Chamonix, France

January 2020

Chamonix, France 

After watching Girl in Florence experience a magical winter wonderland in San Candido Italy, it inspired me to put aside my summer seeking self and jump into the snow. This town was perfectly decorated for the holiday, full of Christmas markets and hot beverages, and the mountains as the immediate backdrop. You could even ski right from the town from the mountain. The only problem was San Candido is very difficult to get to as someone traveling outside of Italy for a long weekend. Fast forward to one of our favorite Bourdain episodes (yes I know I say that a lot, we have many favorites!) visiting the French Alps which reminded of what I liked about San Candido – not to mention all that cheese. After doing some research, Chamonix seemed to be like the perfect candidate for out winter getaway. 

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is situated at the intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland where the Alps extend high into the sky. This made it an accessible destination, only an hour from Geneva’s airport. The highest peak, Mont Blanc, was first climbed by British expeditionists and continues to be a resort spot popular among British travelers. While there is a ton of skiing in Chamonix, there are plenty of activities for non-skiers as well. In fact, Chamonix is a destination all year round as the lifts continually operate warm weather hiking and panoramic views. I have to say, the pictures of Chamonix in the summer gave me pause on going on the winter as it looks amazing. I do not think you can go wrong with whatever time of year you visit. 

Wednesday

We took the red eye Tuesday night with a layover in Lisbon before arriving in Geneva. While there are a few different ways to get the Chamonix, flying through Geneva was the easiest and closest. For us it meant a four country trip – starting in the US, flying through Lisbon, to get to Geneva before driving to France.   From Geneva’s airport, it is about an hour away to Chamonix and there were a few options – train (incredibly indirect), bus, or setting up private or shared transport. While the bus was the cheapest option, it was only a few more dollars to get a shared transport (Mountain Drop Offs) that dropped us off directly at our Airbnb – well worth the splurge. 

The scenic hour drive was unfortunately not scenic at all since it was already pitch black out. Occasionally, you could make out the outline of the mountain high in the sky, only illuminated by the moon’s light. 

Our Airbnb was just outside of the downtown, and easy walk to everything. It was a well appointed studio that had a window facing the Le Brévent mountain. We had to wait until morning to enjoy the view. 

I made reservations at Le Comptoir de Alpes so after checking in and dropping off our bags, we bundled up and walked into town. During the walk, we would look out into the distance and begin to see the snow on the mountain since the moon was so bright. It really made the mountains look scary – we could not get a good view of what they actually looked like but enough to know they were massive, imposing, and daunting. 

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It was less than a ten minute walk to arrive at Le Comptoir de Alpes and needless to say we were starving!

Read the full dining review of Le Comptoir de Alpes here!

Exhausted after a long day of traveling, we had no trouble falling asleep and were excited to see the mountains in the morning.

Thursday

Like Christmas morning, I jumped from bed to our window and was disappointed that the view did not change from the morning. We still had 2 hours for the predicted sunrise at 8AM. Breakfast was around the corner so I was hoping that as the minutes progressed, brightness would creep in to showcase the Alps. 

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When we walked out the door, it was stunning. While the sun was still not up, the sky was clear and bright. We were in complete wonderment at the views surrounding us. It was a longer walk to breakfast as it was impossible to not stop every few steps and take a bunch of photos. Honestly, it was well beyond any expectation or pictures we had seen. Completely engulfed in the snowy mountain tops that steeply rose thousands of meters into the air, we could not wait to explore as much of them as we could on this trip. 

Breakfast at the Le Fournil Chamoniard included delicious pastries but there were also tons of different bread, quiche, and other options.

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With a little something in our bellies, we were off to our first destination – Aiguille du Midi. We could see it from the town – a small needle that was atop the highest peak. That is where we would be – it was hard to believe. 

