Chamonix: The Perfect Winter Retreat

A trip to Chamonix has been Nellie’s dream since we’ve moved to Europe. As an avid skier, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the home of the first Winter Olympics. Many of you are wondering, “Where’s Chamonix?” Tucked away in the French Alps, just over the Switzerland border, is Aspen’s sister city. We had the opportunity to visit this romantic French town during Valentine’s Weekend 2020.We made the trip as a Parents-only trip, renting a Volkswagen Passat from Europcar to make the drive into the Alps, costing only €140 after VAT form. Just over a six hour drive from Kaiserslautern, we figured that our early Friday drive would be smooth sailing. That was the case, at least for the first five hours. Failing to plan our route in advance, the Google Maps route took us through narrow (and many times scary) mountain roads. Fortunately it was a clear day, and we made sure not to make that mistake for the trip back.After what felt like an almost near death experience of driving through the mountains, we reached Chamonix just in time to check into our hotel. We booked a room for two at Alpina Eclectic Hotel on Hotels.com, costing $705 for the entire stay. Given the room size, the price was probably a little on the high side, but you couldn’t beat what the hotel had to offer! Step out of the hotel and you are right in the heart of Chamonix, with restaurants, shops, pubs, and more for your immediate enjoyment. The hotel itself features a spa feel with Jacuzzis, a sauna, exercise room, spa treatments, and a large lounge for Après Ski activities. Once we parked at the nearby Parking du Mont-Blanc (€16 per day), we didn’t have to move the car until it was time to leave.After getting situated in the hotel, we crossed the street and had an early dinner at a charming restaurant, Pizzeria Des Moulins. The restaurant was empty when we got there, but it gradually became packed during the hour we were there. The bolognese was fantastic, and the meal with drinks was about €60 for two of us.After dinner, we wandered the evening streets of Chamonix, surprised at how bustling the town was in the winter. The vibe reminded me of a beach town in the summer, with visitors (mostly Brits) bundled up while sitting outside with drinks and live music. Meanwhile, skiers and snowboarders lumbered through town in their ski boots, looking for a place to relax after a busy day of shredding. Then, seemingly out of no where, a small lantern parade came bursting through town. It was all incredible! After strolling through the town, we unwound in the hotel lodge with drinks and snacks.My favorite way of seeing a new place is by taking a jog, which is exactly what we did to kick start Day 2. Once again seeing “first in the slopes” skiers lug their skis around town filled me with envy for the slopes, but we had a full day planned of things to do and see.After a shower, changing, and a quick bite to eat, our first stop was at the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc train station to catch a train to Montenvers.We made it just in time to pay €33.50 per adult ticket and hop on the 11am departure to head up the mountain. We crammed into a slow moving cog wheel train, but we were captivated by the scenery as we climbed up the mountain. After a 30-minute ride, we stepped onto a platform where we could immediately see Mer de Glace.Mer de Glace (or Sea of Ice) is a slow-moving, and melting, glacier that you can visit any time of the year. As the glacier slowly descends, steps are added from the upper platform to walk down to the glacier. The stairs down to the glacier is a steep 20 minute climb down, where you can actually enter the glacier or enjoy some backcountry skiing. On our way down, we passed hordes of miserable skiers as they tried to ascend their way back to the train.A visit inside the glacier is magical. You pretty much walk into a cave of ice, and give yourself a self-guided tour while reading about the glacier’s ancient and recent history. We wandered the cave and sat on the ice throne before making the climb back towards the train. As we walked up, we noticed markers that indicate the height of the glacier in previous years. It’s both amazing and saddening to see how much the glacier has melted in just over the past 20 years.Once we took the train down back to Chamonix, we took the cable car to Aiguille du Midi for €65 each. From here, you get unparalleled views of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps and highest in all of Europe west of the Caucasus. The views are so astonishing, we literally heard someone cursing in amazement.Wandering around the station at Aiguille du Midi could be a little tense, as you imagine yourself on a wooden bridge that’s balanced on mountain peak. We found ourselves constantly out of breath at over 12,000 feet above sea level and only 65% oxygen. Still, we found the views from Aiguille du Midi to truly be a once in a lifetime.It was early evening by the time we made our way back down to Chamonix, so we decided to check out a restaurant we read about in the New York Times, Poco Loco. This burger joint isn’t too fancy from the outside, but the great service and even greater burger truly made up for that. Warmed up from a day of seeing it all, we sat outside as we scarffed  down our dinner and washed it down with a Blonde du Mont Blanc beer.We made it back to the hotel and spent a little time relaxing in the Jacuzzi and sauna. After time relaxing at the hotel, we decided to do our own self-guided pub crawl. We strolled 15 minutes to the opposite side of the town to Monkey for a drink. Our next stop was Beer O’Clock Chamonix, a bar we enjoyed so much that we visited it again the following night. At this bar, you fill up your own beer glass using a re-loadable card. I found €20 to be plenty to enjoy an assortment of craft beer while enjoying the vibe.Day 3 was our last full day in Chamonix. I decided to get an early start on the slopes while Nellie enjoyed a spa day at the hotel. It was my turn to lumber through town with my skis, as I made the short walk to the Brevent ski area, where I paid €55 for the Ski Chamonix pass. My map reconnaissance of this ski area didn’t give me high expectations, but the ski area would soon prove me wrong. I would easily rate Brevent among the top ski areas I’ve been to!I was amazed at the range of difficulty at Brevent. I spent the first couple of hours exploring the easy and moderate trails on the lower mountain, before I built the nerve for the challenging and steep trails on the upper mountain. I then took the cable car over to the neighboring Flegere ski area, which proved as amazing as Brevent.Nellie decided to have a spa day while I skied. She enjoyed the hotel’s Jacuzzi, sauna, relaxation room, and an hour massage for €90. That evening, Nellie and I decided to eat at a quaint restaurant close to the hotel, Cool Cats. We actually learned about this place from blogger Helene in Between, where we indulged ourselves in dressed up hot dogs and great beer. We finished the evening with another trip to Beer O’Clock. Situated on Rue des Moulins, nestled  between restaurants and bars, we couldn’t help but to soak in the festive atmosphere, even in February.Checkout day finally arrived and we wanted to scope the town out one more time before heading home. We stopped by the statue of geologist Horace Bénédict de Saussure and mountaineer Jacques Balmat, which points towards the Mont Blanc summit and memorialize Chamonix’s early pioneers. We then stopped at Saint Michel Catholic Church, which is ornamated with perhaps the most stunning backdrop with the South facing mountains. Finally, we enjoyed strolling along the Arve River, a narrow river fed by Mer de Glace and runs through the heart of Chamonix.Although 30 minutes longer, we went home via the route through Geneva, Switzerland. With rain and snow in the forecast, I didn’t want to take the twisty mountain roads through the Alps.Chamonix delivered much more than we expected. We’ve been to ski towns before, but we’ve ever experienced one with the ambience of summer, and where you could literally just walk to the ski lift from your hotel. I’m surprised that Chamonix isn’t on more people’s bucket list, as it provided world class activities for both skiers and non-skiers. For skiers, I didn’t even touch a fraction of the ski area. It’s a great place for the most experienced skiers to experience back country skiing, or beginners to wobble on the bunny slopes. For everyone, you can’t beat the opportunity to rise to 65% oxygen to see Western Europe’s highest peak, or take a peek into an ice cave. If you make it there, make sure you pick up a vintage Chamonix poster or mug. I sure hope we can visit again next year!