How much fun is Europe's extreme sports capital? Let's ask the children...

Independent on Sunday (Sportsactive), Sunday June 15, 2003

My friend looked at me with a sad, weary shake of his head. “Chamonix with the kids? In April? You must be mad,” he said. “Why not go to EuroDisney like everyone else?”

He had a point. If you can cope with the queues, the themed restaurants at every turn, and the overwhelming sense that you have suddenly become a figure in a Hieronymous Bosch painting, EuroDisney is the place. The children love it and will rave about the endless gift shops, amenable roller-coasters and dazzling parades for weeks afterwards. But I wanted to show them something different, something they would remember for reasons unconnected with corporate culture.

“Chamonix? That’s great for you, but what on earth are the family going to do?” My friend’s cynicism was shared by my wife. Although I’m in my late thirties, I still have a love of adrenalin-sports that makes me insufferable on holidays, unless there are waves to surf, hills to roam over or mountains to climb. Chamonix, for me, is paradise. There is always something to do, and it’s all physical. This was precisely what was worrying Karen and my friend: how would my two boys, aged seven and five, fare? Not to mention Karen, for whom this would be a first trip to the Alps?

Chamonix lies at the foot of Western Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, which at 4810m towers over everything in the vicinity. The Haute Savoie town, as pretty as it sounds, is known as Europe’s centre for extreme mountain sports, and it is fair to say that it is not known as a family holiday hot-spot. However, as we got closer to the mountains I had a feeling that the trip would turn out well. Driving up the Chamonix valley, past the village of Les Houches, the boys could barely contain their excitement as they craned their necks to look at the Bossons Glacier, and, rising majestically above it, Mont Blanc itself.

Karen spied the observation platform perched on L’Aiguille du Midi (‘the middle needle’), a rocky spur directly above Chamonix that can be reached by two cable cars in twenty minutes. Though purists decry its existence, the platform (complete with restaurant) is a marvel of engineering, the sort of construction that prompts impossible ‘Dad, how did they build that?’ queries. I casually mentioned that we would take a trip there the following day, something of a mistake because Harry and Elliot could not sleep for thinking about it. Karen too was a little apprehensive.

Next morning, though, we were up bright and early, waiting for the cable car in warm April sunshine. The boys were ecstatic simply to be in what they renamed a ‘cable cart.’ On the way up, we saw three climbers tackling the near-vertical ascent of L’Aiguille du Midi (3,842m), prompting cries of ‘ooh-la-la’ from everyone. It was a clear day, and we could see for miles. From the observation platform the view of Mont Blanc was superb. I had climbed it the previous year, and took a moment or two to recall a perilous descent in poor weather and tricky crossing of the Bossons Glacier. Mountains can look so benign, and I pondered asking Karen if she would mind if I took half a day out to do a traverse or two. But the deal was that the crampons and ice axe stayed at home.

Back in Chamonix, we tried out the summer luge at Les Planards Leisure Park. The luge is a toboggan run reached by a chair lift. Harry was nervous about riding on the chair lift, but like many seven-year-old boys his nerves evaporated within seconds and what had seemed terrifying became exhilarating. Racing each other down the luge was great fun, so much so that we had to promise to go back and do it again before the visit was over.

But instead, we decided to go skiing. This was new for all of us. Another of Chamonix’s selling points is that its surrounding mountains are so high that there can be good quality snow all the way to June (though you have to hike up to it from the beginning of May, when the ski lifts shut). We booked some lessons with Beatrice, an instructor with Ecole du Ski Francais, the largest ski school in France. Beatrice took us to La Flegere, reached by cable car from the village of Les Praz, just outside Chamonix.

Every parent who has learnt to ski at the same time as their children will empathise with our experience. However well you think you are doing, your children will be doing better. After two mornings Harry was gliding down green runs, and Elliot, whisked around by Beatrice, had the hang of the snow-plough. Mum and Dad managed to keep up. Just.

Less hard on the legs were our forest walks. There is a wonderful network of well-maintained and easy-to-follow footpaths in the Chamonix valley, which provide constantly changing views of Mont Blanc. If the higher level walks are best undertaken by adults, there are innumerable pine-scented trails close to places like Argentiere and Les Praz which children adore exploring. The boys were so taken with the woods near Argentiere – complete with play-park in a clearing surrounded by trees – that these soon replaced the luge as the ‘must-visit’ request.

Chamonix itself has plenty to offer children. The Richard Bozon Sports Centre runs a ‘mini-club sportif’ in July and August, where 6 to 13-year-olds can spend a half or whole day swimming, ice skating, playing tennis or mountain-biking. The centre also has a water garden on Saturday mornings for infants from 6 months to four years. And if your children show some interest in climbing, the ‘Compagnie des Guides’ (the association of French mountain guides based in Chamonix) will take them on the climbing wall at the Richard Bozon Centre.

There are plenty of playgrounds in the town, and many open-air restaurants. Savoyard cuisine has to be among the best in the world, though it is likely to be a little too rich for most children. Ours clamoured for the crepes at the Creperie Bretonne, so tasty that they would even venture a few words of French for seconds. If needs must (and with children, sometimes they do), there is even a typically understated, because French, MacDonalds.

Last but not least there is the Mer de Glace, literally the ‘sea of ice,’ a glacier flowing from Mont Blanc accessible by train from Chamonix. The train hugs the mountainside up to Montenvers (1,900m), where there is a restaurant and a hotel. Walking on the glacier is not recommended for children but there is an ice cave and, if you and offspring are feeling fit, a beautiful three-hour walk (downhill all the way) back to Chamonix.

I saw my friend, fresh from a family trip to EuroDisney, just after we returned. He looked like he needed a holiday. “So how was Chamonix?” he asked, staring quizzically at our collective healthy glow. Elliot had fashioned a friend, ‘Mr Mountain,’ from a pen and some wire, Harry was busy reading a book about ‘cable carts,’ and Karen, from being avowedly anti-mountain sports, was plotting our next visit.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him. But hopefully he will read this, and go there this summer.

High Mountain Holidays run year-round holidays to Chamonix, using excellent, modern and comfortable chalets, and can provide any number of activities for the family. See www.highmountain.co.uk. 00 33 4 50 53 38 09.

Easyjet fly daily to Geneva from London Luton. Cars can be hired from Geneva. The drive from Geneva to Chamonix takes about an hour.

Richard Bozon Sports Centre: 00 33 4 50 53 09 07.

Les Planards Leisure Park: 00 33 4 50 53 08 97.

Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix Mont-Blanc: 00 33 450 53 00 88.

Ecole du Ski Francais: 00 33 4 50 53 22 57.