With its sheer heights, extensive off-piste area and Mont Blanc as a dramatic backdrop, Chamonix is a huge draw for high altitude thrill seekers. And hip new hotel Rocky Pop is making it all more accessible, says Lauren Taylor.
“Everyone comes here for the freeriding,” our ski instructor Christophe says, as we join the masses for the first lift to open, “they all want to make the first runs in the powder”.
The promise of making those all-important first tracks is what drags seasoned skiers and boarders out of bed on crisp winter mornings, and here in Chamonix – with all the off-piste opportunities you can dream of – it’s serious business.
But with the beauty and sophistication of the French Alps – and the steep winding Chamonix Valley, one of the oldest ski resorts in the world with glacier skiing galore – comes steep prices, right? The lively town itself has plenty of traditional chalets and boutique hotels of the five-star variety, but the newly opened Rocky Pop Hotel – a 5km bus ride towards the village of Les Houches – feels totally different.
The words “We Will Rocky Pop You” are emblazoned across the cinema-style entrance, iconic pop visuals are everywhere and there’s a pizza van inside. It’s clear this place doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a full-size C3PO figurine at the entrance, Pac-Man symbols on the carpets and fully functioning retro arcade games sit next to the coffee machine.
There’s a laid-back lounge and bar area that you actually want to hang out in, and long sharing tables in the two dining areas – one of which has floor to ceiling windows and 180 degree views of snow-sprinkled fir trees. There’s certainly nothing stuffy about the ambience, but there is a touch of class.
The 360-degree bar feels like it could easily fit in any London or New York cocktail club, and there’s a gin cocktail menu featuring premium brands like Canadian gin Ungava and Filliers from Belgium. I’ve discovered my favourite kind of apres-ski – sipping on a gin and tonic with an olive and a sprig of rosemary at the Rocky Pop bar.
It feels like a hotel you’d normally find in a city, rather than an alpine retreat, particularly when it comes to the cuisine. After a long day on the slopes (Les Houches being the closest and most gentle ski area) the comfort food here of gourmet burgers and thin-crust pizzas is perfect. There are a couple of French classics on offer too like entrecote steak with dauphinoise potatoes or tartiflette.
The hotel feels designed for groups of friends but there’s a real mixture of clientele, including families, and at under £700 for a week half board including flights, it offers a lot more atmosphere and attention to detail than some staid three-star properties you usually get in ski resorts.
Rocky Pop is a prime example of a trend at the affordable end of the ski market, for making hotel rooms functional and comfortable, but just-about-big-enough. Some with maisonettes are more spacious, but skiers spend little to no time in their hotel rooms anyway.
What you’re really paying for in Chamonix is a huge winter playground with some truly world famous off-piste runs, all, of course, with Mont Blanc in the background.
An unlimited lift pass (299 euros for six days) covering no less than ten areas, including Brevent-Flegere, Les Grands Montets, Argentiere, Les Houches, Savoy and Balme Vallorcine, provides more than enough on and off-piste action for even the most experienced of mountain connoisseurs.
The legendary La Vallee Blanche – a 22km off-piste decent from the Aiguille du Midi, through the steepest glacier in Europe and into the valley – is on many people’s ski bucket lists. I’m told the views are stunning and there’s a real sense of alpine wilderness, if you’re brave enough. It starts with a stomach-flipping walk along a panoramic steep edge at a cool 2,700 metres.
I have to admit, I’m slightly relieved the snow conditions aren’t good enough during my stay, but I vow to do it “one day”.
We cable car to the top anyway and with Mont Blanc on one side and the valley stretching out ahead on the other, it’s every ski enthusiast’s dream.
Over the following two days, the slopes of Les Grands Montets and Brevent-Flegere offer a challenge on and off-piste.
Tucked away in the mountain is the unassumingly charming Chalet Refuge de Lognan. Originally a refuge for hardcore mountain folk, there are still beds available if you’re after a rustic experience (there’s clearly no way of getting a suitcase up here).
Access to the restaurant is either via an off-piste run from the top of the Grands Montets (3,300 metres) which boasts some incredible glacier skiing or a (less scary) gondola to 2,800 metres and an easier decent. Here, we find the best homemade food of our entire trip at a very reasonable price, and a warm fire to melt the ice from our gloves.
Owner Zain Charlet is a mountain guide who comes from an illustrious family of Argentiere guides (his father was the great mountaineer Armand Charlet, who was famous for making the first ascent of the Aiguilles du Diable rock needles on the Mont Blanc ridge).
After a few crisp days on and off the slopes, Rocky Pop, with its casual, easy-going feel, makes a homely base to go back to. And the rental shop and lockers downstairs make it all so convenient.
So if your heart is set on the freeride mecca of Chamonix, but your budget is restricted, this little break from tradition is a lot of fun.
:: TRAVEL FACTS
Inghams (www.inghams.co.uk/ski-holidays; 01483 791 114) offers seven nights, half board at the three-star Rocky Pop Hotel in Les Houches, Chamonix Valley, France, from £699 per person, departing in March or April 2017. Price includes return flight from London Gatwick to Geneva and resort transfers.
Ecole du Ski Francais (www.skischoolleshouches.com) offers private ski area guiding from 205 euros (approx £176) for a half day.
For more information on Chamonix, visit www.chamonix.com