The Mountain Magnet

Fast times in Chamonix, France, the once and future epicenter of high-alpine daredevilry

Nights in White Satin: Mont Blanc, outside of Chamonix     Photo: Corel

Europe's Best Summer Parties

06.12–19 > Giraglia Rolex Cup
St.-Tropez, France
A 243-mile sailing race from St.-Tropez to Genoa, Italy, around the island of Giraglia. The shoreside scene in St.-Tropez is peppered with the Bain de Soleil beautiful.

07.03–11 > Allianz Suisse Open
Gstaad, Switzerland
At 3,000 feet, tennis balls fly a lot faster. Between matches, nibble on chocolates at Charly's Tea Room with the likes of Elle Macpherson and Elton John.

SOME PRONOUNCE THE X. Others don't. But Chamonix was extreme long before there were X Games. The highest mountain in Western Europe, 15,771-foot Mont Blanc, sits like a brooding Buddha next to one of the deepest valleys in the Alps, creating an almost Himalayan altitude difference between village and summit. Jagged, needlelike peaks called aiguilles line the valley, shadowy and menacing in the morning but inviting when they glow in the afternoon sun. This irresistible dichotomy has drawn Europe's most serious mountaineers to the Haute-Savoie region since 1786, when Jacques Balmat and Dr. Michel-Gabriel Paccard became the first to summit Mont Blanc. But this burgeoning alpine town of 10,000 (which swells to upwards of 100,000 in the summer) is no mountaineering museum; it's still the jumping-off point for hardcore climbing in the Alps—if you can penetrate the inner circle of the Chamonix climbing elite, that is. But don't let the cliques intimidate you. At Chamonix, liberté remains the dominant spirit.
WHERE TO PLAY Unless you're comfortable with multipitch alpine routes, stay away from the Dru, perhaps the signature climbing peak in Chamonix. Instead, head north up the opposite side of the valley for the non-technical hike up to Le Lac Blanc, a high-alpine lake at 7,717 feet, halfway up the Aiguilles Rogues, and soak in the spectacular views of the Mont Blanc massif. The Chamonix tourist office (011-33-450-53-23-33, reservation.chamonix.com) can connect you with mountaineering schools. Coquoz Sports (011-33-450-53-15-12, www.cham3s.com) is a good place to rent or buy mountaineering equipment.

APRÉS–ADVENTURE For a fine French filet mignon, head to Le Panier des Quatre Saisons (011-33-450-53-98-77). Microbreweries have been slow in arriving, but the Micro Brasserie de Chamonix (011-33-450-53-61-59) sets a good precedent. The burgers are anything but micro, and if you're lucky, local band the Crevassholes will be playing.
WHERE TO STAY At the Hameau Albert Premier (doubles, $208 to $286 per night; 011-33-450-53-05-09, www.hameaualbert.fr), an 11-acre estate tucked away in the center of Chamonix, you can choose from one of 27 sleekly furnished hotel rooms, a chalet that sleeps six, or a restored farmhouse with 12 rooms, cavernous baths, and rustically elegant furnishings. There's also an indoor-outdoor pool and a climbing wall, and spa treatments can be arranged.
HOW TO GET THERE Chamonix is a little more than an hour's drive from the Geneva airport, which is served from the U.S. by Air France (800-237-2747, www.airfrance.us). Rent a car at the airport or catch an ATS shuttle (011-33-450-53-63-97, www.a-t-s.net), which runs vans to Chamonix for $50 one-way.

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