Is there anything to do in Chamonix in between winter and summer? Andrew Matthews discusses why spring and autumn might even be the best time to visit the Alps…
I can’t say I’ve ever given much thought to what Alpine ski-resorts get up to between the last of the snow and the start of the school summer holidays. I had a vague idea of rosy-cheeked folk polishing fondue forks, waxing skis and darning stuff. But it wasn’t until the wise old grandfather with the snowy beard turned up that I realised my idle musings had gone full Heidi and what I really know about ‘off season’ Alpine activity could be written in very large type on the back of a small budget ski-pass.
In fact, there isn’t an ‘off season’ for ski-resorts, there’s an ‘inter-season’. There’s still skiing in spring, often right up to the middle of May in some places. Shops, bars, restaurants are open for business. All the non-skiing activities (unless you’re an extreme snow-sport fanatic) are going strong. Plus, it’s queue-free and much, much, much less expensive to do almost everything in ‘inter-season’ – including renting accommodation.
And let’s face it – apart from dubious clothes and boozy barroom boasting – costs and crowds are the biggest downside to ski-resorts, and they’re pretty unavoidable wherever you go in winter and summer.
Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, is one of the most established French Alpine ski-resorts. If you’re interested in high-altitude slack-lining, extreme skiing or wingsuit base jumping, you’ll have probably heard of the ‘death sports capital of the world’. But once the adrenalin junkies have moved on to warmer climes for their spring risk fix (shark baiting, bear wrestling, canyon leaping), Chamonix has inter-season down to a fine art.
Stay here to ski in winter or roam the flower-filled Alpine meadows in summer and, unless you are deep of pocket, your rented accommodation probably won’t have much in the way of luxury. But visit Chamonix inter-season and you can afford to swap bunk-house for chalet and throw in some saunas, hot-tubs, open fires and living space too. Certainly the thought of blissfully floating in a hot-tub under a starry Alpine sky with only the warm spring breeze, a few tunes and a big glass of chilled local wine for distraction sounds fairly idyllic to me.
And it might be just what you need after you’ve savoured some of the other local specialities. Chamonix isn’t just the French Alps, it’s home to the biggest and baddest Alp of them all, Mont Blanc. So it goes without saying that even without abundant snow there are quite a few outdoor activities on offer round these parts.
Serious cyclists revere Chamonix. Its infamous Col des Aravis is a regular on training routes for Tour de France riders and has been part of some epic stage 17 climbs. And every year in June it’s the most arduous leg of the Time-Mègeve Cyclosportive race. But even if you’re just a touring type, spring cycling in the Alps is incredible: warm but not hot, stunning scenery and barely any cars on the roads.
Mid April to mid May the snowline is heading back up the mountains, but there’s still skiing to be had in Chamonix. Conditions won’t be guaranteed – they never really are in the French Alps – but the views are astounding and what you lose on runs you more than make up for in peace, quiet and empty lifts.
Speaking of lifts, the one you definitely should not miss in Chamonix takes you up to what is billed as ‘Europe’s Tallest Attraction’, The Skywalk. Basically it’s a reinforced glass box on top of 3km high L’Aiguille du Midi that lets you ‘Step Into The Void’ for a 360˚ panoramic view of the Alps (including Mont Blanc). If you dare to look down, the nearest ground is a terrifying 1035m beneath your feet. This astonishing bit of engineering took 3 years to complete and was only opened to the public in December 2013. Predictably, it’s very popular, but it won’t be so busy inter-season because nothing is.
Summer in Chamonix is the time when seasoned walkers and hikers dig out the double sticks and their big, serious boots. But beat them to it inter-season and you get the forests, fields, foothills and valleys almost all to yourself and they’re lovely. May’s the time to see wildflowers at their best, deer are about and looking very picturesque and peaceful and the weather’s mostly warm, mild and extremely pleasant.
The town of Chamonix itself has been around for quite a long time by ski-resort standards so it’s traditionally Alpine with pretty chalets and little shops and bakeries and riverside cafes and good restaurants. Everything’s open inter-season, it doesn’t feel hectic or commercial and the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed.
And if you want to compare ski-resorts, Chamonix is just 40 minutes from Mègeve in Haute Savoie: 8 Michelin starred restaurants but still feels like a cute, 17th century French village. Or you can leave France altogether and drive to Courmayeur in Italy in under half an hour or over the Swiss border to Verbier in under two hours.
So, if you aren’t fussed about guaranteed snow and defying death and you don’t have school-age children, I can’t think of any good reason at all not to try inter-season Chamonix this year. And since you’re not carrying a load of garish salopettes with you, you can bring back some amazing saucisson sec with hazelnuts and a few bottles of the local wine to remind you of those spring evenings lazing (inexpensively) in an Alpine hot tub.
This post was penned for Urban Travel Blog by Andrew Matthews, resident travel expert for holiday rental marketplace HouseTrip.com. If you liked reading this, maybe you’ll enjoy Andrew’s ideas for how to get you out of the dog box next Valentine’s Day (or any time before actually).