Ski the Alps! 2 months in Switzerland and France
Updated: May 13
When we were planning our first year of travel, we knew we wanted to ski in February and March. We'd spent one week in Zermatt, Switzerland a few years ago and loved it, so it was one of the first places we committed to going. We decided that the second month of skiing would be in the French Alps, including two weeks each in Chamonix and Megève before ending in Saint Gervais.
Zermatt, Switzerland. Zermatt is a small town nestled in a valley with no cars, just electric taxis and horse-drawn carriages.
Located a 3 hour train ride from Zurich, the town is tiny and pretty isolated. But it's also amazing because you can walk everywhere and always look up and see the majestic Matterhorn! There's great shopping and eating and it's a pretty social location with everyone outside enjoying a meal or cocktail at the end of the day.
We chose an apartment with an incredible balcony view of the Matterhorn and town, as well as a great fireplace. We thought it would be the perfect place to take advantage of the 360 kilometers of pistes we'd have outside our door in the areas of Zermatt-Matterhorn and Breuil-Cervinia-Valtournenche (Italy) and be a nice place to come home to after a day on the slopes.
We quickly learned that an incredible view requires being high up from the town...and that meant that we climbed 70+ steps every day to and from our apartment, often with ski boots and skis. Was it worth it? Yes! And we got our daily steps in without even trying. The view from the balcony was spectacular and, since we were on the top floor, at night the sky light in our bedroom meant we fell asleep under the stars.
We'd decided to get a season pass that included both Zermatt and Italy ski areas so we wouldn't have to decide how many, or which, days to ski - we could just ski as much as we wanted! So that's what we did, for a total of 475 miles (765 km), and 409k vertical feet (124,663 meters) during our month there. We ventured over to Italy a bunch and enjoyed pizza and panini, recalling how to order in Italian - the sun on that side of the ski area is wonderful. The lifts in Zermatt are very modern - all high-speed chairs, trams, and gondolas, but in Italy the infrastructure is, well, charmingly Italian.
While there are great restaurants on the mountain on the Italian side, we were once again confounded by the Italian approach to restrooms, especially in the gondola station, where the women's room consisted of basically a porcelain hole in the ground! And we thought the lack of toilet seats in Florence was perplexing... this was next level crazy!
While the grooming of the trails everywhere was great, there was very little snow the entire month, although we did get about 5 inches toward the end of our stay. In fact, it was snowing so much that day we had to stop skiing because we couldn't see the trails in front of us! The rest of the time the sun was warm and bright and the sky a brilliant blue. Perfect for sitting outdoors to enjoy live music and lunch on the mountain.
There are so many wonderful local huts, restaurants, and bars scattered throughout the mountain, good food isn't hard to find. And, if fondu is your thing, this is your place! Need a fondu pot? There are lots in local stores. Who knew you needed so many fondu pot options to choose from? Certainly not us!
Our month was low key, but there was lots of apres ski fun with live music. Zermama was right on our way home every day, Harry's Ski Bar was always hopping after a day on the slopes, and Papperla Pub was a favorite for loud singalongs and dancing to everything from Queen to Shania Twain to Led Zeppelin. This house band does it all, occasionally includes a sax or a trombone, takes requests for virtually anything, and can amazingly learn new tunes on the fly together while on stage and totally rock the house. Our favorite moment (which we happened to catch on video) was a raucous performance of AC/DC Thunderstruck when the singer/drummer set his kit ablaze, which made the audience erupt in cheers! We also enjoyed the Zermatterhof for its piano bar and sweet, wonderful Italian pianist who loved to play requests and even sang a few in his native language.
We also wandered the beautiful town of Zermatt every day - and, of course, enjoyed lots and lots of skiing.
For Valentine's Day, Zermatt had a little party in town with free prosecco and Spitzbuebe (Swiss jam cookies), a fire to keep warm by, and the opportunity to hang out with Wolli, the black nosed sheep mascot of Zermatt. So much fun!
You can read all about Zermatt in our blog from our last trip, but since we were there a whole month this time we decided to try a few new activities:
First Tracks. Our season pass came with some perks, one being that we got to experience first tracks on the mountain. We were up at 6am (in the dark, the sun wasn't even up yet) and riding on the tram with our guide at 7:30am (normal opening is 8:30am). When we reached the top of Matterhorn Glacier Paradise there wasn't a soul on the mountain, the runs were smooth and untouched, and we were the first ones to lay down tracks in the snow. It was incredible! After a few runs down and up we met the guide at the top for a breakfast overlooking the peaks of Italy and Switzerland. Although this experience was included in our season pass, anyone can do this for €40...and you should!!
