In planning for my short last-minute getaway to Chamonix, I scoured the web hoping that somebody else had written something suited for somebody spending a few off-season days in the area, not a week holiday during peak ski season, which obviously brings it’s own separate set of attractions.
I looked and looked and I struggled. So I did the best I could with the information I could find and ended up winging the hiking and activities (with helpful advice from a few friends) once I had arrived.
Here’s what I had hoped to have found ahead of my trip - in my opinion, these are the best of the best, if you only have a short amount of time:
GETTING TO CHAMONIX:
Fly into Geneva International Airport. Flying in here versus elsewhere will greatly reduce your commute time and maximize the amount of time you have in the mountains. Once you land, find the booth for Mountain Drop Offs right outside of arrivals. You can, and should, pre-arrange with them as they are popular and fill up fast (many hotels will also coordinate with them for you, which is encouraged). Who knows, you may even make an adventure buddy on your trip, as it is typically a shared transfer with other like-minded folks heading on holiday. They’ll drop you off at the front door step of your hotel, and are only slightly pricier than bus options.
WHERE TO SLEEP & RELAX:
Stay at Hotel Mont-Blanc Chamonix, a perfectly located classically cozy resort in the heart of town. As an over 100-year old establishment, it feels rooted in the culture and town itself, yet they don’t miss a beat on modern/contemporary touches and service.
To start, Hotel Mont Blanc coordinated with Mountain Drop Offs for me, without any hesitation, which was greatly appreciated to alleviate some of the pain of travel logistics, so I could focus on doing what I wanted to do most: just get there and play.
And the good service, convenience and proximity to literally everything only continued from there. Anything I wanted the entire stay was in walking distance: shops, restaurants, lifts, hikes, and even a little store for a late night wine run.
Amenities are aplenty: spa, reading room with historic/adventure-inspired books, pool-with-a-view (does it get any better than this?), full bar and restaurant, room service (get the chicken caesar and a splurge bottle of wine, you won’t regret it). I almost hesitate to recommend the hotel because it’s so good that it’s hard to leave.
From my fourth floor suite, I opened not one but two sets of doors every morning to almost-too-good-to-Instagram (for fear that it would never do justice) views of the surrounding Alps, so close it felt like I could reach out to touch them. 'Tis the charm of Chamonix - the ability to appreciate comfort and coziness, from the elegance of classic accommodations, whilst also feeling like you are truly in the heart of the mountains themselves, not just a bystander.
A few more good tips from the Telegraph if you’re looking for other options or if Mont Blanc is fully booked
THE ADVENTURE (WHAT YOU CAME FOR):
I had two full days for adventure, and the first was looking questionable weather-wise. Accordingly, I wanted to find something that I could do in potentially half of a day, if weather interfered, and another activity which would allow me to be outside all day in what I anticipated would be good weather.
THE HALF DAY: LAC BLANC
Wake up early and either walk or shuttle to the Flegere lift. It took me about 25 minutes to walk from town; it’s a straight forward walk down one main road and you’re taking in views the whole time - it’s a nice way to extend your hiking time given that you’re slightly “cheating” by taking the lift to avoid two hours of uninteresting slogging uphill. Follow signs to Lac Blanc or even better, plug it into your Google Maps. The trail is obvious and you’d have to try pretty hard to get off path. Once at the top, you’ve got about 1.5 hours of hiking until you arrive at Lac Blanc. Bring layers, as you’re warm while moving but assumedly will want to hang out for awhile once at the lake and if at all near late fall/winter, it will feel very alpine. Walk around the lake and be sure to get low for a few photos; if it’s not very windy, the reflections of the Alps on the lake will make for some awesome snaps. There’s a rifugio hut up there though it was closed when I visited. Rumor has it they have hot chocolate to die for; next time.
Walking back down should take a little over an hour. Keep your eyes open for animals (we saw some deer), trekkers on just one leg of the full Mont Blanc circuit (they usually have fun stories), and a few smaller ponds which also offer some pretty brilliant reflections.
