I was transfixed the moment I looked up.
Mont Blanc was bathed in the light of the setting sun, and the mountain’s snow mantle had taken on an almost unearthly glow. A cobalt blue sky added to the drama.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought.
Best known as a winter destination (mainly world-class downhill skiing), the territory also has what we were looking for in a summer vacation: miles of hiking trails, towns to explore and good eats.
The area is famous for cheeses as well: brie (which originated there), tome (made from goat’s milk) and the skim milk-based tomme, to name a few.
Unlike our typical always-on-the-go trips, the goal for this getaway was simple – to relax, avoid overly long hours in the car and not concern ourselves with meals each day.
Hiking, especially in easy-to-navigate pastures, was at the top of the agenda. With thermal baths in the area, we looked forward to a little pampering, too.
We had a room (with a view of the mountain) at Club Med Chamonix (www.clubmed.us). Its heated outdoor swimming pool, steam room/sauna and all-inclusive three meals a day fit the bill. It turned out that in addition to breakfast, there was a hikers buffet table each morning with a variety of fruits, cheeses, breads and other munchies for picnics (plastic carry-containers provided). It was a nice surprise. Food at Club Med was very good and plentiful, including selections of regional specialties.
A number of guests were content to stay on the grounds of the resort, playing cards and tennis or taking part in pickup games of soccer and basketball. On sunny days, the pool always attracted a crowd.
Guests who signed up the night before for group hikes with Club Med guides met in the main driveway after breakfast, where they boarded vans that took them to various trailheads. Even though most activities at the resort are free, we preferred hiking on our own, using trail maps to find the way.
In the town of Les Houches (a 15-minute drive), we took a gravel road leading up Charousse peak to discover pastures filled with wildflowers. Sheep and cows grazed on either side of an easy-to-follow path. We were delighted when we came across the perfect spot for a picnic. On other days, we explored several trails, some more difficult than we wanted, but all with great scenery.
Because of morning rain and threats of a larger storm in the afternoon, we changed plans on the spot one day. Instead of a hike, we opted for lunch in Les Houches, followed by a trip to the Thermal Baths of Saint Gervais.
The croque monsieur I had in Le Creposaure, a cozy wood-paneled restaurant/cafe, was the best in almost a dozen trips to France. Maureen swooned over a plate of regional cheeses, hams and paté.
It was a thrill at the baths to lie back in tubs of warm water up to our necks as pulsing jets of water massaged our sides and backs. We also had traditional “hands-on” massages.
(For those without a car, the baths, actually in the Saint Gervais suburb La Fayet, can be reached by train from Chamonix and are about a 15-minute walk from the station in La Fayet.)
Saint Gervais itself is a small town on two levels, charming and very walkable. Great pastries, too.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
We drove to Albertville, site of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1992 Winter Olympics, to check out Conflans, a walled medieval town perched on a cliff at the confluence of the Arly and Isere rivers.
We spent a few hours walking the cobblestone streets and alleys in Conflans, visiting the Catholic church of Saint Honorine, built during the 15th and 16th centuries to honor Saint Catherine, and ducking into various art galleries.
We embarked on two other day trips during our stay, one to Annecy, a bustling lakeside resort town only an hour’s drive from Chamonix. We wanted to sample the open-air market in the Old Town section on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday mornings.
It was worth the time spent in the car. The market was a smorgasbord of regional specialties. Dozens of stalls lined streets closed to traffic, selling fresh-cut flowers, cheeses, sandwich meats, pastries, breads, fruits and vegetables.
We slipped in a lunch of onion soup and broiled fish at a nearby restaurant and took a stroll in a well-manicured park along the lake to work off calories from the market. Unfortunately, the last cruise boat of the day to go out on the water had already left, so we headed back to Chamonix.
That we were driving so much again bugged us, but not to the point we regretted one last day trip – to Aosta, Italy. We crossed the border via the 7.2-mile-long Mont Blanc tunnel (45 euros roundtrip), a marvel of engineering that doesn’t cut through the mountain, but rather several hundred feet under it. Aosta was founded by the Romans in 25 B.C. – as evidenced by the amphitheater and Triumphal Arch of Augustus still standing today.
We explored the shops along Via Porta Praetoria, a wide pedestrian passage through the Old Town leading to the arch. At the Borgo Antico (a stone’s throw from the arch), we had bowls of fantastic homemade pasta for lunch – spaghetti carbonara for me, tagliatelle with baby goat meat in a tomato sauce for Maureen. We still talk about the meal.
The following morning we took a five-minute walk from Club Med into the center of Chamonix. When we heard the sound of drums and brass instruments, we looked up to see 20 or so musicians coming down the street toward us. We clapped and cheered with dozens of other people standing curbside as rows of uniformed French soldiers, sailors, Alpine troops and gendarmes marching smartly behind the band passed – all in celebration of the Fourteenth of July, Independence Day in France. It was the perfect sendoff to our flight home the next day.
IF YOU GO …
Bring protective clothing. It rained during a cable-car ride to the top of Mont Flegere, was sunny at the peak and snowed on the way down. Conditions can also change rapidly.
The best way to reach Chamonix from New York is by way of Geneva or Lyon, France; most major carriers fly to both cities, and from there, you take ground transportation (car, bus or train) to Chamonix.
Ask for a carte d’hote where you’re staying; it’s good for free transportation on public buses, discounts at some attractions, and free rides on cable cars and gondolas. The card is also good for free passage on a quaint passenger train that departs the central station in town, then slowly makes its way to an ice cave on a glacier high above Chamonix.
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