Paragliding. Every time we were skiing on the mountain we'd look up and see people gliding in the sky above us. We quickly decided we had to try it, too. So, on one of our non-skiing days we met our pilots and went to the top of Rothorn peak for our flight.
Within five minutes we were running off the side of the mountain and into the sky - apparently not a whole lot of prep or instruction required to soar 11,000 feet in the air! The views were incredible. After 15 minutes my pilot asked how I was doing and I told him I loved it! He responded, "It's okay if you want to scream." Scream? Why would I want to scream? I got my answer a minute later when he started doing loops and funnels, going upside down and around, and yes, I wanted to scream! Surprise death spirals and upside down loops circles, it was absolutely worth doing.
Because the combined ski areas of Matterhorn Ski Paradise and Breuil-Cervinia-Valtournenche are so large, we never got bored with the mountains. In fact, we set a goal of skiing each and every ski trail across both countries, all 148 of them. We carefully tracked them, so we didn't overlook any and achieved this goal mid-month. The vertical (top to bottom altitude change) is so massive here, we found ourselves achieving 30K vertical feet more than once. This led to a goal on one particular day of 40K vertical feet, which required some super-fast rips down one of the steepest runs at the end of the day, resulting in 44,323 ft vertical, 49.1 miles, 25 runs, and a top speed of 52.9 mph. Goal achieved! Whew! We were so sad when our month came to an end, but we were looking forward to seeing how our next destination compared as we set off for a 2.5-hour drive from Zermatt to Chamonix France.
Chamonix, France. Wow. Chamonix was so different from Zermatt! First of all, the town is bigger, although still a quaint ski town with pedestrian-only streets in the center. Second of all, the ski mountains are dispersed as opposed to being connected. There is a free bus to take skiers to the various mountains in the area, so they're easy to get to, and one (La Flegere/Le Brevent) is walkable from the center of town. Of course, Chamonix is also surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks - most notably Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps and Western Europe.
Once we arrived and settled in to our apartment, we walked around town and encountered a parade! Apparently they have these every week during the ski season.
I wish we could say it was adorable but it was actually just downright weird!! A techno elephant? Dancing golden people? Odd music? We couldn't help but watch and laugh and enjoy the performers, who were having a great time even if their parade was nuts! See for yourself, we aren't the crazy ones, right?
Chamonix hadn't seen snow in a while, so the conditions weren't optimal to start. In fact, after our first day skiing La Flegere and Le Brevent we decided to call it quits early and take the tram up the Aiguille du Midi, a 3,842-metre-tall mountain in the Mont Blanc massif - this is not a ride for people who don't like heights! It is actually the closest you can get to the summit of Mont Blanc without hiking or climbing.
From the top the view is gorgeous and you can see across into Italy. We watched some brave (crazy) climbers clinging to the sides of ice-covered cliffs - better them than us! Definitely worth the ride up to experience the top of the Alps. The only way to ski up there on the glacier (Vallée Blanche) is with an experienced guide, so we looked into doing that but discovered that due to the lack of snow, you couldn't ski all the way down (you have to take the Montenvers-Mer de Glace mountain railway back) and there was LOTS of up/down walking involved. We decided, sadly, to take a pass this time around. Even if we didn't ski the glacier, our apartment looked right up to Aiguille du Midi so we got to watch the tram from our balcony every day, and we never failed to marvel at the way it soared to the top!
The next two days we skied Grands Montets and Le Tour/Balme, both a short bus ride away. Le Tour had a slalom ski race set up so we decided to go head-to-head and had fun racing each other over and over again to keep things interesting. The conditions were better but so far none of the mountains had the vertical feet or vast number of runs we'd loved in Zermatt. That's why, on our fourth day, we decided to venture to Courmayeur, Italy, a place we'd visited way back in July when we first started our travels. It was so much fun seeing the same mountains we'd hiked in the sweltering July heat transformed into ski runs!
