Chamonix: Rugged Beauty in the French Alps
For Francophiles and French homebodies alike, winter paradise can be found in Chamonix. Located in the shadow of Mont Blanc, Western Europe's tallest, it offers enough alpine elegance to earn a nomination for a Readers' Choice Award for Best International Ski Destination – all within the boundaries of L'Hexagone.
As legend has it, the first outsiders to stumble upon Chamonix were two Englishmen, Richard Pockocke and William Windham, who chanced upon the settlement in 1741. By 1770, the first inn opened; in 1866, under Napoleon III, the first carriage pulled into town. Tourism really took off after 1901, when the first rail line to Chamonix made winter travel less treacherous. The town played host to the first Winter Olympics in 1924 which consecrated the valley as a winter mecca.
These days, Chamonix remains a popular destination for winter sports, and not just wealthy ski bums. Its dramatic slopes are among the most challenging in the world, drawing ice climbers, paragliders, and extreme skiers and snowboarders who relish the chance to go "off-piste" and conquer inclines sometimes steeper than 60 degrees while dodging dangerous crevasses. There are a multitude of slopes for skiers who are beginners and intermediate level, as well. Chamonix offers tremendously long slopes, skiing through the trees and free ride. For those with tamer tastes, there's the spectacular cable car ride to the top of the Aiguille du Midi; during the trip, riders rise 2,800 meters in 20 minutes.
Chamonix's skiing extends over three main areas: Brévent/Flégère, offering south-facing slopes and exceptional views of the Mont-Blanc chain, the Grands Montets, high altitude north-facing slopes which dominate the village of Argentière and the Balme area, wide open slopes at the top of the Chamonix valley, bordering on Switzerland. The sister resort of les Houches lies at the opposite end of the valley and is accessible with the Mont-Blanc Unlimited ski pass.
Like most European ski destinations, Chamonix isn't the cheapest place for Americans. With the dollar declining again, travelers from the U.S. should expect to shell out at least $500 per night at chic accommodations like Le Morgane. Another good option is the Grand Hotel des Alpes, which is located in the Chamonix Mont Blanc.
Vote now for what you believe is the best of breed for each of the Winter Travel categories. Readers' Choice Awards for the Best in Winter Travel will be announced on January 31st.
Gallery: More from Chamonix, France