Chamonix: Winter's Natural Home
The Chamonix Valley stretches over some 15 miles and gradually pinches down to a sliver squeezed between spiny peaks such as the 12,604-foot Aiguille du Midi, a needle of granite and ice plucked from a fairy tale. One of the most prized ski descents starts from the top of this impossibly sheer peak—the magnificent Vallee Blanche—but kids and less adventurous skiers can certainly enjoy the area, too. Regardless, a trip to the top is a must for anyone seeking the splendor of France's high country.
The needle was first climbed in the early 1800s, but today the best—or least strenuous—way to reach the top is to book a ride on the Aiguille du Midi tram, an impressive feat of engineering. First conceived in 1905, the tram didn't get into full swing until after World War II. Today a series of cable cars that hold 65 to 75 people make the journey from the center of Chamonix to the top in two stages, covering an impressive 9,196 vertical feet and 3.3 miles in about 20 minutes. From the top, station visitors can hop in an elevator that blasts them up through the rock to reach a metal decks that boast stunning views of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and even the Matterhorn in the distance. At the top, warm up inside one of the highest restaurants in the world, Le 3842, named after the gourmet eatery's metric elevation.
It's best to make a reservation for a ride up in the morning before the clouds roll in. That said, mountain weather changes so frequently you could wake up early, check the sky, and bolt for the tram without a reservation, too. Either way, once you're back in town, head to Hotel Gustavia's happening bar, Chambre Neuf (www.hotel-gustavia.com; +33.450.53.0031), across from the train station for a glass of hot wine and people-watching on the outdoor patio.
Tram tickets cost about $55 per person round-trip or around $170 for a family of four. Visit www.compagniedumontblanc.fr/index.php for more information.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication