"Wait, where do I put my feet?" The question went unheard by my guide; he was too far above me, forging his way up the cliff. Around us blew a soft breeze. A green valley lay far below. Beyond it, a patchwork of forests and fields rolled away into the distance. And between my shoes was a sheer drop of slick limestone, with no apparent footholds.
The few who know Chamonix in the United States are mostly die-hard adventure types. Home to Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest summit, this village in the French Alps hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and has been a world capital for cold-weather sports ever since. Ice climbing. Steep skiing. Winter mountaineering. Chamonix is the sort of town that attracts the wilderness-ambitious, a place where you can wake up to falling snow, go out and do something very dangerous and very challenging, and be back in time for a lunch of raclette, otherwise known as melted cheese.
But if any leisure industry is threatened by climate change, it's winter sports. Just across the border in Switzerland, the ski season is a month shorter than it was four decades ago. The Mont Blanc glacier is retreating at a record pace. Winter towns, from Whistler, British Columbia, to St. Moritz, Switzerland, are investing in what the industry calls "weather-independent attractions." Chamonix itself has spent millions of dollars on new snowmaking equipment while also promoting summer attractions for X Games types, like whitewater rafting and ultra-running.
I never considered myself an alpinist. I love mountains, and being around them brings me a sense of peace. But I'd rather read about a polar expedition than take one myself. About a decade ago, when my wife, Rachel, and I were living in Paris, I started to hear from friends that Chamonix had a more bucolic, less extreme side. They talked about fields stuffed with wildflowers. Restaurants reached by hiking trails. Properties and activities around the region that have been developed to appeal to a broader group of travelers — people looking for a feeling of old Europe, mixed with some hearty leisure and good wine.
It became a dream of mine to see the Alps in summer. Rachel and I now live in one of Los Angeles's densely settled urban canyons. There came a moment, last summer, when we had both been working too much. It had been years since we'd taken a trip together, just the two of us. So we decided to do it, setting off for the airport with the mind-set of a pair of 19th-century tuberculosis patients, hopeful that a dose of restrained mountain activity would do us good. And then somehow I found myself trailing a half-goat-half-man up a rock face, with no idea what to do with my feet.
Chamonix is part of France's Haute-Savoie region, which borders both Switzerland and Italy. At Geneva Airport, a British shuttle driver met us by the baggage claim. He explained he'd come to Chamonix nearly 10 years earlier to ski; it proved too good to leave. "The summers are my favorite time of year," he said.
We'd decided to ease into the region by spending two nights in Megève, a quiet village about 45 minutes west of Chamonix. Megève represents the area's more rural side. It's a wealthy ski-resort town, dotted with farms, chalets, and the occasional designer boutique. When we pulled in through the gates of our hotel, Les Fermes de Marie (or Marie's Farms), it was obvious that the place was agrarian in name only. The property is the very definition of rustic-chic. It consists of a clutch of nine chalets, each built from parts of old barns that had collapsed nearby. There were beamed ceilings everywhere, and oil portraits of gouty-looking men. In between the buildings were plum trees, apple trees, and a spa of many pools, around which sun-crisp French vacationers lay reading paperbacks and wearing robes. A chicken coop had each bird's name written on a chalkboard (Mélanie, Claire, Lydia, Florence). For dinner that night we ate a delicious local river fish, though he was served nameless.
Sometimes when I can't sleep I like to picture a European breakfast. There's just something soothing about a big spread of muesli and charcuterie and five kinds of yogurt. On our first morning, our jet lag got us up early — to encounter the breakfast of my dreams. Three types of bread. Four kinds of local cheese. An assortment of brioches and viennoiserie that included fresh pains au chocolat and pains aux raisins. Not to mention the best omelette Rachel had ever tasted. (From the eggs of Mélanie? I wondered. Or Florence?) After such a feast, it seemed vital to expend energy. We'd signed up to take a hike that evening into the mountains, for stargazing, but it had been canceled because of an impending storm. I explained to the concierge my interests: a good hike, a spot for lunch. "Here's what we'll do," he said, whipping out a topographical map and highlighting it like a cavalry officer. He then launched into 60 seconds' worth of rapid-fire instructions to remember, starting with, "Take the lift."
