This past April we fulfilled a dream of mine. I finally went to Europe, specifically Chamonix, France, with the kids. If my husband’s reading this, he’s rolling his eyes because, guys, it’s not like I haven’t been to Europe before. In fact, I am sure I’ve been there more than the average American. I spent a semester of college in London and traveled all over Western Europe. I went to Zurich when I was pregnant with W. But that was 8 years ago. Several circumstances (ahem…law school…law school loans…ahem) have prevented me from returning to Europe until this year. And this is the first time I’ve gone with my husband and kids. To say I was excited about this trip was the understatement of the year. And despite a few hiccups (like when I was deported from Switzerland-read on, friends) we had an amazing time. Chamonix, France is spectacular, the food is amazing, and there is a lot to do in Chamonix with kids!
It all started when we were planning a ski trip and realized that it cost less to fly to Zurich than it did to fly to the Rockies. So we quickly booked our flights and then discussed where to ski. My brother-in-law, M, suggested Chamonix, France, and the planning began! If you know me, you know that planning for a trip is half the fun for me. I read every yelp review. I write list after list of what I want to pack. Even when we visit my family on Cape Cod, I end up with pages of notes. Happily, all the planning was worth it and we had an amazing time.
Getting to Chamonix with Kids
There are a number of ways to get to Chamonix. The closest airport is in Geneva, Switzerland and you can choose from a number of bus or hired car companies to take you to Chamonix. We opted to fly into Zurich, about three hours away, because the flights were insanely cheap. You can take a train straight from the Zurich airport to the Geneva airport and then hop on a bus to Chamonix but because we were going to Chamonix with kids, bags, and ski gear, we decided to rent a car. Actually, we ended up with a giant van which was …interesting…to drive on the windy mountain roads. Shout out to my husband who navigated them without incident.
Staying in Chamonix with Kids
Chamonix Valley consists of 16 villages: Montroc, Le Planet, Argentière, Les Chosalets, Le Lavancher, Les Tines, Les Bois, Les-Praz-de-Chamonix, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, Les Pècles, Les Mouilles, Les Barrats, Les Pélerins, Les Gaillands, and Les Bossons. There are numerous hotels, chalets, and apartments to rent in the valley. We chose to stay in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc because it is one of the largest villages with the most restaurants and shopping and, more importantly, it is the home of the cable car to the top of L’Aiguille du Midi. It’s also centrally located for the main ski areas. Since we were technically there to ski, proximity to the slopes was an important consideration for us.
Because there were five of us we decided to rent a condo. M found the most amazing, centrally located condo with gorgeous views of Mont Blanc and a relaxing hot tub. Thanks, M!
Skiing in Chamonix with Kids
Okay, so you’ve decided to go skiing in Chamonix! Yay! The Chamonix ski season runs approximately from December to late April. We went at the very end of the ski season so it wasn’t very crowded. There are benefits and drawbacks to going at the end of the season. The snow wasn’t that great while we were there. However, a week after we left they got 20 inches so I am not sure this is a season-specific issue. On the plus side, it was a balmy 60 to 70 degrees F in the town during the day. It was cooler higher up in the mountains. I enjoyed this warm weather. My husband who skied more often than me wasn’t as big a fan of carrying his skies while wearing full ski wear in 70-degree weather.
There are four main mountains to ski: Brevant, Flegere, Balme Vallorcine, and Grand Monets. With so many mountain options, there are trails for everyone from beginners to experts. And then there is the off trail (or off-piste) skiing, specifically from the Aiguille du Midi down the Vallee Blanche to the Mer de Glace.
Off-Piste Skiing- L’Aiguille du Midi
L’Aiguille du Midi offers some of the most beautiful views in the French Alps! One of Europe’s longest cable cars runs you to the top of the mountain where adventurous skiers (like my husband, 7-year-old son, and M) can ski off-piste down the mountain and Vallee Blanche. If you aren’t a skier you should still take the trip to the top where you will have the best view of Mont Blanc, which is the highest mountain in Europe. In summer months you can take a second cable car from the Aiguille du Midi across the mountains to Italy. You’ll have to be brave though because that cable car runs three miles without a support pillar! It wasn’t open when we went to Chamonix, but Rick Steve’s has a wonderful description of the trip across that is worth checking out. One of the most interesting things to do on the top of Aiguille du Midi is stand in the glass box over the side of the cliff. It’s not so easy to force your feet onto the glass over a cliff!
If you are going to ski down L’Aiguille du Midi and the Vallee Blanche, you have to hire a guide to take you. It’s about a 20 kilometer off trail ski and there are hidden crevices and the threat of avalanches. The trail starts with the cable ride up L’Aiguille du Midi and a very narrow, steep hike down to a plateau where you put your skis on and take off. You ski down the Vallee Blanche and end up in the Mer de Glace (the glacier.) After that long ski, you then have to hike up 420 steps to a cable car which takes you to a train back to Chamonix. The whole thing is not for the faint of heart, which is why I didn’t go! But my husband and brother in law were super excited. This day ski is the whole reason we went to Chamonix. They couldn’t wait to take W with them. I was much more hesitant to let my seven-year-old ski down a route that every year claims lives. However, I said it would be okay if the guide said he could go.
We used the Chamonix Experience guides and they were fantastic. We hired them for three days. The first two days they evaluated W and his skiing prowess and took the three adventurers on several less dangerous off-trail experiences. On the second day, they said that W would be fine skiing the Vallee Blanche the next day (erg!). The third day, I went up Aiguille du Mid with them, filmed them climbing down to the plateau, had a minor heart attack, and then went back to town to pray they’d survive the day and stress eat chocolate. They did survive. They had a wonderful experience and were completely exhausted when they got home that afternoon.
What was A doing during this time? Well, she was in ski school. We didn’t originally plan to put her in ski school but I was deported from Switzerland (more on that later) and the husband needed to do something with her so he could ski with the guide. A little research later and he found ESF Ski School in Chamonix. ESF ski school is fantastic. They have several locations in the valley, including one in Chamonix proper that was two minutes from our rental condo. They are also ridiculously cheap. It was about 91 Euros a day for A to attend ski school from 8:30am to 3pm. For comparison, when we put her in ski school in Aspen it was $235 per day for her to go from 9:30am to 3pm. Even though I made it to Chamonix by her third day of ski school she still wanted to go because they were doing an Easter Egg hunt in the afternoon! It’s worth noting that there were plenty of English speaking instructors and that little A came home from the trip with a really adorable British accent that we attribute to her time at ESF.
Best Mountains for Kids in Chamonix-On trail skiing
Most every mountain in the Chamonix area has beginner slopes, but Les Planards is almost exclusively beginner runs perfect for skiing with kids. It’s a small ski area with a magic carpet for the very beginner and a small lift with easy runs down. Les Planards is located near the center of Chamonix and is accessible by the free valley bus. We walked over to Les Planards but took the bus back to near our condo.
Though we didn’t go, there is another little ski area for kids at La Vormaine that has four rope tows and gentle slopes.
For beginner skiers who want longer runs, I recommend Brevant. Brevant has a number of easy and intermediate trails for those who are ready to advance beyond short, gentle slopes to runs that are a little longer but still easy.
Another great mountain is Grand Montet. Grand Montet has slopes of all difficulties. Because I was a little late to the skiing game during this trip, this is the only mountain I got to ski on. Parking is free and the gondola is an easy walk from the parking lot.
Okay, guys, let’s talk bathrooms for a minute. I am not an overly fastidious bathroom fanatic. But I do have a four and a half-year-old daughter who isn’t tall enough to squat and needs a reasonably clean toilet. When we got to Grand Montet we took the Gondola halfway up the mountain and she had to go to the bathroom. We skied down a short run to the lodge and went in search of public bathrooms. The most prominent bathrooms had the toilets without a seat. Just a porcelain tank. I know this is common in Europe but this is the first time I’ve ever encountered it with a child. I still have no idea how you help a kid use one of these. I mean, the rim was covered in fluids. Blech. So we continued searching and now I can share with you two locations on the Grand Montet mountain that have “normal” toilets complete with a toilet seat. First, at the bottom of the mountain the restaurant across from the gondola they have and, second, at the lodge halfway up the mountain inside the restaurant. There you go. Also, if you have any advice on how to help a small child in full snow gear use a seatless toilet, please let me know!
Other Things to do in Chamonix in Winter
If you aren’t a skier, there are still many things to do in Chamonix with kids. We were there in April, at the very end of winter so while there is a lot of hiking and biking etc., let’s focus on the more winter oriented activities in Chamonix with kids.
Attached to Les Planards is Chamonix Parc, a small amusement park with a very cool alpine rollercoaster. If you’ve purchased a ski pass, you get a free ride on the roller-coaster so we strolled over on a rare gloomy day when the husband and W were exhausted from their epic ski the day before. I wasn’t expecting much from the attached amusement park so we were pleasantly surprised by the attractions. It is pricey. You have to purchase tokens and each ride costs a certain amount of tokens. Little A spent most of hers on the trampolines, while W went on several rides including bumper cars. It is accessible by the valley’s free bus service, has free parking, and is walking distance from Chamonix-Mont-Blanc so it’s definitely worth a visit! We had a lovely afternoon playing around there.
We all rode the roller-coaster and whizzed down the metal track. I admit to hitting the brake more often than W would have liked. Some of the turns are very sharp and I was afraid we’d fall out!
Another fun activity in Chamonix for kids and adults alike is the little red Montenvers train to the Mer De Glace. It is a 20-minute train ride up the mountain to the Mer De Glace station. The ride itself is gorgeous but the real draw is the ice cave dug out of the glacier. It’s a fascinating lesson on climate change. Once you get off the train you have the option of taking a gondola down to the glacier or hiking down by foot. We chose the gondola which offered the best views of the area. Here is where it gets fascinating. When the gondola was built in 1988 the glacier and ice cave was only a few steps down from the platform. In 2017, we had to hike down 425 steps to reach the ice cave. Along the way down are markers of the height of the glacier from 1988 to 2017. My son W was particularly shocked by how much the glacier has receded over the years. We had a lovely educational discussion about the planet, climate change, and the importance of protecting the future.
