Off-piste: the pre-snow joys of Chamonix

ASK MOST people what comes into their head when you mention Chamonix, and they’ll say skiing. But the mountain capital of the world has much more to offer, especially when the snow disappears from everywhere but the highest peaks. Home to over eighty nationalities – making it one of the most multicultural places in France – this cosmopolitan town has a quirky, inimitable offering: a thriving music and arts scene, breathtaking scenery, mountaineering – and some truly unique experiences. Here CityA.M. picks ten of the best things to do when there’s no piste.

1. MOUNTAINEERING
Nestled in an Alpine valley, Chamonix is all about the mountains. Whether it’s mountain biking, hiking or rock-climbing, there’s something for everyone from the most seasoned mountaineer to the curious beginner. A good place to start is a hike to Blaitière: in the summer, the snow melts away to reveal a stunning terrain of thick forests, quiet streams and vast open spaces, filled with the smell of wild flowers and herbs. Regardless of your ability, be sure to book an expert mountain guide if you’re venturing into unknown territory.

• Guides available from €22 a day from Evolution 2, a team of 80 English-speaking mountain professionals. www.evolution2-chamonix.com/evo_en_5.html

2. EAT LUNCH IN A MOUNTAINSIDE PASTURE
Few farmers are willing to work in the inhospitable mountains these days, but Pascal Payot is different. In the summer months, he moves his herd of 50 Saanen goats to a small Alpine pasture, which boasts breathtaking views. Abandoned for decades, Payot returned to revive the pasture and its original alpine hut; it was a labour of love that took years, and it shows. Stop off for a truly unique goats-cheese tasting, before meeting the animals that fed you.

• Payot offers tastings at the Alpine pasture between June and September. Bookings can be made by emailing him at lafermeapayot@hotmail.fr or phoning +33 (0)6 87 41 71 57.

3. PARAGLIDING
For a high-octane experience, take the cable car to the Brévent peak and book yourself a tandem paragliding trip. After a few short steps, you’ll begin your flight at an altitude of over 2,000 feet, giving you unrivalled views of the snowy peak of Mont Blanc. The qualified instructor will then find thermal winds that take the glider even higher, offering panoramic vistas across the alps. After a 20 minute flight, you’ll begin your descent, taking in birds-eye views on Chamonix. For the more adventurous, some instructors will perform a series of elaborate somersaults as part of a thrilling, if somewhat stomach-churning, landing.

• Around €99 for a 20 minute flight. Available from Les Ailes du Mont-Blanc www.lesailesdumontblanc.com/english.

4. VISIT THE AIGUILLE DU MIDI
At an altitude of 3,800m, the Aiguille du Midi offers 360 degree panoramas of the French and Swiss alps. When you’ve caught your breath (the high altitude can leave you distinctly short of it), drink in the views: an expedition of hikers setting off on a voyage across the brilliant white snow; the peaks and troughs of the valley; and the white cone at the peak of Mont Blanc. Transport is by a similarly beautiful cable car ride from the centre of Chamonix.

In the summer, The Mont-Blanc Multipass (available at www.chamonix.com/lifts,20,en.html) is the best option for using the cable cars, as well as all the other lifts. A three-day Mont-Blanc Multipass costs 70€.

5. GLACIER WALKING
To reach the Mer De Glace or “Sea of Ice” – France’s longest glacier – you have to climb down a series of entirely vertical steel ladders. The 100m descent is a terrifying experience, but the nail-biting effort is worth it. Once you’re there, armed with ice axes and crampons, you can set off along the 7km glacier, following in the footsteps of fearless nineteenth century explorers. Mary Shelley, who traversed the ice with husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron, famously used the setting for a scene in Frankenstein, when maker first meets monster. It’s not hard to see why; eerie yet beautiful, it is impossible to trudge along the 200m-deep glacier without contemplating man’s relationship with nature. There’s also much fun to be had in climbing ice walls, an activity that requires brains and brawn, as you hack strategic holes in the ice before using the axes to pull yourself up.

• Equipment available from Coquoz, telephone +33 (0)4 50 53 15 12.

6. STAY IN A HISTORICAL HOTEL
Built in 1880 to accommodate the growing number of mountaineers and travellers who wanted to see the Mer de Glace, the Hotel du Montenvers has barely changed. Its rooms and dormitories are panelled in dark wood and fitted with replica 19th Century sinks, while its 1913m vantage point offers the same stunning view of the glacier. Guests can stay in the hotel by attending one of its weekly retro parties in the summer months, when staff try to recreate the experience that a traveller would have had in the late 1800s, with traditional food, drink and entertainment. Much of the hotel’s historical charm comes from the fact that no roads or cable cars lead to it, meaning access is only via a delightful little cog train.

• The cost of the retro party is €70, including train journey, aperitifs, a three-course meal and wine. Guests can stay on a bed-and-breakfast basis for €42 in a twin room or €26 in a dormitory. Visit www.compagniedumontblanc.fr/pages/grand_hotel_montenvers_gb.html for more information.

7. AN EVENING IN AN ART GALLERY
Chamonix has a thriving creative community, teeming with writers, photographers, musicians and painters. The movers-and-shakers can be found at the Globe Art Gallery in Argentière, which hosts a weekly rendezvous under the banner “Art for Art’s sake”. Grab a flute of champagne and view the constantly-changing exhibitions (much of the work is inspired by the surrounding scenery), while chatting to other guests and tuning into the jazz music.

• For more information visit www.galerieduglobe.com//Index.php?lang=en&mp=.

8. A JAZZ FESTIVAL, MOUNTAIN STYLE
Organised by Chamonix resident André Manoukian (France’s answer to Simon Cowell and front man for X-Factor-style show Nouvelle Star), the Cosmo Jazz festival is a music event with a twist. World-class musicians come and do their thing, but also have to engage with the setting: this year a jazz saxophonist played a gig in an ice cave while, a cellist performed a candle-lit concert deep in the forest and a Nepalese percussion outfit climbed for two hours with their audience before performing. Next year promises to be just as exciting.

• Dates for next year’s festival have not yet been set, but will probably be in the final week of July. Visit www.cosmojazzfestival.com for updates.

9. EAT LOCALLY-SOURCED FOOD
Café de l’Arvre is a new venture from Michelin Star chefs Julien Binet and Mickey Bourdillat. The constantly-changing menu focuses on unfussy, simple cooking, using only locally-sourced ingredients. When we visited the offering included fish from a Genevan lake and pumpkin ravioli cooked in spring water, washed down by alpine wine. Restaurant owners Joel Didillon and Jacques Gendrault have an infectious enthusiasm, and are only too keen to sit and chat through the provenance of the food before you order.

• For more information visit www.cafedelarve.com/en.

10. VISIT THE MARKET
French markets are legendary, and while the traders in Chamonix town square might not be as numerous as the ones at the famous Rue Cler market in Paris, they certainly hold their own. Local farmers sell everything from goats cheese and saucisson to delicious buerre blanc biscuits. The 1930s vintage skiing posters, designed by Henry Reb, are also incredibly stylish.

GETTING THERE
Chamonix is located 88km from Geneva Airport. David flew with Swiss International Airlines, which flies six times a day from London Heathrow to Geneva and offers free ski and snowboard transport (in addition to standard free baggage allowance). Visit www.swiss.com to book. Airport transfers are available from Mountain Drop Offs (www.mountaindropoffs.com) and cost around €50 per person.