Before we'd left for France, I'd spoken with the American novelist Pam Houston. She codirects the Mont Blanc Writing Workshop, a local English-language seminar that runs for two weeks each summer. "What's so particularly wonderful about Chamonix as a place to go hiking is the ski lifts," she told me. Many of the resorts run their gondolas and lifts in the summer because the terminals connect with popular trekking paths. That way you don't have to spend hours toiling up the mountainside before you reach the good stuff. "You start hiking in the pinnacle of beauty, and you stay there all day," Houston explained. "And there's often a place to get lunch that's got the most glorious lamb stew, or crêpes with Swiss cheese, or the most amazing salad you've ever had." She sighed wistfully. "You're in France, and you're sipping wine on a deck clinging to the side of a mountain, and it's amazing."
Following the concierge's instructions, Rachel and I rode the Télécabine du Jaillet, a tiny gondola made for two, up into the hills. I had been worried about my orienteering skills, but there were signposts everywhere. And the views were extraordinary. One moment the trail would lead us through a meadow, then into a forest, then out again into the open countryside, looking out over an entire valley. We passed fields full of cows with clanging bells around their necks. The French are polite hikers; everyone said bonjour as they walked by.
Forty-five minutes later, a signpost directed us to Chalet de la Vieille, our lunch spot. We emerged from the trees to find an old barn on a hill; next to it was an earthy cottage. There were half a dozen wooden tables in the yard with colorful umbrellas and views of a snow-covered Mont Blanc. Each of the tables had a slip of paper, held down by a stone; one had my name on it. (Thank you, concierge.) A few minutes more and we were drinking rosé by the goblet, eating delicious salads and omelettes savoyardes — a local style, with cheese and bacon — followed by house-made blueberry tarts. We toasted the cows. It was hard to imagine the moment improved in any way.
Mont Blanc looms over Chamonix like a pending emergency. From the northern side of the mountain, a glacier lolls down into town like a giant tongue. More than 15,000 feet tall, the mountain seems almost Himalayan up close, if only because it's virtually rooted in the town square. At twilight the sun banks off its flanks so that they glow.
I felt stunned when I saw it from the taxi as we arrived in town. But Mont Blanc isn't the first thing you notice when you get to Chamonix: that would be the paragliders. All day long in summer, a dozen colored parachutes wheel in broad circles over the town. And you know that tethered to each one is some tourist harnessed to a local expert, who's whispering French in her ear, Just a few more minutes, my terrified little cabbage.
The air had a chill when we arrived. Clouds came and went. Chamonix is nestled between dramatic peaks called aiguilles, or needles, that tower over both sides of town. The tiny village consists of several busy streets, hotels with deep window casements, outfitters selling fluorescent athletic wear. In front of us an older man and woman walked along together as if on their way to the market, only the woman had a climbing rope slung around her neck.
Chamonix is home to about 10,000 people, but it receives several million visitors a year. I asked our cab driver whom he drove in the summer. "Mostly it's the French. People who enjoy the calm of the mountains. They do a week at the beach, then they come here."
When you ask about things to do in Chamonix, everyone tells you to visit Montenvers, a site about 3,000 feet above town. Once there, you can walk on the Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice, a large, historic glacier; take a hike to the Aiguille du Midi, the tallest needle; or just absorb the view. One pleasing complication is that Montenvers is inaccessible by car. Instead you take a little red train that chugs right up the mountainside.
We boarded the train and it slowly clattered its way up the mountain. Many of the other passengers on the train wore boots; more than one had a baguette sticking out of an old backpack; several held axes in their hands. That's one weird thing about Chamonix: seeing ordinary people carrying mountaineering axes around like walking sticks. (A PSA we saw in one gondola read: thank you for holding your ice ax in hand.)