And for the record, “low season” in late October, though not the typical or necessarily expected time for planning a visit, is the BEST time to go. Why? You’ll not only get cooler temperatures and fewer crowds, but ALL THE FALL COLORS. I mean, can you EVEN with these oranges contrasted against the jagged peaks?
All in all, the half day hike went as planned and I was gone from my hotel from about 7am to 2pm, just as the rain and weather started to roll in. A perfect morning or afternoon hike which still leaves time to explore the town and buy some touristy things.
THE FULL DAY: AIGUILLE DU MIDI
I stupidly made the decision to idle around sipping a few too many coffees in the morning and got to the Aiguille du Midi lift with mushroom quiche in hand around 10:30am. Considering the lift had already been open a couple of hours, this was a rookie move for me. About 100 - 150 people were in line waiting for tickets, and it took around an hour for me to get to the front. I almost ditched the line a few times, and likely would have if my only objective was to get to the top of the lift, look out, and come down, but I had bigger aspirations in mind.
I had read that there are two stops on the lift up: the first being Plan de l’Aiguille, the second being Aiguille du Midi. You buy tickets for both at the same booth at the bottom, but must indicate if you plan on only going halfway up, or all the way to the top. The Aiguille du Midi is where most climbers start their ascent of Mont Blanc, but ironically is also a huge tourist trap. Sitting at 3842m, you are able to walk through a series of buildings, pipes, and windows to take in the full range of mountains around you, all whilst learning about some of the background of the mountaineers who have called these peaks their home away from home.
Being used to suffering for my views, taking a cable car up into the very peaks felt like cheating to the point where I felt uncomfortable staying there for too long. With that said, it’s worth the views, as well as a quick and comfortable taste of true frigid alpine air - something which makes you quickly come to appreciate the accomplishments made by mountaineers not only by virtue of the feats undertaken, but the weather conditions sustained throughout.
After about an hour on cable car and exploring Aiguille du Midi, I hopped back on the lift and headed down to Plan de l’Aiguille, where my day’s adventure would begin. From here, you could grab a quick coffee/bite and then head out in any direction for a day’s worth of hiking/running/adventuring all throughout the peaks.
After a late start and some idling up at Midi, I had a few more hours in my afternoon before sunset and the final cable cars headed back down the mountain so I took off hiking/running. My goal was to traverse a few areas around Plan de l’Aiguille and finally head towards the Montenvers cable car at 1913m which I would finally take back down to town. From Plan de l’Aiguille, the trails were obvious: just follow the signs to Montenvers and Mer de la Glace and you won’t get lost.
Hiking would take about 2.5 hours to arrive at Montenvers, and not a single view along the way would disappoint, with the final peak and glacier views capping off a perfect afternoon adventure.
WHERE TO EAT:
THE FAST, CHEAP, & EASY: COOL CATS
Two words: Hot. Dog. With more hot dog toppings than you can imagine to choose from, this is an absolute must. Head straight from your hike and take your pick. You can sit in, out, or take it to go, and they have some cheap and easy beer/wine options as an accompaniment. You cannot go wrong, and I had to struggle to even meet their credit card minimum, I spent so little. Luckily they had cookies.
THE CLASSY, LOCAL, & REQUIRES A SHOWER: LE CAP HORN
Cap Horn is known for local fancier meat & pasta fares, but also for its extensive sushi selection. I opted for a fancy goat cheese walnut salad (because, greens) and a spicy mayo shrimp sushi, with a couple of local wines to pair, and couldn’t have been more content. Good for date night, or for heading solo or with the family; just be sure to call ahead, as it fills up fast!
I would absolutely head to Chamonix in the late Fall again, and encourage you, too, to think about visiting in what the crazy people call the “off” season there. You can make your own judgments, but to me: there’s nothing “off” about it.