A trip to the French Alps delivers epic vistas, holiday sparkle and village fun, but not great snow for skiing in 2016.
By Belinda O’Neil
It is almost indescribable how beautiful Chamonix is in wintertime. The tiny French hamlet sits in a valley nestled between Mt. Blanc and the tips of a dozen other Alpine peaks. The lifts whisk skiers from the village to the top of the mountain. The village twinkles with Christmas everywhere. The locals are lovely and welcoming.
As our West Coast family met up with my brother-in-law’s East coast family and we settled into our chalet with a glass of wine by the fire, I almost started crying I was so happy: After years of planning, our Christmas in Chamonix was really happening! And it was picture perfect – except for one thing.
While the Alps were nicely covered in frosty white, there had not been enough snowfall to make for good skiing in time for Christmas. And if I wanted to ski icy, rocky runs, I could have stayed in drought-ravaged California.
But Chamonix showed us that skiing was just one of its many attractions. We braved the highways and skied over the border in Italy, had a gooey Christmas dinner of fondue, rode the lifts to epic views, and used the money we saved on skiing to – who’d have guessed? – go paragliding in the Alps!
It was an unforgettable Alpine Noel for our families. And someday I’ll go back and ski.
Travelers: The O’Neil Family (Parents plus kids aged 12, 10, 7)
Date: December 2016
Budget: Approximately the same cost a family would pay for a ski vacation at a nice resort over the holidays in U.S. – plus flights
The Good Stuff
Aiguille du Midi Cable Car If the skiing isn’t great – or even if it is, take the gondola to the top of this alpine peak. The kids were joking that they were having trouble breathing at the 12,400-foot summit. You can step “into the void” overlooking the valley and get 360-degree views of the surrounding Alps. There are also restaurants and a museum to check out.
Brévent Cable Car Nonskiiers can also head to the top of Chamonix mountain via this ski lift for more panoramic views. You can take short walks at the top, and the restaurant serves delicious hot chocolate and adult beverages that enable you to pose for fun photos.
Skiing & Not Skiing The Chamonix Valley has multiple ski areas and many other winter activities, including hiking and sledding.
Alpine Paragliding What to do when your seven-year-old sees paragliders and challenges the family to go? You go! For about the price of the day’s lift ticket that we didn’t buy because of poor snow, we took tandem rides down the peak with Bozon Sports. You take the chairlift to the top, swirl around the valley, and float down to land in a pasture. No one will ever forget that run… These guys also do a great job with ski rentals.
Village Life Not surprisingly, Chamonix is a spendy little spot, but you get your money’s worth: excellent restaurants, elegant shopping and lively bars and clubs. The older teens liked that they could go out on their own. The tourists were mainly European so people watching was fabulous. And the Christmas atmosphere in Chamonix was world-class – every scene included a dramatic backdrop of the snowy Alps.
The Not So Good
Mont Blanc Tunnel If you head for better snow by journeying under the peak of Aiguille du Midi through the Mont Blanc tunnel to ski in Courmayeur, Italy, be ready for the tunnel of your life. The nearly 12-kilometer tunnel costs 57 euros return and takes 20 minutes one-way on the best day. In winter traffic, it took us an hour on the way to Italy and even longer on the way home. Brutal.
Good to Know
Airbnb It We rented a home that would lodge our two families (10 people) on Airbnb. The cost was high but it was similar to what we would have paid in Lake Tahoe or Colorado during the holidays. The ski lifts were walking distance from the front door.
Chamonix Info The Chamonix valley tourist bureau runs an excellent website. Be sure to check it for seasonal events, things to do, and more. Maps and lift information for all the local ski areas are regularly updated as well.
At-Home Services The French know how to do things right: A variety of outfitters will come to your rental home and outfit your family with ski gear. When you’re renting for almost a dozen people, the service is worth the premium. And their chefs travel too: One night we had a cook come to the house. We got to spend the day skiing and while we were gone, a professional comes to whip up an incredible meal for everyone. It was so nice to come home and just relax and enjoy an evening at home and not have to cook or go back out. A decadent splurge, but it’s Christmas, right?
by Belinda O’Neil, November 2018
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