JAKE’S huge grin said it all. But in case I’d missed his wild enthusiasm as our raft careered down the white waters of the River Arve, he spelled it out with a series of whoops: “Best. Fun. Ever.”
Chamonix, which bills itself as the ultimate summer playground for children, had really delivered on its promise. Luckily, it wasn’t just my nine-year-old son having the time of his life. By agreeing to take him on a four-day “kids’ holiday” I’d regressed 30 years.
I had only ever visited in winter for skiing, so staring up at the vast peak of Mont Blanc without having packed my thermals or being surrounded by snow seemed surreal.
But even without the distraction of Chamonix’s legendary ski slopes, the Mont Blanc valley offers so many activities, I would defy anyone to say “I’m bored”.
DAY ONE: ICE ICE BABY
The famous “Mer De Glace” (sea of ice), is France’s biggest glacier. From Chamonix, the olde worlde cog railway lumbers up through the forest to the Montenvers station at 1,913m altitude. It’s a breathtaking view, but for Jake the highlight was visiting the ice grotto, reached by cable car and a 400-odd step walk. “Cool,” said Jake, with unintended irony. In fact it was freezing, but also a welcome relief from the summer heat outside. Carved out of the glacier itself, the cave – bathed in glowing neon colours and filled with ice sculptures – is completely re-excavated every year because of the movement of the glacier. There’s an even more graphic display of climate change on the long walk back up, with markers showing the three or four metre decrease each year in the glacier’s depth. Fun and educational? Tick.
Return journey and access to grotto and museums. Adults €26.40; children €22.30. www.compagniedumontblanc.fr
DAY TWO: TWIN PEAKS
While Jake was enjoying a rock climbing lesson, I took the cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m. Not for the faint of heart, or anyone with a phobia of heights, it soars up to a massive viewing platform that takes in views of the Swiss and Italian alps, and intrepid climbers setting off for the peak of Mont Blanc 1,000 metres higher.
Back down at Les Gaillands crag in Chamonix, Jake was scaling a somewhat smaller hill. I arrived to find him, teeth gritted, scaling a rock wall, then summoning all his trust in the ropes to lean back and walk back down. “Yes!” he beamed, as he finally made it to the bottom. He’d been learning the basics of rock climbing in a lesson organised by Cham Adventure, which offers children’s activities for up to five days, including everything from donkey riding to mountain biking.
It was the same company that later took us both on a topsy-turvy ride down the River Arve – the highlight of Jake’s life. The two-hour trip – including 45 minutes in the water – threw us over the rapids, forced us into paddling competitions and flung us out into the freezing cold glacier water. It doesn’t all have to be hair-raising adventure. Cham Adventure’s itinerary takes in age groups ranging from 3-17, with everything from pony rides and berry tasting for young ones to canyoning for older teens. Return journey to Aiguille du Midi costs €39.60; children €33.50. www.compagniedumontblanc.fr/en. Rock climbing €40; rafting €39. Day trips for children with Cham Adventure (from 8.45 to 4.30pm) cost €70 to €99 depending on age and with discounts for multi-day bookings. www.cham-adventure.com
DAY THREE: PARKS AND PARCOUR
The temperature had climbed and, once again, so did we. This time, we visited Parc de Loisirs, a huge fun park on the hill above Chamonix with a 1,300m luge for careering down the slope. The two-man luge, which only opened last year, is in action all year round and was a huge hit with my son. His only complaint was my lack of speed. “Stop putting the brakes on,” screamed Jake, as we bolted down the track. “Next time I’m in charge.” Other rides included the “nautic” jet – a mini boat that jets down the ramp and lands in the lake, 40m slides and all manner of machines to turn you upside down. Cleverly, the owners have cut out the need for extra staff by running all the machines on an insert-your-coin basis. So as the pile of jetons diminishes, your kids will know the fun’s nearly up. Free entry. Luge €5.50 per ride, other attractions €1.50 a go. www.chamonixparc.com
Further up the slope, and reached by a ski lift, we escaped the sun for high-flying adventure in the trees of Parcours Aventure, using the zip-line circuits. It turns out it’s something of a faux pas to compare Parcours to the UK version, Go Ape. Somewhat sniffily, I was told the French definitely had it first. Whoever invented it, carefully treading across wires, then zooming down flying foxes, is fantastic fun for all ages. And at least in France you can do it even if you’re under 10 (which is the limit at Go Ape). Unfortunately, huge storms in April have closed the park for this season, but a new tree-top adventure park, set in the trees at Les Gaillands by the rock climbing, is set to open by the end of this month.
DAY FOUR: GONE TO THE DOGS
After a series of high-adrenaline adventures, it was a welcome change of pace to get back to nature by hiking with huskies. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t want to see my nine-year-old son led by Vodka – but this beautiful acqua-eyed dog made an exception. Husky walking, called cani rando, is simply walking along behind a dog, attached by a bungee-like cord around the waist. The walk took us through Les Bois woods, led by dog masters Elisabeth and Christophe Guillaud-Brechesnd, who own around 30 huskies. Despite their size and power, the dogs’ winter sledge training showed through and they were easily manoeuvred and stopped. I often contemplate the idea of buying a similar harness for use in the UK, for the days my springer spaniel hauls me up the high street. Cani rando half day costs €13 for children 7-11, €19 for adults and €55 for a family of two adults and two children.
Ooh la la! What is it about French men and tight swimwear? To cool down in the sweltering heat, we visited the local swimming pool, the Centre Sportif Richard Bozon, which boasts a 50m outdoor pool, 25m indoor pool and a pretty decent slide. It was the perfect vantage point to watch the weather finally crack and the storm race in. As the thunder rumbled menacingly close, forks of lightning lit up the Alps, the pool’s siren wailed and hundreds stampeded inside. I took the chance, with all that flesh flashing past, to decide whether the French prefer skin-tight lycra because their bodies are Gallic masterpieces. The answer, you’ll be pleased to know, is a resounding “non”.
STAY AND EAT
For family accommodation, try the recently renovated Mercure, just walking distance from the main shops and with rooms starting at €99 a night. The buffet breakfast and dinners were excellent. www.mercure.com
Conveniently placed for both rafting and rock climbing, the Chamonix tennis club boasts a wide-ranging menu to enjoy outdoors. Specialties and the dish of the day cost around €9.50 and there was a huge selection of salads plus a delicious chilled rose and grapefruit wine – the type of drink that tastes best in scorching weather. www.restaurantlestennis.fr
For an evening aperitif, try Cafe Quartz. The bar hosts live jazz with Samir Hodzic several nights a week. , www.hameaualbert.fr/en.
La Calèche, a traditional mountain restaurant in the city centre, has all those stonking Savoyarde specialties – raclette, fondue and pierrade. In winter, you can justify it by skiing, but summer rafting and climbing must surely burn off calories too. www.restaurant-caleche.com
For a gourmet night out, it’s worth hopping on the train and riding a couple of stops to Hotel Eden at nearby les Praz, which has a three-course fine dining menu from €20. It also offers a children’s menu for €10.50, but the junior gourmand would have no truck with that once he saw the adult version. www.hoteleden-chamonix.com
The Mont-Blanc Multipass gives access to all lifts in the Chamonix Valley and is a good option for visitors staying several days. Family passes are available: www.compagniedumontblanc/fr
Chamonix official website: www.chamonix.com