So a small warning guys, going down approx. 425 steps isnt’ that hard. And once you arrive at the bottom, the ice cave is really neat. The walls are lit by colorful lights, there are ice sculptures and photographs depicting historic life on the glacier. But hiking back up 420 steps is really hard. Especially when your four-year-old daughter stops after 10 steps and refuses to continue and your 7-year-old son tells you he has to go to the bathroom really badly and wants to sprint to the top. Who do you choose to accompany? The crying preschooler or the agile kid?!? I went with the kid and regretted it when I was sweating a quarter of the way up.
At any rate, back at the top is a lovely restaurant and another exhibit of the gems and minerals found in the glacier. We had much needed beverages on the patio (you have to make a reservation to eat inside) and enjoyed the view for about 45 minutes before heading out.
My insider tip about the bathrooms is to wait to use the restaurant’s bathroom. There are porta potties at the top of the gondola but they were disgusting. I gagged walking past them. So hold it for a few extra minutes and use the clean indoor plumbing at the restaurant!
The whole trip takes two to three hours so makes for a nice afternoon.
Other Things to Do in Chamonix with Kids
There is some fantastic shopping in Chamonix for kids. The main shopping area in Chamonix is pedestrian only which makes for a safe area for the kids to explore. My kids loved the gift shop at the Aiguille du Midi cable car, the Press House (La Maison de la Press) bookstore for their selection of creative craft books, and the most amazing candy store I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I had no idea there are this many types of gummy candy!
Final Review of Visiting Chamonix with Kids
With the ample beginner trails, great ski school, and fun activities I highly recommend visiting Chamonix with kids! Chamonix offers numerous places to stay from self-catered chalets to hotel rooms. There are great restaurants, interesting shops, and a multitude of activities both inside and outside for all weather conditions. Our only criticism is the lack of ski on/ski off options for accommodations but don’t let that deter you. The world-class skiing is worth making the effort to get to the slopes. and there are plenty of free buses that will take you anywhere you want to go.
Deportation-a Personal Story
Okay, guys. I mentioned it above. This vacation, while wonderful, was not without its problems for me. When we arrived in Zurich, I was promptly deported back to the United States. It all started two years ago when I misplaced my passport after taking the bar exam. (Cut me some slack! I had just taken the bar exam, turned my phone on and heard that W had a concussion and was on the way to the hospital. Keeping an eye on my passport wasn’t my priority at that moment.) The husband found it in June 2016 when cleaning out my car for his trip to Canada. During its two year absence, I had thought about declaring it missing a couple of times but I didn’t actually do it. However, when I got the passport back, I did call the Passport Office to make sure it was still valid and that I hadn’t actually declared it missing and completely forgotten. The State Department took all my info and then said they couldn’t tell me if it was valid. No problem, I thought. I knew I hadn’t reported it so I just kept using it. I flew domestically using it as my ID. I applied to jobs with it as my ID. It was scanned three times in the airport in NY as I got on the plane to go to Europe. But when trying to get through customs in Zurich, I was told that my passport had been declared stolen!
For a very brief moment, I thought it was something I did wrong, but then the official said it was declared stolen or missing on June 21, 2016, which is when I made the phone call to the State Department. On that call, without telling me, they flagged it. Maybe that’s the common practice, maybe it was a mistake. I don’t know and I am not calling to find out!
The Swiss Government officials were very nice but could not be persuaded by me, my family, my friends, everyone we knew at any embassy including the U.S. Embassy in Bern to let me into their country. So my husband, two kids, and brother in law were forced to leave me at the airport in Zurich to continue onto Chamonix on their own. I was escorted to a hotel in the airport and told that I would be put back on the plane the next morning to go to NY.
I’ll be honest, until the moment they escorted me onto the plane, I didn’t actually think they’d make me go back! I mean, it would have been a very simple thing to get a replacement passport at the Embassy in Bern but I wasn’t allowed to leave the terminal let alone the airport.
So what did I do? Well, that night I emailed a friend who had a key to our house and asked her to pick up my birth certificate and overnight it to my in-laws in New York. My wonderful, amazing in-laws picked me up from the airport with the birth certificate and drove me to downtown Manhattan where I waited two hours to get an emergency passport replacement. They then took me out to a lovely dinner, booked me a return flight to Zurich for the next day, and then brought me back to the airport the following afternoon. I can’t thank them enough for their support and for the flights they got for me. I only missed three of the days of the trip because of them.
And just in case you are worried, the kids were fine! My husband bought them Kinder Eggs in the airport and they promptly forgot all about me.
Do you have a favorite European destination or somewhere you really want to take your family? Let me know in the comments below and remember to subscribe to the newsletter for updates and free printables!