Courmayeur is on the other side of Mont Blanc, and reached via a tunnel that goes almost exactly under the summit of the Aiguille du Midi (it's the world's second deepest operational tunnel). After a quick bus ride, we were dropped off at the base of Courmayeur for an incredible day of skiing. We loved this place! The conditions were super and there were so many runs to enjoy. The off-piste skiing was vast and snow-covered and a total blast. And, at the end of the day, before catching the bus back to Chamonix, we walked to town for an Aperol Spritz, birra alla spina, and aperitivo...the perfect Italian ending to our ski day.
And then, finally, it snowed!! So much snow that all of the mountains except Le Brevent/La Flegere were closed, and even those had a delayed opening. But, when the gondola finally started running, we were one of the first to get on and go up (we heard lots of avalanche cannons going off while we waited). The conditions were so much better!
The town of Chamonix is not lacking for food, and we enjoyed a lot of it! There was a bakery with amazing almond croissants right around the corner from our apartment (very dangerous but also very delicious) We especially enjoyed Josephine, which offered a daily oyster and wine special - we took advantage of that often! And even though we practically never eat at the same restaurant more than once when traveling, we loved Bizes so much we went twice (swordfish and duck were so good). The staff was so friendly and the food spot on. Most restaurants have outdoor seating and, because it was warm and sunny every day, the streets were filled with people enjoying themselves. Chamonix turned out to be very different than Zermatt, not as quaint or upscale, but we enjoyed our time there once the ski conditions improved, and maybe one day we'll actually be able to ski the glacier when the weather cooperates. Next up on our Alps adventure, a 45 minute drive for a two week stay in Megève, France.
Megève, France. Also located in the Mont Blanc massif, Megève felt like a hybrid of Chamonix and Zermatt. It had cobbled car-free streets with horse-drawn carriages, outdoor dining, and a rushing river running through the center. But outside the center it feels like a regular town, cars and all. The town is encircled by stunning mountains with ski trails everywhere you look. We loved the massive skiing right outside our door! Megève has 235 runs and 89 lifts. But because of its relatively low elevation, and this year's lack of snow, when we arrived the trails were a little hurting. The warm weather and sun didn't help! Our first day felt like skiing in mashed potatoes, the snow was so heavy and wet.
But...then the snow came, over 30cm of fresh powder! And it was amazing, probably one of the best ski days we'd had all year. Megève's three ski areas (Mont D’arbois, Rochebrune and Le Jaillet - it's also connected to the St. Gervais ski area) aren't crazy challenging but they are gorgeous and the runs are lots of fun. There is so much space, and there were so few people, we never waited for a lift and managed to do 21 awesome runs that day. Megève is also part of the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass area (which we had) so it's easy to make it a part of any trip to the Mont Blanc area.
Around the third week in March it was obvious that the sun and warm weather were taking their toll on the conditions but we skied on! The last day that Le Jaillet was open we were one of the few people braving the rain at the bottom half of the mountain to enjoy the snow (and fog) up top. We got soaking wet and every time we went down to the bottom lift we were sure the attendant was giving us dirty looks (and saying mean things in French) because we wouldn't stop skiing and all she wanted to do was go home and stay dry. The snow at the top was great, but eventually we gave in to the fog and called it a day, saying goodbye to that mountain for good - except for enjoying a ride on the luge mountain coaster at the bottom one day when we took the day off from skiing.
One sunny afternoon we hatched a plan to get in on the après-ski action at the renowned La Folie Douce (translation: sheer madness). Situated mid-mountain , surrounded by Mont Blanc and the various French Alps peaks, this place is famous for a raucous party that is second to none. We were there late in the season and didn't really know what to expect. We questioned whether it would even be happening or perhaps just a lunch stop. Well, when we got there around 2pm, there was a guy with a guitar and a gal with a violin getting warmed up. There was a bit of electricity in the air. We ordered drinks and found a spot at an outdoor table in the brilliant sun with the amazing snow-covered mountains all around. It didn't take long. The violinist started playing. The guitarist joined in. An iridescent-jumpsuited singer demanded everyone "put your hands in the air!" and a tall, sequin covered singer joined in.
They put on quite a show, with hits from Abba, Britney Spears, Queen, and many more. Things were getting crazy with partiers joining the entertainers on the center stage catwalk. Soon thereafter, a staff member walked up to our table and insisted that we climb up on top (in our ski boots) and join in on the festivities. Joe was obliged to comply! I resisted but soon joined the others on the center stage. This is what we came here for! Soon every table was covered with people dancing, and we loved it! Staff were walking around pouring champagne into reveler's mouths. Colored smoke was covering the crowd. We stayed until shortly before closing, wanting to avoid being sprayed by champagne (something the staff is notorious for) and to avoid skiing down when the heavy drinkers would be flooding the trail. This is a mad party that you must experience to believe. No, there is nothing like this back in the USA! (FYI, there is also a Folie Deuce on the mountain in Val Thorens, France, and we went there last year during our ski trip, too.)
