Chamonix comes in first when considering classic French ski resorts. This sizable town has been a mountaineering center ever since locals looked up, saw 15,771-foot Mont Blanc (the highest peak in the Alps), and decided there was more to life than farming.
First climbing and then skiing put Chamonix (www.chamonix.com) on the map. Given the high profile of downhill ski racing today, it is hard to imagine that when Chamonix hosted the very first Winter Olympics in 1924, alpine skiing was not even an Olympic sport.
As a town, Chamonix is more busy than beautiful. Its architecture can charitably called eclectic, but no one goes there for the buildings. More than any place on the continent, Chamonix appeals to hip adventure skiers and riders who want long runs, reliable snow, cliffs, chutes, headwalls, and all manner of challenge. Chamonix's extreme terrain has starred in ski film after ski film, though there's milder turf as well.
Accommodations range from pack-'em-in budget apartments to swank hotels. The narrow streets and small plazas are lined with a shops that cater to hardcore ski mountaineers, fashion-forward skiers and boarders, and souvenir-seeking tourists alike. For an authentic taste of France, stop at an outdoor oyster bar, crepe stand, or chestnut roaster.
Of Chamonix's seven close-in ski areas, Le Brévent is closest to the center, and La Flégère offers some of the finest intermediate terrain in France. A cable car links these two popular areas.
The Grands Montets is renowned as one of the world's most challenging ski areas. Its highest cable car rises to 10,731 feet, and if you are strong of leg, lung and courage, climb 121 metal steps to an observation deck offering arguably the best panorama in all the Alps. Hire a guide and race through open snowfields before plunging down narrow couloirs in the shadow of the awesomely steep Aiguille Verte and Aiguille du Dru. Other ski areas, such as Les Houches and Le Tour are known for gentler terrain.
Visitors have a choice of various kinds of ski pass. The basic Chamonix Le Pass is valid on the lifts of Le Tour and Grands Montets as well as buses in the 13-mile-long Chamonix Valley. A better bet for roving tourists is the wide-ranging Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass, good on 200 lifts at 13 resorts on the French side of the border and also in Courmayeur on the Italian side.
What really sets Chamonix apart from all other resorts is the matchless abundance of off-piste terrain, explorations of chutes, snowfields, glaciers, and high bowls that are best done with a guide. The most famous off-piste run in all the world is the Vallée Blanche. This 12-mile thriller begins at the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car at 12,606 feet and ends in the valley at about 3,500 feet. It is long, steady, incredibly dramatic but not terribly challenging (except for the crevasse-avoidance on the glacier called the Mer de Glace, which is why you need a guide). It's the snow-sliding excursion of a lifetime.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication