The French department of Haute-Savoie and its towering Mont Blanc Range have attracted generations of American skiers. But when the snowfields have been replaced by flower-strewn meadows, the high Alps remain a wonderful destination, with enchanting small hotels — some of which have been owned by the same families for more than a century — and an increasing number of fine restaurants serving the region’s delicious and distinctive cuisine.
The scenic splendor of Haute-Savoie was largely a local secret until 1741, when two young Englishmen on a Grand Tour of Europe “discovered” the tiny Alpine village today known as Chamonix. William Windham and Richard Pococke were transfixed by the grandeur of 15,781-foot Mont Blanc and the four-mile-long glacier known as the Mer de Glace. On his return to England, Windham published a widely read pamphlet describing his experiences. Before long, the Alps had come to exert such a powerful fascination that they were mandatory on the itineraries of wealthy English travelers. As a result, the first luxury hotel opened in Chamonix in 1816 and the famous Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, or association of accredited mountain guides, was founded just five years later. However, travel to the Alps really took off after a rail line reached the town in 1901. And the resort’s enduring popularity with skiers was established when the first Olympic Winter Games were held there in 1924.
Chamonix lies 50 miles southeast of Geneva. Like many French resorts, the town experienced a 1970s building boom, which left it sprinkled with high-rise apartments. But happily, it retains an affable charm, with pedestrian lanes lined by excellent restaurants and cafés, plus a variety of interesting shops. And although Chamonix may have changed through the centuries, Mont Blanc still looms above, the highest peak in a magnificent panorama.
Located close to the edge of town, the 32-room Hameau Albert 1er was founded in 1903 by the great-grandfather of the current owner, Pierre Carrier, and has never lost the warm and sincere style of a simple Alpine pension. On our arrival, the young front-desk staff were exceptionally friendly and efficient; our car was promptly dispatched to the garage and we were upstairs and unpacking within minutes.
Our spacious double room in the main building came with a head-on view of Mont Blanc from its private balcony. (Of course, you can ride the cable car for even more spectacular vistas, but we were content to sit in comfort, lost in contemplation.) A cowhide area rug lay on the floor, while the white plaster walls were decorated with framed etchings of mountain scenes. Much of the furniture was modern, however, and this mix of the traditional and the contemporary was surprisingly attractive. The large, well-lit bath was faced in butternut-colored stone and equipped with a whirlpool tub and a separate shower.
In addition to lodgings in the original building, the Hameau Albert 1er also offers 12 rustic accommodations in cozy Savoyard chalets. (These were purchased by the Carrier family, disassembled, transported to Chamonix and rebuilt.) Two of the chalets are self-contained: The newest, “Le Grépon,” opened last year, and with a huge living room, a master suite and a second bedroom with bunk beds, it is ideal for a family of four.
Facilities at the inn include Le Bachal spa, which comes with an indoor/outdoor swimming pool facing Mont Blanc. The property offers two fine restaurants: La Maison Carrier serves rustic specialties, while at the Michelin two-star Albert 1er, chef Pierre Maillet presents outstanding cuisine from the Haute-Savoie and the Piedmont in a cozy wood-paneled dining room. The wine list is superb, and the service is impeccable. Overall, the Hameau Albert 1er is a delightful establishment that offers authentic Alpine ambience and warm hospitality nurtured by more than a century of Carrier family tradition.
Hameau Albert 1er 94 Luxury room with fireplace, $515 (summer high season), $655 (winter high season). 38 route du Bouchet, Chamonix. Tel. (33) 4-50-53-05-09.
Since I have a deep love for traditional European grand hotels, I decided to spend a night at the famous Grand Hotel Des Alpes, a venerable 30-room property in the heart of Chamonix. The handsome butter-yellow building with a mansard roof and granite-trimmed windows was built in 1840 just as the town was becoming a fashionable destination, and it was my hope that we would find both modern comfort and old-fashioned gentility.
After parking in the hotel’s subterranean garage — for which one is charged a galling €20 a night — we were escorted upstairs by a pleasant young Italian woman. Along the way, she pointed out the hotel’s spacious and well-lit indoor pool and fitness center, and also the basement breakfast room (where we endured a mediocre and expensive buffet the following morning). We then arrived in an attractive lobby lounge with a woodburning fireplace, wood-paneled walls, chintz-upholstered sofas and tables stacked with books, papers and magazines.
Upstairs, however, our Mont Blanc Range Room was a severe disappointment, being a peculiar triangular space with a minuscule balcony from which one could catch only a glimpse of the mountain by perching on the railing! Though the room had pretty wallpaper and oak paneling, the Wi-Fi did not work and the bathroom heating was broken. Alas, there is little grand about this particular grand hotel.
Grand Hotel Des Alpes 83 Mont Blanc Range Room, $305. 75 rue du Docteur Paccard, Chamonix. Tel. (33) 4-50-55-37-80.
Chamonix remained the undisputed queen of the French Alps until 1921, when Baroness Noémie de Rothschild, disenchanted by an experience in St. Moritz, decided to create an Alpine resort of her own. Having scouted the Haute-Savoie for an appropriate setting, she finally settled on the tiny village of Megève. It was, she decided, close to ideal, owing to its medium altitude, gentle slopes and unself-conscious charm. She bought a guesthouse and renovated it into a mountain hideaway, the Domaine du Mont d’Arbois, which, though somewhat frumpy, remains in business today.
Megève lies just 20 miles (40 minutes) southwest of Chamonix by the N205 highway, but weather permitting, I always take one of the pretty backcountry roads instead. The town was dominated by the Rothschild family until 1981, when an attractive and ambitious young Savoyard couple, Jean-Louis and Jocelyne Sibuet, bought Au Coin du Feu, a small hotel in the heart of town, and renovated it with confident good taste. There, they fostered a more relaxed hospitality than the formal style then prevailing. The success of this venture encouraged the Sibuets to invest in a remarkable project on five acres of nearby pasture. Buying up old structures from all over the French Alps, they disassembled and then reconstructed them to create Les Fermes de Marie (named for their daughter). Employing original timbers and pine paneling, they built an enchanting 63-room hotel that raised the bar for luxury not only in Megève, but also in the French Alps as a whole.
Alas, our recent stay began on the wrong foot — I found it inexcusable for a $1,000-a-night Junior Suite not to be ready by 2:30 p.m., and the over-coached front-desk staff seemed robotic rather than genuinely hospitable — but we soon relaxed over tea in the cozy lounge bar and diverted ourselves by observing our fellow guests, who included South Africans, Brazilians and Russians, as well as Europeans of various nationalities.
When we were finally escorted to our room, everything was forgiven. It had a coffered pine ceiling and walls that were either wood-paneled or covered with thick woolen flannel. Oil paintings, etchings and baroque-style lamps all contributed to a warm and intimate atmosphere. The bed was covered with a brown Mongolian sheepskin and was flanked by a Louis XVI armchair and a footstool covered in camel-colored cotton chamois. A well-lit bath was faced in light gray granite and came equipped with a separate shower and soaking tub. Though the room was quite small for a junior suite, it was extremely comfortable, and a sliding door led to a private terrace and garden.
The hotel offers two restaurants. At Le Restaurant Traditionnel, chef Christophe Côte serves dishes such as rack of lamb with juniper, roast pigeon with an orange-flower sauce and boeuf à la ficelle (poached beef with vegetables). And at Le Restaurant Alpin, diners enjoy mountain favorites such as fondue and raclette, as well as the signature spit-roasted chicken served with a Savoyard gratin. Although we found both restaurants enjoyable, they are unexceptional and somewhat overpriced.
We also harbor reservations about the hotel’s other principal facility, the Spa Pure Altitude, which, although equipped with an indoor pool, is too small for a property of this size. The staff struck us as apathetic, providing none of the welcoming rituals that are part of any happy spa experience. Indeed, communication consisted of little more than an instruction to get undressed and lie down!
Les Fermes de Marie is a fine hotel in many respects, but though the rooms are lovely, the service needs to be more spontaneous and sincere. That said, the Sibuets have created a beautiful fantasy of Alpine chalet life.
Les Fermes de Marie 92 Prestige Room, $925 (winter), $480 (summer); Junior Suite, $995 (winter), $600 (summer). 163 chemin de Riante Colline, Megève. Tel. (33) 4-57-74-74-74.
Located on the outskirts of town, 12-room Le Chalet Zannier was once the home and restaurant of celebrated three-star Savoyard chef Marc Veyrat. Today, it is a hideaway that reflects a growing preference for small Alpine hotels with décors stripped of superfluous adornment. Here, you will not find antique farm implements and heavy fabrics; instead, the interiors are almost monastic, with oak plank floors, rough stucco walls, linen curtains and subdued color schemes.
Our Junior Suite came with a woodburning fireplace, well-aimed spotlights and an exemplary bath with a striking rough-and-smooth black slate floor and both a stall shower and a long white tub in a black basalt surround. A private balcony was furnished with a hewn wood table and chairs, and offered a stunning view over Megève.
If the food at Le Chalet Zannier hardly rivals the cuisine of the great Veyrat, the menu nonetheless offers appealing (if stiffly priced) dishes by renowned chef Julien Burlat. We dined extremely well on raw and braised Belgian endive with Comté cheese, Savoyard ham and a balsamic vinaigrette; grilled scallops with beetroot dressing; and roasted free-range chicken with a thick herb butter tucked under its skin. After dinner, we stopped in the attractive bar for coffee and a measure of Blanton’s bourbon, the latter poured by Lucas, the terrific bartender. During our short stay, all of the staff were charm personified.
Following an excellent room-service breakfast the next morning, we found our car waiting for us outside reception. It had been stocked with bottles of mineral water and bars of chocolate for our journey. We added these fine details to a long list of reasons we were extremely sorry to leave.
Le Chalet Zannier 94 Prestige Room, $910 (winter), $395 (summer); Junior Suite, $1,450 (winter), $725 (summer). 367 route du Crêt, Megève. Tel. (33) 4-50-21-01-01.
Our last stop in Megève was the intimate Flocons de Sel hotel, which is actually better known for the superb restaurant of chef Emmanuel Renaut (who was sous-chef to Veyrat for many years before going out on his own).
We had opted for one of the hotel’s two Junior Suites, which feature pine-paneled walls, woodburning stoves, spacious sitting areas with comfortable wool sofas, cathedral ceilings, and balconies and terraces with mountain views. The attractive baths provide stall showers as well as soaking tubs. (The property also offers six rooms, two chalet suites and a four-bedroom apartment with a fully equipped kitchen.)
After breakfast on a late-summer morning, we set out to hike in the surrounding hills. The staff had provided us with reassuringly detailed maps and directions, and Monsieur Renaut himself had put together a wonderful country picnic — bread, cheese, cold meats, salads, fruit — that we enjoyed in a grassy meadow. It was a blissful day, and at its conclusion, we rested our weary limbs in the hotel’s new open-air hot tub prior to a spectacular dinner in its gourmet restaurant, attended by young and exceptionally obliging staff.
The Flocons de Sel is an idyllic Alpine hideaway, and I plan to return as soon as my travel schedule permits. Also, Mrs. Harper has decided that she wants to take one of chef Renaut’s cooking classes, and that’s just fine with me.
Flocons de Sel 93 Deluxe Room, $750 (winter high season), $540 (summer); Junior Suite, $805 (winter high season), $580 (summer). 1775 route de Leutaz, Megève. Tel. (33) 4-50-21-49-99.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As proof that the French Alps have emerged as a summit of Gallic cuisine, the only new three-star restaurant in the just-released 2012 Michelin Guide to France is chef Renaut’s Flocons de Sel. For a full report on this and other notable restaurants in the Alps, please see “High-Altitude Gastronomy”.
Illustrations ©Melissa Colson
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