Chamonix: Hitting the heights in the Alps

All that separates us from a two-mile drop is a few inches of glass – and a pair of slippers. Welcome to The Step into the Void, a glass box jutting out of the rocks high above Chamonix in the French Alps.

The ‘box’, at a dizzying 3,842m on the Aiguille du Midi, is reached by two cable cars that take about 20 minutes from Chamonix. They also give great views of the town and valley below on the way up and down

It is the highest cable car in Europe and the longest single span cable car in the world. But it isn’t cheap – a return day ticket is 56 euros.

Those brave enough to edge out into the unknown can be reassured the glass box can withstand winds of up to 125mph.

Everyone has to wear slippers – in large and even larger – so the bottom of the box doesn’t mark.

The all-round – and down – view of the icy mountain ridges, including Europe’s biggest, Mont Blanc, is truly stunning and in June the mountains are still topped with snow.

Staff are happy to take photos of people with their own cameras and phones – sometimes one in each hand – to keep the queue moving.

Further along the range, the Mer de Glace is a spectacular but diminishing glacier reached by  rack railway.

From the top it is a peaceful 20-minute walk down the side of the mountain – or a cable car for the less spritely – followed by long flights of stairs onto the floor of the gorge.

But it is worth it as you step back thousands of years inside the glacier. Tunnels carved into the ice allow you walk into history. After that, even the 400 steps back up are not as daunting.

Chamonix, less than an hour from Geneva and the final stop before the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy, is better known as a winter resort but re-invents itself in the summer – pistes become hiking trails, cross-country ski areas turn into bike tracks.

Hotel rooms are about half the price and some attractions only open in the warmer months.

We meet Elizabeth and Christophe – and their seven of their 35 huskies – for one of these summer-only activities.

In the winter the dogs pull sleds – in the summer they lead you on forest walks.

Centre of Chamonix
Centre of Chamonix

After a few safety tips – ‘make sure you keep your head above the dog’s or he will poo on your foot’ – we are tethered to a dog each and it is off for a gentle walk in the woods.

The dogs move at your speed – you run, they run.

It is all tremendous fun as we walk through streams and along tracks, and Elizabeth and Christophe make friendly and informative guides.

In the same forest is the idyllic Le Paradis des Praz, a clearing with a stream, playground and charming Alpine cafe.

It is easy to forget the outside world and before you know it, five hours of paddling and exploring  have passed.

The Parc de Loisirs, more usually part of a ski run, becomes a mini-fairground in the summer  with rides, trampolines and play parks for children big and small. The white-knuckle luge is a hair-raising roller-coaster down the side of the mountain.

The Richard Bozon sports centre is a great place to relax if the weather turns bad. For five euros there is a swimming pool, kids’ pool, huge slide and a jacuzzi. Pay a bit extra and you can use the saunas and steam rooms.

The Hôtel de l’Arve is on the river that it takes its name from and many of the rooms have river views. A nice touch carried over from the ski season is the free tea, coffee and biscuits at 4pm.

The apartments set back from the river are modern with plenty of room for all your outdoor gear.

The region’s food is hearty and welcome after a day in the mountains – ham, potatoes, cheese.

La Caleche in the pedestrianised town centre serves a mixture of both and at 28-32 euros for three courses is far from expensive.

If you are after a bit more refinement, head a few miles to Les Houches.

The Restaurant La Table des Granges is part of an exclusive holiday resort where chalets – each with its own sauna, four bedrooms and mountain views – can cost up to 3,500 euros a night.

The set menu at 39 euros for four courses  is a bargain in the French Alps, especially in a five-star resort.

The restaurant has great mountain views which, in the summer, last until after 9pm.

Chamonix in the summer has a seemingly-endless list of things to do. So, if you think Chamonix is a winter ski resort, think again.

Fact box

Paul stayed with Peak Retreats (peakretreats.co.uk; 0844 576 0171) at the Hôtel de l’Arve apartments. For seven nights, Peak Retreats offer self-catering packages from £212pp or half-board options  from £343pp.

For details and prices for the tourist attractions, see www.savoie-mont-blanc.com or www.chamonix.com.

(Prices correct as of June 2014)

This review first appeared in the Manchester Evening News