For centuries, Chamonix has been the prime alpine resort for those seeking adventure luxury travel with a heady mix of challenging skiing, glaciers, designer boutiques and five-star hotels. Digital Editor Millie Walton travels to the lesser known village of Argentière, a twenty minute drive from the main town and home to the valley’s most luxurious collection of chalets, to discover where adventure and luxury meet
That feeling you get when you wake up early on the first day of skiing is, for me at least, the nearest I ever get to the giddy excitement I felt as a child on Christmas morning. It’s a restless, wide-eyed kind of anticipation and on the way to Flégère, one of Chamonix’s most scenic and slightly easier ski areas (although no skiing in Chamonix is exactly easy), the excitement is almost palpable. We’re silent as the driver opens the door and hands us our skis, poles and passes. We’ve been warned that the visibility is bad, which is hard to believe in the valley where it’s sunny and relatively clear, but the warning makes us even more edgy and impatient to begin.
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At the top of the cable car, we’re met with gale force winds that pull us from side to side in a drunken swagger, making the experience of waking in ski boots feel even stranger and more space like. Most of the pistes are closed, the wind howling in our ears, stinging our faces, biting into bare skin. My ski partner looks at me and points warily at a red avalanche sign with one pole, a gesture that’s perfectly timed with the boom of the canon and the thundering rumble of snow. And yet, there’s something especially exhilarating about skiing in extreme conditions, when there’s a sense that you’re on the fringes of real, raw adventure. We push off down the run, carving through thick powder, gathering speed and arrive at the lift, panting, laughing. It’s worth everything for that (and a timely break for vin chaud).
Sadly, the mountain is closed after a couple of hours – the weather’s too extreme – and whilst it’s not quite long enough, it’s something, and we return to Les Rives d’Argentière with our cheeks still flushed, snow dripping from our hair. The pretty hamlet of luxury chalets sits snugly in the little village of Argentière, facing south towards Mont Blanc. We’re in the biggest of the four, Chalet Terre which has a capacity of 14, but is by far the cosiest with rustic, tribal inspired furnishings, a log fire, a sleek open plan kitchen (re-stocked daily with drinks and snacks), five en-suite bedrooms, a games room in the basement and a hot tub, sunken into the snow on the terrace.
The chalets also share an underground walkway with a sauna, hammam, fitness suite, massage rooms and cinema, and it means that if you happen to be renting the whole hamlet, you don’t have to trudge through the snow to pay the rest of the group a visit. That afternoon we’re booked in for treatments with Chamonix’s star masseuse Ruth Martin, who uses her fascination with the inter-relationship between psychology and physiology to create a truly bespoke experience that’s as relaxing as it is deeply therapeutic.
Most people who choose Chamonix over resorts such as St. Moritz or Zermatt, choose it for the extreme sports (the first Winter Olympics were hosted by Chamonix in 1924); the notorious off-piste skiing route Vallée Blanche, the Mer de Glace, Aiguille du Midi (a 3,777m terrace with panoramic views of the surrounding alps), and ‘A Step into the Void’, a glass cage that hangs over 1000m precipice. It’s a ski resort that’s primarily about the sport and not the après, and because of that it tends to attract a slightly more adventurous clientele, who are by no means less deep pocketed – wander through Chamonix town and almost all of the shops are designer or artisan and there’s a multitude of smart restaurants.
One evening, we’re treated to a wine tasting menu in the chalet with an excellent and varied wine selection by Le Verre Gourmand, who are renowned suppliers of the top chalets in the alps. The food is not quite as refined as one would expect, and disappointingly doesn’t take advantage of the Alpine ingredients and traditional recipes, which are done so well and with so much elegance in the bistro style restaurants in town, but the service is warm and thoughtful.
Secluded in its own little world of luxury, Les Rives d’Argentière has all the advantages of a five-star resort, with the added allure of privacy and bespoke service that makes a day of adventures slightly less daunting.