We rode over viaducts, passed through tunnels cut through rock. When we turned the final corner, people gasped. The immensity of the landscape in front of us was stunning. Waterfalls cascaded down the mountains with a roar. A glacier the size of a freeway wound down between them. And amid it all, surrounded by peaks, a tall granite hotel, pocked by small windows with red and white shutters, beckoned us with a terrace set for lunch.
Terminal Neige–Refuge du Montenvers has housed mountaineers since 1880. The hotel was reopened last summer, completely refreshed, renovated with an aesthetic principle that feels like a stylish mash-up of old-school European hospitality and high-end glamping. It's a miracle the place hasn't found its way into a Wes Anderson film yet. In our room, both the views and the bathtub were majestic. Light fixtures hung from climbing cord. It all felt purposefully chic and storied and rustic. I wouldn't have been shocked — or disappointed — to have been served some good champagne from a leather bota bag.
We ate lunch on the terrace of the hotel restaurant, facing the Aiguille du Dru, one of Chamonix's most photographed mountains. It rose like an enormous pyramid above our heads. We drank beer, then ordered a "peasant omelette" for Rachel and, for me, a melted round of écorce de sapin — a regional cheese, served with potatoes and ham. Hikers began to appear, shrugging off their sweaters. Maybe no one had told them about my system: to eat hugely first, then consider exercise.
The main reason we had traveled up the mountainside in our little red train, though, wasn't the lunch, but the Mer de Glace just below the hotel. Travelers have visited it for almost 300 years — though nowadays they are probably struck more by the effects of climate change than by the glacier's extraordinary scale. Since 1850, the Mer de Glace has retreated by more than a mile — changing from a vast frozen river that reached down into the village to a field of ice that's rapidly shrinking back up into the high mountain cold. After lunch, we walked up to it by a long staircase of several hundred steps; previously, climbers could step straight out onto it from the hotel. Still, the experience was striking. At the bottom you pass through an "ice cave," a tunnel that's been drilled through the blue ice of a glacier that's much, much older than you. I felt totally awed.
That evening, we ate dinner in the hotel, in a dining room walled by windows, so as not to spoil the view. The meal consisted entirely of Alpine specialties. Chicken roasted on a spit. Fondue to feed an army. Afterward, the bartender wasn't shy about pouring digestifs, but we decided to retire early for two reasons: Rachel had been admiring our massive bathtub, and I needed to prepare for the following morning's excursion. All the food, wine, and gentle meadow walks had been exactly what I'd been looking for in the Alps, but I was beginning to experience pangs of guilt. It seemed a shame to visit Chamonix and not throw in a little adventure.
Via ferrata means "iron road" in Italian. It's a way of ascending mountains that's not often seen in the U.S., though it has long been popular in Italy, and lately in France. A steel cable runs along the route, bolted into the rock every couple of yards. You wear a harness that's clipped to the cable so you can't fall far. "Via ferrata is the next level up from hiking," mountain guide Zoe Hart explained to me, "but it's still not climbing. It's for anybody."
Hart is an American climber who lives in Chamonix with her husband and two children. She's an accomplished alpinist, only the fourth American woman to earn International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations status, the highest credential for professional guides. We'd met at a small café on my first morning in town, chatting over coffee as one of her kids chewed on a sugar crêpe beside us. She echoed exactly what I'd experienced about the region's appeal in summer. "It looks extreme here, but it's actually a great place to start as a beginner. You can access the high end of the mountain, but as a low-end hiker." It was Hart's idea that I try via ferrata, for some safe-ish thrills.
So it was that on our second morning at Terminal Neige, I was met by Hart's husband, Maxime Turgeon, and together we boarded the family van. He's also a guide — in fact, their wedding was held up at the Montenvers refuge. We drove to the nearby town of Passy, hiked to the base of the climb, then strapped on harnesses. Turgeon assured me he'd recently guided his mother-in-law on the route we were about to do — "and she's not sporty at all." Turgeon tied a rope between us, then showed me how the system worked. There were two carabiners attached by webbing to my harness. At all times, they'd be clipped to the cable along the route, except when I came to a bolting point, where I'd unclip one, attach it to the next segment, then do the same with the other and carry on.