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Since we purchased Mont Blanc Unlimited Passes online (read here for our review of the value of this pass), we headed to a kiosk directly in front of the Aigulle du Midi lift to print them. It was a very easy process that took seconds. The first lift of the day was at 8:10AM so we got ourselves directly in line just before 8AM. All the other people in line had their ski or snowboard gear, or the most intense climbing gear I have ever seen. I was beginning to question if we were in the correct spot. Then, someone in front of us turned as said in a heavy Australian accent “oh, I am glad we are not the only ones not prepared – where is your rope?” We both laughed. While she and her group were also in ski gear, they were just going up to the top for the view and heading right to a ski slope. Up to 3842 meters to Aiguille du Midi we go! 

Read about our journey to Aiguille du Midi and see all the unbelievable pictures here!

My two parting tips for visiting Aiguille du Midi: 1) go up on the first gondola of the day. It comes with so many benefits, including a low sun for optimal light in photos, as well as fewer people. 2) make sure it is a clear view for visibility. Do not waste the money to go up if it is cloudy because you will not get the same experience – the price of round trip up to Aiguille du Midi is 65 euro a round trip. Since we had the Mont Blanc Unlimited pass, it was included and it is the only pass that included Aiguille du Midi as one of the benefits. Dress warm (very warm, even if you visit in the summer time) and listen to your body if you experience signs of hypoxia. 

We made it back to Chamonix after 10AM and decided to spend time getting to know the town. We stopped into Moody’s Coffee Rosters for Kevin to grab another dose of caffeine while we wandered around. Note that this place has great coffee but only open Monday through Friday. 

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Bouncing in and out of stores – cheese, meats, pastries – all our favorite things, it was again challenging to not stop and stare into the sky. How picture perfect many of these stores and streets and fountains were with the enormous mountains as the backdrop. Everything was perfectly charming. There is a river that runs through the town with the clearest glacier water racing down. 

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We visited the Office de Tourisme to collect ski maps, bus timetables, warmth and wifi! Having so many lifts in walking distance, I had expected to find ski maps everywhere but this was the only spot I could find them so grab a few while you are there. We ended up referencing the bus schedule frequently so definitely snag one of those as well. 

Just before noon, we were definitely ready to hit lunch. At the other side of town was La Fine Bouche. I could not figure out a way to make a reservation ahead of time, even though all the reviews recommended them due to the small size. I was hopeful showing up at open could help our chances and lucky for us, we grabbed one of the two tables remaining.

Read the full dining review of La Fine Bouche here!

Happily stuffed, we noted the sun finally made it over the mountains to Chamonix. Day light here in the winter is extra short due to the height of the mountains – the sun has to work extra hard. We continued our journey for a fifteen minute walk to QC Terme. Access to this spa was included in the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass and just access alone is 50 euro. We were really looking forward to some relaxing time but did not have any expectations. When I emailed them, I was told that the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass access was restricted to Monday through Friday and any time before 12AM – so we were good. 

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We approached the counter stating we have the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass and would like to have the included access. “Where is the voucher?” Ummm… my email correspondence did not mention a voucher. She explained we had to “‘call the company” to get a voucher – what company??? I kind of brushed that part off because her next statement completely threw me through a loop. “It is only good Monday through Friday before 12PM”. Well that is a bit different. They open at 10AM to begin with and it was Thursday. Since tomorrow was our ski day, we would not be going to the spa on this trip. “Yes there is a lot of fine print” were her parting words as we walked out – thanks. LAME. Make sure if you are planning on using this to follow all the “fine print” that is not written anywhere. I was more mad that I used precious carry on space for a bathing suit. Glad our hearts were not set on this but it was disappointing since we bought the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass with this as a financial benefit.

With no other set plans, I recalled one of the other benefits of the pass was a ride a day down the Luge Alpine Coaster. While it was not a far distance, the park was not easy to get to. We did not have anywhere else to be so we continued wandering through the streets of Chamonix until we arrived. 

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“We have the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass and would like to ride the luge” “It is not included this year” as she pointed in a sign on the ticket window. Well that was infuriating! The website for the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass still clearly has it as a perk of a ride a day. Now all the sudden it does not include any? Again posing a face of disbelief, what the heck were the extra benefits of this pass if everyone participating just decides to withdraw perks? LAME. 

