We may know Chamonix principally as a ski resort but more people visit outside the winter months, and for good reason. With Mont Blanc as its backdrop, foraging opportunities abounding in its hills and valleys, and a thriving foodie culture in its midst, Chamonix has a year-round buzz. And the Autumn season offers the chance to enjoy all the highlights of this and the Haute-Savoie – part of the Savoie Mont Blanc region – before the snow comes, without the crowds.
If you’re feeling brave, something to try before you enjoy the area’s fine dining is a ‘Step into the Void’: a transparent box hanging off the Aiguille du Midi peak at an elevation of 3,842 metres. The spectacular views of Mont Blanc and its glaciers distract from the stomach-turning drop beneath your feet – I only managed to shuffle onto the glass floor for the photo by not looking down!
The mid-station below the Aiguille needle offers the chance to recover on a short but bracing walk down to a mountain refuge where heart-warming dishes like Le Farcement Savoyard await – a regional speciality combining potatoes, prunes, raisons and bacon that’ll stick to your ribs – served by man-of-the-mountains Claude, who only occasionally hikes down to Chamonix, far below, to see his girlfriend.
Chamonix is like that – the 10,000 or so locals take things in their stride. It wasn’t the skiing but the glaciers which first put the town on the map back in 1741, then came the conquering of Mont Blanc and the start of mountain guiding 45 years later, as celebrated in the impressive mural in the centre of town. Skiing only arrived here in the early 1900s – there’s always been lots else going on. In the summer, the calendar of events on chamonix.com includes a jazz festival, free concerts, climbing competitions and more.
There’s an artisanal market every Saturday and an outstanding QC Terme Spa, where as well as all manner of sauna and steam rooms – one even has an in-built cinema – an outdoor infinity pool has individual water-jetted pods in which to recline as you take in views of Europe’s highest mountain.
We stayed in the comfortable Hotel Les Gourmets with a view of the river near Chamonix’s centre. Getting around the area is easy and environmentally-friendly – a Carte d’Hôte (guest pass) gives free access to buses and trains that run up and down the valley throughout the year.
North-east of Chamonix lies the village of Vallorcine, and a host of hiking opportunities. We had foraging expert Sébastien Perrier as our guide, pointing out the edible mushrooms – including the most improbable-looking blue ones – among the forest of fungi we found on the trail. Nature is bountiful at this time of year and as well as talking us through the benefits of mallow (decongestant), mountain ash (laxative), lichen (expectorant) and elderberry (for coughs), he revived us with his own rosebay willow herb tea, sweet clover cookies and yarrow cake – all as fragrant as they were delicious.
Local restaurants are as keen as we were to enjoy this natural harvest. At the outstanding L’Auberge du Bois Prin in Chamonix (under three-Michelin starred chef Emmanuel Renaut), we were delighted to spot the wood sorrel we’d seen on our forage being used to garnish a fabulous dish of slow-cooked venison with mushroom purée, crowned with a pastry latticework of pine trees, that looked like an artwork and tasted even better.
Much of Haute-Savoie cuisine is locally sourced, and with Lake Geneva just an hour away, fish features strongly on the menus. In and around the exquisite medieval town of Yvoire on the southern side of Lac Léman (as the French call it), we sampled the freshest of perch (delicious with frites), fera (trout – divine with a lemon and cream sauce) and omble chevalier (grayling – the sweetest-flavoured of them all). As a theatrical finale, the chocolate bombe dessert at Les Jardins du Léman restaurant in Yvoire drew spontaneous applause. It’s a half sphere of chocolate heaven that melts to reveal a cream-stuffed poire helène with caramel ice cream within. Magnifique!
Local vineyards – including the family-run Chateau La Tour de Marignan – pop up on many restaurant wine lists. The first winery to go organic in the area 30 years ago, the Chateau La Tour de Marignan now produces fewer but higher quality reds and whites from pinot noir, mondeuse and chasselas grape varieties – as well as its deliciously different ‘Le Chévre’ sparkling wine that’s delivered under pressure as an alcoholic foam.
That one surprised us – as did so much of the Haute-Savoie. It’s a region with so many treats in store for the foodie and the forager, for those seeking a thrill or just looking to relax and chill. Perhaps the gorgeous ‘Garden of the five senses’ in Yvoire, a jewel-box of late-season flowers and ripening fruits best sums it up: like the Haute-Savoie, it’s a place of all-round extra-sensory stimulation.
Learn more about Chamonix and Savoie Mont Blanc here and contact our travel experts on 0800 412 5678 to arrange your own break.