Turgeon started up and I followed shortly after. In the beginning, it all went according to plan. Then, 10 minutes later, the rungs ran out. I tried my shoe on a shelf and the toe slipped; the rock was wet with morning mist. My nerves did a flutter. I told myself not to freak out, that I just needed to keep going until I reached the next ladder segment. I tested my footing, grabbed some rock, thrust myself up. This time my shoe held. After doing that a couple of times, I reached the next set of holds, and a couple of minutes after that, I started to relax.
Up and up we went. All sounds died away. Paragliders cruised by like colorful birds. We tightrope-walked over cable bridges and wooden beams. We stopped on a ledge at one point, overlooking the valley, to eat sandwiches and take pictures. Beneath us lay a wide-open panorama: Mont Blanc, jagged peaks, distant church steeples.
We finished the route soon after, topping out after a steep climb up the final cliff. My nerves were gone by that point; in their place was simple exhilaration. I thought, Maybe a little part of me is an alpinist after all.
The next morning, Rachel and I packed our bags and rode the train back down to Chamonix. We were the only people on board. At one point, we passed another train going up crammed with passengers, all of them craning their necks to get a better look at the mountains ahead — families with kids, solo travelers, amateur trekkers. All of them off for a day in the Alps, whatever their pleasure. They were about to discover what Rachel and I learned for ourselves: whether you're a mountaineer or a picnicker, one way or another the mountains call to everyone.
How to Do Chamonix and Megève
Pursue these summer activities in the French Alps at your leisure, in whatever order you wish. There's no pressure — that's part of the reason you come here.
Fly direct to Geneva Airport from New York or Washington, D.C. From there, the drive to Chamonix takes less than 90 minutes.
Alpaga: Hidden away near the center of Megève, this hotel's traditional chalets deliver an elegant, understated take on rustic-chic. The spa has views of Mont Blanc, while a Michelin-starred restaurant awaits your post-hiking appetite. doubles from $542.
Four Seasons Hotel Megève: Most of the walnut-paneled rooms at this new 55-room hotel come with a chimney butler to take care of the wood-burning fireplaces. In winter, the ski-in, ski-out property also offers direct access to the 130 well-groomed runs of Mont d'Arbois. doubles from $1,550.
Les Fermes de Marie: This secluded clutch of Megève chalets has the feel of an upscale farm. There's also
a pool and a lush garden that provides ingredients for the hotel kitchen. doubles from $566.
Terminal Neige–Refuge du Montenvers: Use the stylish relaunched property — accessible by Chamonix's historic Montenvers railway — as a base for hikes and visits to the famous Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) glacier. ; doubles from $277.
Trekking: Chamonix is crisscrossed with hiking trails. Try the Grand Balcon Sud, where you can see the streams and wildflowers of the high mountains without too much strenuous climbing.
Via Ferrata: Ascend high above the valleys without all the risk while safely attached to this "iron road," a protected climbing route. Head out with Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, the oldest and most reputable service in town.
Eat & Drink
Café Comptoir: Alpine cuisine gets a modern makeover in this converted chalet in Vallorcine, where the menu includes seasonal dishes made with regional French, Swiss, and Italian produce. entrées $20–$37.
Comme Chez Soi: Right in the center of Megève, this cozy little wine bar also sells a wide variety of hard-to-find regional bottles. 23 Rue du Clos des Rennes; 33-4-50-55-95-81.
Backroads: This active-travel company, ranked one of the top tour operators in the 2017 T+L World's Best Awards, offers walking and hiking itineraries through Chamonix. six-day trips from $3,898 per person.
Globe Bleu: The French Alps itinerary from this luxury travel agency includes a breathtaking ride on the Aiguille du Midi gondola and a stop for traditional fondue near the summit of Mont Blanc. For bespoke options, consult Bob Preston, featured on T+L's annual A-List, our roundup of the best travel advisors in the business. four-day trips from $1,975.
Content in this article was produced with assistance from Terminal Neige–Refuge du Montenvers and Les Fermes de Marie.