamonix For Summer

LISTEN, if you’re thinking of a holiday en famille this year get the Alps at their best – during summer.

Everybody likes watching the sea. With a glacier it's the same: just slower, a creeping ocean in touchable HD.

Chamonix in July or August is a marvel.

The town and its Alpine environs might be famous as the haunt of skiing types, but go in high summer and you still get the snow on the mountains, but lower you also get valleys and slopes bursting with life and colour. This transition from dramatic, frozen waste to lush, fertile life is startling and invigorating.

Valley lifeValley life

Summer walks amongst aromatic upland meadows, into the gloom of conifer forests and under improbable cliffs, in and out of the sudden chill of fallen clouds are the thing of dreams, where views, vistas and panoramas constantly outdo each other

Higher upHigher up

Best of all is getting up close and personal with those most elemental and astonishing of monsters, glaciers. Watching Argenitiere glacier from twenty metres is better than any movie, the light through the ice creates remarkable effects, the glacier groans gutterally as gravity pushes it down valleys incised by ice. Everybody likes watching the sea. With a glacier it's the same: just slower, a creeping ocean in touchable HD.

Glacier's up closeGlaciers for friends

The place can take your breath away in more ways than one. When you get 3842m (11,423ft) above sea level on Aigulle du Midi, one of the highest cable cars anywhere, you stroll up to the viewing platforms gasping, processing oxygen as badly as a mackerel squirming in the hull of a trawler. The views into Italy and Switzerland and back into France help you forget the lightheadedness, especially the view almost straight down back into Chamonix, 2,448m (8,100ft) below.

Chamonix, 8000ft belowChamonix, 8,100ft below

Meanwhile due south, six kilometres or so, is the roof of Western Europe, Mont Blanc at 4810m (15,780ft). Climbers on ridges and along ice shelves, are dwarfed by the scale of the landscape as they edge to the top. You feel reduced and magnified at the same time.

Walkers inch up the side of Mount BlancWalkers inch up the side of Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc explains Chamonix, which as a tourist town is a British creation.

In 1741, two English fellas, William Windham and Richard Pococke, heard of an inaccessible ‘Valley of the Glaciers’. When they'd struggled up they found a hidden world inhabited by about 23 lonely goatherds and their worried beasts, but also filled with scenery scarcely equalled anywhere in Europe. They came back with stories of the valley's wonders, and thus began a process which has resulted in one of the most prim of A1 tourist destinations.


Many guests, it would appear, come to Chamonix as much to stare at each other as the mountains. The place is almost a parody of self-conscious Mittel European wealth. Euro-crisis, what bleeding Euro-crisis? 

You won't save money here, aside from staying in the charming, if old fashioned, Le Sapiniere hotel, as we did, and going full board.

Ingham's excellent Le Sapiniere Chalet HotelIngham's excellent Le Sapiniere Chalet Hotel

Otherwise it's just silly expensive - yet strangely amusing to find on the same street the world’s most expensive walking socks, and the world’s most expensive haute couture dresses from French and Italian design houses.

In the main square a pint of Coca Cola thumbed its nose at £8, a large beer scoffed at a tenner, a tartiflette (the local speciality of spuds, reblochon cheese, lardons and onions) was at the very least £15. A meal for four cost an arm, a leg and as much as a weekend in Southport.

Chamonix food was average for such a popular French destination. Our favourite restaurant was Le Gecko which provided the finest tartiflette around and some lush, garlicky and gorgeous snails. 

Snails at Le GeckoSnails at Le Gecko

Not that the occasional outbreak of vulgar wealth spoils the experience, and in terms of amenity it's good to have the town close by. If all the Chanel gets too much, a lifting of the head and the mountains looming over the buildings explains why you came. On sunny days clouds of paragliders swish over the town like huge tropical butterflies.

For kids tired of mountain walks – and be careful up on those paths if you have children or family members who suffer with asthma - there’s a play park with a fabulous summer toboggan, and a very good municipal swimming pool (although for a Brit male the French obligation to wear tiny trunks can be unnerving).

Summer 'luge'Summer 'luge'

There's also mountain biking and rafting too. The attention to detail over tourism can seem excessive. Richard ‘Le Coeur du Montagne’, as we called our bike guide, took us on a lovely route through forests and along river banks. Frequently we saw little huts in the forest. These turned out to be toilets. William Windham and Richard Pococke would no doubt have been very surprised by this turn of events, a sanitised leap away from their romantic view of the 'sauvage'.

Toilet shacks - tourism is highly organised in ChamonixToilet shacks - tourism is highly organised in Chamonix

There were some curious incidents.

On the second day we managed to get tutted at by Swiss French tourists while taking the cable car to Les Grands Montets (3275m, 10,744ft).

The Swiss were wearing impressive and matching walking outfits and looked like a collection of several Sir Ranulph Fiennes's setting off on an Artic expedition for months.

We were dressed for summer with jackets so thin they were less weather proof than teabags. We thought we'd just "nip up" - take our first ride on a cable car.

At the top the weather closed in and with visibility down to about five metres we stayed on the cable car station viewing platforms but giggled (and shivered) as the ice froze onto our eyebrows in August.

Then we laughed again as middle son Oliver broke a world altitude record with youngest son, Ralph. 

“Ha, ha,” said Oliver, “I bet this is the highest kecking in the world ever.” He'd pulled down Ralph’s jeans to reveal his boxers.

Wow, the world's highest kecking. 

Close by the Swiss folk were watching, unaware, perhaps, of this momentous achievement, but a sudden break in the howling gale enabled us to hear a very audible "tutt" together with an exclamation of "Les Anglais!"

It was a happy holiday all round.

Take a look at the picture gallery below ( including some pictures from an excursion to Annecy), then book a holiday in Chamonix and literally, freshen up. 

Shortly before the 'highest kecking' incidentShortly before the 'highest kecking' incident


We stayed more or less right in the centre of Chamonix in Le Sapiniere Chalet Hotel courtesy of Inghams, the ski and Alpine holiday specialist (click here). The staff were lovely, especially the then manager, Angela, who we can’t thank enough. We'd flown from Manchester to Geneva and then been bussed to Chamonix as part of the package.

For a family of four, two adults, two children, you will need to buy a Mount Blanc Multipass which gives you unlimited access up the cable cars, the Montenvers railway and so forth. These are not cheap but vital if you wish to enjoy Chamonix and its valley properly – a five day pass for the family will cost around £300.

 If you have to choose just one cable car/railway journey up a mountain go for the spectacular Aigulle du Midi rather than taking the rack railway to MontenversLe Brevent is the best station to visit for views after Aigulle du Midi, on the other side of the valley from the latter. Always be mindful of the possibility of queues at cable car stations, and also be wary of the sudden weather variations - as we found out. 





Summer 'luge'Summer 'luge'



Chamonix - tartifletteChamonix - tartiflette

Chamonix - Gallic skimpiesChamonix - Gallic skimpies


The sole City fan in the family insisted on showing his true colours at Mount BlancThe sole City fan in the family insisted on showing his true colours at Mont Blanc




Annecy lakeAnnecy lake

Annecy lakeAnnecy lake


View from our bedroom balcony at Le SapiniereView from our bedroom balcony at Le Sapiniere




Bye bye ChamonixBye bye Chamonix

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