Laura recently told me that she thinks I’m too hard on some of the cities we visit because if they’re really touristy, I generally point out how that makes them less enjoyable. Chamonix would fit into that category, but in an effort to be positive I’ll point out some good things about the city first, and then mention while it might not be a bad idea to avoid it altogether.
First, Chamonix is inevitably beautiful. It’s set high up in the Alps and therefore has stunning mountain views from anywhere in town.
Second, because of the mountains, there are a lot of pleasant hikes. We went on one of them, but there is enough hiking to keep an outdoorsy person busy for a long time. (On our hike we kept trying to get to something the signs all pointed to, but eventually realized that they were just pointing out the trail and the “destination” was the trail’s name).
Third, the city has a lot of gondolas and cable cars that can take the not-especially-outdoorsy (like me) to the top of the Alps without all the annoying hiking. (I’ll write more about our gondola experience later).
Fourth, the tourist office provides free wireless Internet 24 hours a day. I thought a lot of places in Europe would have free wi-fi, but they’ve turned out to be few and far between. That made this one all the more surprising and useful and we used it to do some late night planning for some of the upcoming parts of our trip.
Despite these things, after we got to Chamonix I began to wish we had been stranded in the less touristy Saint Gervais. After arriving at 10 pm, we had to find a hotel room. We tried to find some sort of hostel, but no one seemed to know if there even was a hostel in town (we later found it, up on the hill). Because it was so late, a lot of the B&B type places had already closed their doors and we ended up being forced to go from mid range hotel to mid range hotel trying to find the cheapest place. That ended up being a place called Hotel Richemond, which had double room for a budget busting €95. It was a great room with a balcony, but I’d still never show up in Chamonix again without a reservation. (For those in Utah, or who are familiar with any high end ski resort type town, imagine showing up late at night in Park City and searching for budget accommodations, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what our experience was like.)
Similarly, the city seems to cater to a weathier clientele who don’t care as much about experiencing local culture. Most of the stores are chains or chain imitations, and all of the buildings feel like Disneyland versions of what I’d expect in the Alps. In other words, it felt like an overly manufactured and aggressively quaint psuedo village that was crawling with pleasure seeking tourists. So, while it has its charms, I didn’t love it and I doubt I’ll have the desire or the budget to spend a night there again. For some people these things are great, but they’re really not what I’m looking for in a destination.