If you ski, then you know Chamonix. The town on Mont Blanc’s north face gained legendary status after Western Europe’s highest mountain was conquered by a crystal hunter and a local doctor in 1786.
A bronze tableau immortalises their achievement on the banks of the Arve in Chamonix, where a muscular Jacques Balmet points out their domed summit to a stout Dr Michel-Gabriel Pacccard in perpetuity.
In 1924, Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics and the world’s most famous climbers’ town claimed its place in the growing ski market.
Almost a century later, 13,000 permanent residents welcome 60,000 summer visitors to the town and 30,000 during the winter, but the skiers and snowboarders don’t mind because they get more of the town and its amenities to themselves.
Traditionally, Chamonix has been focussed mostly on serious mountaineering and off-piste skiers, but that’s changing now.
As other Alpine resorts have added spas and other high quality lifestyle options, Chamonix has been persuaded to do the same with outstanding results.
One such option is the Le Hameau Alber 1er. In 1903, Joseph Carrier opened a simple railway hotel in the town and today Le Hameau Albert 1er is in its fifth generation – the domain of Perrine, Carrier’s great-granddaughter, and her husband, Pierre Maillet.
Perrine’s father, Robert Carrier, was a renowned chef who earned two Michelin stars, which are now in the gifted hands of Monsieur Maillet. The welcome is generously old style, but the concept is contemporary.
The classic chalet-style annex houses La Maison Carrier, which specialises in Savoyard dishes, while the inviting indoor/outdoor swimming pool offers expansive mountain views.
Frankly, the food is extraordinary.
Hotel Mont Blanc was the second of Chamonix’s original grand hotels when it opened in 1849. The hotel recently emerged from a three-year shutdown and after a total renovation boasts a splendidly ornate period style.
While serious, complicated skiing adventures await the world’s most technically gifted skiers, for less experienced adventurers, the trophy trip is the Vallee Blanche, accessed from downtown Chamonix on the Aiguille du Midi cable car.
Rise to the 3,842-metre Summit Terrace to look Mont Blanc in the eye before roping up to follow the precipitous ridge down to where you started.
The 20-kilometre off-piste run, a prized adrenalin classic, eases gently into a crevasse field near the bottom. There is no need to worry – if you can stop on your guide’s command, you will negotiate it with confidence.
After that, enjoy the glow that comes on a 430-step ascent to Montenvers, the departure point for the cog railway back to Chamonix.
In the mid-18th century, English aristocrats walked through these pastures and stared at unruly ice fields bursting out from their true course – the first foreign sightings of the magnificent Mer de Glace.
The glacier has retreated back up the mountain as a result of global warming, but even in this diminished form, it is spectacular.
To enjoy it to the max, stay overnight in the Terminal Neige Refuge du Montenvers, near the station. This is a re-invention of the 1880 Grand Hotel du Montenvers, a fitting replacement in every 21st-century sense.
The formidable granite cube was built to last, but inside is a cosy escape from the elements. Seventeen rooms and suites, named after literary giants, such as Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, have wooden walls and ceilings with red trim fittings; for groups, there is a dormitory that sleeps 10.
Once the last train leaves at 4pm, sofas in the bar and large tables in the restaurant encourage conviviality as the full moon rises over Mont Blanc. In the morning, dogs play in the forests while guests have breakfast in the conservatory – the Mer de Glace is theirs alone until the first train at 10am.
Saunas became a must for every three-star hotel around 20 years ago, with complexes featuring hot, temperate and cool rooms, hot and cold baths, treatment rooms and relaxation chambers to recover physically and mentally. Construct all of that with contemporary materials and you have a wellness centre to wow the crowds.
QC Terme, which opened in August last year, is Chamonix’s contribution. Accessed by a woodland stroll along the Arve, it has outdoor swimming pools of varying temperatures, all with jets and water massages, set in snowfields with views of Mont Blanc.
Indoors, pick from 10 experiences, including a rain forest and variegated scented steam rooms. Or relax on a water bed with scenes projected on the ceiling.
Oh la la!