We walked away bummed that now twice (and back to back) we were snubbed with this Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass. Each ride down the luge was 8 euro and we could ride as a party of two so we decided to pay and ride together. 

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Not so much a luge but an alpine roller coaster, we buckled ourselves in and Kevin learned the brake mechanism before we went up the lift. The coast itself was way more intense than we expected, not to mention the gorgeous backdrop. Full of high speed hills, twists, banks, and turns, it was super fun and I am glad we spent the 8 euro. Still bummed about this Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass but it was really a fun little coaster (would have been nice to have a ride a day!). 

One thing that was definitely included in the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass was access to the bus system. While everything is definitely walkable in Chamonix, having the extensive bus system was actually a benefit we frequently enjoyed. In fact, the booklet with the bus routes and time was our most referenced one of the trip. We hopped aboard and made our way back to the center of town.

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It was time to go pick up our ski equipment for tomorrow. One of the challenges I had when planning this trip was how to pack for a ski day without having the luggage space for it. Well Chamonix has that figured out. Not only did we rent the skis, poles, and helmet but also the ski clothing as well. Thank you Chamonix Ski! We got sized up for everything and left a lot heavier than we arrived. Luckily the rental place was not far from the Airbnb. Read more tips on how and where to rent your equipment – coming soon. 

After a quick nap to recuperate from an early morning, the jet lag, and luging all the ski stuff, we made our way back out to continue exploring. It was unreal to finally have the sun out to showcase the view from our Airbnb.

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We had no set dinner plans so it allowed us to focus on seeing the town. Chamonix had transformed into a winter wonderland. Every block was decorated with lights on the buildings, hanging on bridges, and drawn across the streets. After seeing no Christmas lights in Bologna, I was thrilled to be immersed in them here. Another full moon permitted the snow to sparkle as a reminder that while the mountain may be hidden in the night, it is a reminder they are still there. Chamonix is truly magical. 

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We made our way to one of the establishments that was recommended by many of the people we encountered – Micro-Brasserie de Chamonix, MBC. On our walk there, the moon suddenly peaked out behind the mountain, making the moon look gigantic. We arrived to a lively group of patrons conducting their post ski day ritual full of beer and pub food. The space is full of eclectic items – on the ceiling is a full drum set and bowling game. There are sports jerseys from all sorts of teams hung on the walls. A sign on the door as you walk in exclaims – No Wifi, socialize. We ordered their poutine, Kevin got their amber lager beer, and I got a glass of wine. 

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The group next to us was planning out their ski route for tomorrow and I was immediately bummed that we did not think to bring the ski map with us to strategize. Oddly, the ski maps are not so readily available – even at the tourist center we had to ask for them. I would have assumed you could not go a few steps in Chamonix without running into ski maps. Ah well. Super fun place and I can see why it was everyone’s favorite. 

We continued our journey exploring the town at nighttime. I have to say I am quite impressed with Google’s night sight feature as I think it captured some incredible shots despite it being so dark. 

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After bouncing around a bit, we found ourselves at another recommended spot ChaChaCha – a wine bar for an extensive wine menu and cheese plate options. It was crowded when we arrived but with a very chill vibe. The “extensive” menu was quite short – only a few white and red options though the options listed were quality wines. Excited to find Condrieu by the glass – a wine we had been dreaming of trying since our discovery in Lyon wine region but due to availability and expense, have not. We each got a glass of that wine and ordered a small cheese plate – finally French cheese! 

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When the plate came around the corner and was placed on the table, it was the saddest cheese plate I have ever seen. A mound of cubed cheese with a few bread sticks. We both looked at each other – this was 10 euro for what appeared the be the equivalent of sliced cheddar cheese at home… in France. We were really looking forward to a proper cheese plate. It was an enjoyable cheese but nothing to bring the joy that French cheeses can and certainly not in this amount. Perhaps it was an off night or we came too late and they ran out of cheese… we were told how great their cheese plates were but left here a bit perplexed. At least we got to have Condrieu again. 

A wonderful evening full of beauty – we felt so lucky to have found Chamonix. Time to rest up for a full day of skiing

Friday

Our ski day! We woke up to a real winter wonderland of snow falling.

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The ski lifts did not open until closer to 9AM so we wanted to get in a full breakfast to fuel our day. A found a place I knew Kevin would really like that serves up British breakfasts. The walk into town showcased yet another side of Chamonix covered in a veil of fresh snow as large flakes continued to tumble down. 

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Cafe Bluebird is a tiny store front with many offerings and indoor seating. While no one was there when we arrived shortly after their 8AM opening, it quickly got packed with people. We both got a variation of the traditional British breakfast and it was the perfect way to start the day.

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Everything was delicious and it is impressive what you can throw together with a small kitchen. An enjoyable way to start the snowy day for sure and definitely recommend this spot for breakfast and lunch – lots of yummy options!

It was time to gear up and head to the slopes. Read about our experience skiing the Alps here!

Happy to be back at the Airbnb, we fought the urge to nap by having a well deserved hot shower and the prize of food afterwards. When I told Kevin we had to go to this hot dog place, he looked confused – hot dogs in France? I didn’t believe it as well but the reviews were certainly difficult to dispute. We were going to Cool Cats

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Situated in a what I can only describe as a stationary food truck, you walk in to order and the seating is all outside. The first decision point is the type of sausage you desire – we went with the smoked local pork. Then the choice between all the toppings and while gourmet is not the right word, they really make regular hot dogs boring. We saw a few come out of the kitchen and they were very large so we agreed to split one, which proved to be a bit harder to find one we both agreed on. The Brick – parmesan and bacon mayo, fried egg, ketchup, and roasted onions. We grabbed seats filled with pillows underneath the heating lamps and when the hot dog arrived as had to laugh. Is there even a hot dog in there? 

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One bite and it was clear why this place was so well reviewed. The pork itself had that great snap in the casing and tasted amazing. The toppings mixed together so well – it really was delicious. Oh and there were way to many fried onions that was perfect! So good. And they even cut it in half since they knew we were sharing to help minimize the mess… and keep it a fair split. Know that this place can customize pretty much anything you want. The sausage choices include more than just meat but also vegan sausage and falafel. Definitely swing by Cool Cats! 

Continuing on the snacking tour – all that skiing kept us hungry – we recalled passing Fromagerie Cheese Forever on the bus that was nearby. Perhaps we would have better luck getting a proper cheese plate.

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Kevin started a conversation with the staff member, Tom, who was able to make us a small cheese plate to go. After discussing some of the cheeses and preferences, he said he would put together a few cheeses. This spontaneous change in plans was certainly welcomed – especially in exchange for a proper cheese plate! In addition to cheeses, there was also a large wine selection and Kevin made the convincing argument to get a half bottle of Chablis to accompany our cheese. Tom put a wonderful tray together of five cheese and this with the wine totaled 22 euro – Best money spent. 

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We bused back to our Airbnb to dig into this beautiful cheese plate! The five cheeses – Beaufort d’Ete (cow, gruyère), Brillat-Savarin (goat cheese), Munster (cow, soft, smelly), L’Etivaz (cow, gruyère), Crottin de Chavignol (goat cheese) – and the Chablis was a perfect companion. And while we resisted the nap earlier, we deserved it before we headed to dinner. 

Read the dining review at La Masion Carrier here.

Another wonderful day in Chamonix as the moon light guided us home. 

Saturday

As fine we had not had enough of the spectacular views, today held even more. We started the morning disappointed that Moody’s Coffee shop was closed on the weekends but continued onto Pastry House Richard for some tasty breakfast treats. Kevin jumped into a cafe near for a cappuccino and we were good to go.

This morning took us to the Chamonix train station sitting snug against the mountains. The Montenvers Train is situation to the left of the station and takes guests directly to Mer de Glace – the glacier and the ice caves!

Read about this panoramic train ride and getting up close with a glacier here!

After this two hour journey, we were certainly ready for a bit to eat. One of the traditional dishes for this area is raclette (wheel of cheese that is melted onto foods like potatoes) and fondue (melted cheese in which you dip food into) made with high quality cheeses and it was an item missing from this trip. There was a spot recommended – Le Caleche – and we review the menu outside the restaurant. While we spotted both raclette and fondue, we did not realize how expensive these dishes were – 25 euro charged per person! No thank you, we will find it some other place… across the street actually. We ordered a crepe with ham and raclette. While not how one typically experiences raclette, we got the story out of this crepe for five euro (thanks La Maison des Burgers).

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While we had every intention of seeing the top of Le Brévent while skiing yesterday, we decided to use the time now to do just that and put those Mont Blanc Unlimited Passes to good use. You certainly do not need to ski or snowboard to go into these gondolas. This was the mountain that our window looked out to so it would be a treat to get the reverse view. 

Read about the top of Le Brévent here!

Back in Chamonix, we wanted to check off a ski day essential – waffle hunt. Gaufers is a simple wooden hut that serves up light, airy waffles and the toppings game is endless. We chose a dark chocolate sauce and it was perfect for getting into the waffle grooves. 

Unable to catch a timely bus, we decided to walk back to the Airbnb but not without making a few stops first. One of Kevin’s favorite desserts in France is the millefeuille so we stopped at Aux Petits Gourmands as a snack for later. 

In our final stretch before leaving town, I noted a craft beer sign out of the corner of my eye – Big Mountain Brewing Company. I am not sure how we missed it the entire trip since we definitely passed it multiple times but it is kind of tucked away. We stopped in, Kevin grabbed their double IPA and was impressed at this well made beer. This would definitely be a happening scene at night. 

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Returning back to the Airbnb for the always fun task of packing up the bags and cleaning up. As the sun started to set, we wanted to make sure we gave Chamonix one last once over before heading home in the morning. 

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Walking around tonight was different than the other nights – it was packed with people and activity. I guess since it is a Friday night, people here to ski for the weekend are now around to add to the regular crowd. It certainly added a new vibrancy to the downtown areas but it also added to our difficulty to finding a place to hang out. We were looking for a wine bar and I had a few marked on my map. The first one was a wine store and while they had tables set up outside, there was not the feeling that wine tasting was really an option. We carried on and found Le Bistrot des Cristalliers which looked like a wine cave – perfect! Expect it was already over crowded and the servers gave no attention. We then walked back towards the start of our journey and found an empty wine bar – Berlucoquet – not ideal either but at least we would be served. Until we read the sign indicating cash only and we had just burned the remaining euro we had left. Alas, grabbing a glass of wine was not meant to be. But we killed enough time walking around that it was 7PM and time for dinner at Panier des 4 Saisons.

Read about of final (and perhaps favorite) meal at Panier des 4 Saisons here

Our final stroll home in the darkness of the mountains, we continued to look in wonder at our surroundings, amazed that a place like this exists. We finished up packing and tucked in for bed.

Sunday

Got a pastry from around the corner at Le Fournil Chamoniard and enjoyed our final sunrise and watching the mountains transform from their dark, mysterious self into its active, warm state.

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The van from Mountain Drop Offs picked us up and the journey home began. Reversing the trail, traveling back through four countries as we watched the enormous mountain ranges erased from the backdrop. 

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Simply amazing and the pictures just do not do it justice. An incredible experience for outdoor enthusiasts of any kind – athletic, artistic, and everything in between. And as spectacular of a place it is in the winter time, I heard over and over again how beautiful it is in the summer time. Our stay in Chamonix was definitely on the shorter side – it was enough to see all the highlights but we definitely missed things like the spa, ice skating (though it was indoors only), paragliding, and most regretfully an ice hockey game (go Pionniers – they were only playing away games when we visited). We adored Chamonix and all it has to offer, even if it feels like a fantasy – the perfect winter wonderland. You simply have to see it for yourself to really appreciate how wonderful Chamonix is – a gem among the Alps.

See our full itinerary here!

What to know what to expect when visiting Chamonix? Check out this post!

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