Chamonix See And Do
The world's highest cable car soars 12,600 feet up the Aiguille ("Needle") du Midi, providing staggering views of Mont Blanc—at 15,780 feet, Western Europe's loftiest peak. Vertigo sufferers should be aware that the cables are, at some points, suspended more than 1,640 feet above the ground. Expect a lengthy wait, both going up and coming down, and wear warm clothing. More intrepid types can return by skiing down the Vallée Blanche, though the run is not for the faint of heart. Those who just want to take a day trip to the summit can contemplate the snowy peaks over a chocolat chaud in the Aiguille du Midi's café, before descending the same way they came up.
Not for nothing does Chamonix call itself the "birthplace of mountaineering." In summer, the mountains are a hikers' paradise, with sparkling-clean air, pine forests, jagged peaks, and meadows filled with wildflowers. Lightweight shorts and boots are sufficient, and trekking poles are useful. Beware of patches of old snow, especially early in the season. Trails are well signposted and accessible either from the valley floor or by cable car. For a good day hike, take a cable car to Plan d'Aiguille then hike across to Montenvers, or take a lift up La Flégère then hike to Lake Blanc.
The massive, desolate glacier known as Mer de Glace is 4.3 miles long and moves 295 feet per year. In summer, a number of gorgeous walks start here; in winter, you can descend to it through the steep Vallée Blanche from the Aiguille de Midi on skis. If you're not up for the steep slopes, take the train from Chamonix to Montenvers and admire the views from there. Afterward, take the cable car from Montenvers to La Grotte de Glace, a fairy-tale cavern hollowed out of the glacier, or learn more about the place's geology at the Crystal Gallery next to the station. The train to Montenvers-Mer de Glace departs frequently from Chamonix (the station is behind the Gare SNCF in the town center).
Le Majestic Centre De Congrès
The concerts of the Semaines Musicales du Mont-Blanc fill the Grande Salle of the Majestic with jazz and classical favorites from mid-July to August. Built in the 18th century, this hulking pile of a building was once an opulent hotel but is now an apartment building and, prosaic though it may be, a convention center. The Majestic hosts the popular Semaines Musicales series every year, and the crowd-pleasing program typically includes hits by Vivaldi, Pachelbel, and other masters. Tickets are available from the tourist office (85 Place de Triangle de l'Amitié; 33-4-50-53-0024; www.chamonix.com).
While it's possible to learn to ski in Chamonix—Le Tour at the head of the valley, has beginner slopes and there are other isolated novice lifts and trails—it's best suited to adventurous intermediates and experts because the disparate nature of the ski areas makes it unsuitable for groups or families of different levels.
The town's main skiing is reached by cableway from the outskirts of the resort or from Les Praz, a short bus ride away. Both serve the two areas of Le Brévent and La Flegère, which are linked by cable-car. Together they provide a sunny playground with lots of serious challenges and magnificent views of Mont Blanc. But the pièce de résistance is situated five miles up the valley at the little village of Argentière. An 80-person cable-car and a four-person chair-lift give access to the mid-mountain station of Lognan. From there a further cable-car (you pay a supplement on the local lift pass) takes you up to Les Grands Montets, one of Europe's greatest ski mountains. This is the starting point for some epic off-piste descents such as the infamous Pas de Chèvre.
The fourth and most famous of the main ski areas is the 12,600-foot Aiguille du Midi, reached by the world's highest cable-car (it also has the largest span of cable), which starts from the south side of the resort. From the first stage you can ski back down to town. The top is the vertiginous starting point for the Vallée Blanche, a beautiful 14-mile glacial descent. It is essential to take a guide, but the actual skiing is not difficult; anyone who can ski parallel and is fit can tackle the easiest of the four routes. However, you do need a head for heights—the descent begins with a slither down ice steps with a 6,000-foot vertical drop to your left. The best guides rope up their clients at the start.
Guides can be arranged through the Association Nationale des Guides de Mont Blanc or the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonx. If you want ski lessons there's a choice of six main schools including the École de Ski and Evolution 2. Both also provide care and lessons for kids from three years old.
Your choice of lift pass depends on where you want to spend most time. Chamonix Le Pass covers Le Brévent-La Flegère, Le Tour/La Balme, and Lognan (excluding the Grand Montets cable-car) as well as the various nursery slopes scattered along the valley. The wider Chamonix Unlimited covers all transport including the Grands Montets and L'Aiguille du Midi as well as the neighboring resort of Les Houches. Both passes can be purchased through the Chamonix Office of Tourism.