Saint Gervais, France.
We were ending our time in the Alps at Le Saint Gervais Hotel & Spa for one week. Just a 20 minute drive from Megève, the ski area of Saint Gervais is actually connected to the Megève resort, so we'd skied many of the runs on this part of the mountain range already. When we arrived in this adorable small town nestled along a rushing gorge of water and between snow-capped mountains, the weekly market was taking place. So, we explored the stalls covered in fresh baked goods, meats, fruits and vegetables, and local Savoyarde specialties. Although this town is considerably smaller than Megève we actually found it way more charming and beautiful, and way less geared to tourists and visiting skiers. Not a lot of English being spoken here! It was definitely getting warmer, and the town must have just planted new flowers because all of the gardens along the streets were blooming with color.
Our first few days in St. Gervais were unfortunately rainy, so we enjoyed the hotel spa hot tub and sauna while hoping for some better weather to come. We learned that just up the road was the neighboring village of Les Contamines and the altitude at the ski resort there was just high enough that the precipitation was going to be snow. We purchased our passes for two days and boy are we glad we did. Day one at Les Contamines Montjoie was otherworldly. The 15-minute bus ride dropped us right at the gondola and the place was nearly deserted. Up we went, into the snow which was coming down at a good clip. The higher we went, the snowier it got and by the time we hopped off onto the first piste, we were in powder heaven in the middle of a snowstorm! The picture below shows the lift during the storm and then the same lift the following perfect bluebird sunny day.
There were many inches already piled up, wild wind, thick fog, and dark skies. It was both incredibly challenging and incredibly fun! The visibility was so poor that we lost our way numerous times and had to find our way back to the piste. Going off-piste in these conditions was ill advised because you really couldn't see where you were heading and that means you could head off a cliff or into a tree or onto a lake (which we did!). The snow was soft and fluffy, and any hint of grooming was gone as the snow piled up all day long. At times it was quite disorienting, as the poor visibility would make it impossible to see the horizon and difficult to know if you were skiing down, up, or sideways. Challenging but such a good time! The following day we awoke to bright sun and blue skies!
We arrived on the first bus and made it up for first tracks. It was absolutely incredible! Twenty five inches or so had fallen the day before and overnight. The groomers did their job perfectly. Really the best conditions we have ever experienced! The groomed pistes were super soft corduroy which could be carved perfectly at full speed all the way down. Virtually all of the territory in between the pistes was skiable, covered in deep powder, and provided super soft turns in between trails.
We skied all day long, taking a lunch break outside in the warm sun, while reflecting on the incredible close to our two months of skiing in the Alps. Wow, what a day!
After a very dry and nearly snowless two months, our final day on the slopes at Les Contamines was world class and a very fitting grande finale.
We tracked our statistics daily using the Ski Tracks app and the totals are really something. Thirty-three days skiing, 725 miles (1,167km) distance, 645,899 vertical feet (196,870 vertical meters), 12,663 feet (3,860 meters) max altitude, 426 runs. Wow!
We love skiing in Europe for many reasons: the stunning scenery, the quaint towns, the amazing ski resorts. But what makes it so special is that every person there just wants to have fun. We meet so many people from all over the world, chat with them in gondolas, drink with them at bars, dance with them to live bands. One experience sums up how random encounters with strangers end up with fun conversation and memorable laughs. In Zermatt, we were on a chair lift with two British guys who pulled out silver flasks and started talking (in beautiful British accents) about how difficult and frustrating it is to shop for white tie events - but thankfully you can always wear your white tie with your tuxedo to embassy balls, so it makes the purchase worth it! As they are enjoying sipping from their silver flasks, one guy suggests they take a break from skiing and go have cigars and martinis at the Zermatterhof - well, we were totally looking at each other like, this is ridiculous! So, Joe finally pipes in: "Are you auditioning to be the new James Bond?" And we all laughed and chatted for the rest of the ride, sharing stories about where we've skied and all sorts of things. Au Revoir Alps, we will be back, in fact we have already booked our ski adventures for next year!
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Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.