By Belinda Buckley @ChamonixStylist
The moment you drive through the Mont-Blanc Tunnel from Chamonix to Italy, you can feel the sun of the south-facing Aosta Valley, sense the unmistakable Italianate style and smell the fabulous coffee. Chamonix shares much, including Mont-Blanc, with Courmayeur where French is spoken and understood, but the two mountain towns are distinctly different. And with the Mont-Blanc Unlimited lift pass available from Ehvoé partner La Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, skiing on the Italian side of Monte Bianco is included.
Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley sell themselves as ‘being on the sunny side’ – indeed, when the weather is closed in and miserable in the Chamonix Valley, Chamoniards in the know often drive the 12 kilometre underground border crossing to Italy to take in some excellent off-piste, followed by delicious après-ski with anti-pasti. In Courmayeur on a powder day, the majority of skiers in the queue for the tiny top cable car to Cresta d’Arp, from where you can only go off-piste, invariably are from Chamonix. The Courmayeur locals are known for being slightly less extreme than those of Chamonix and what they lack in arrogance, they make up for in style – you can heli-ski in Italy, but you can’t in France!
Even the piste skiing in Courmayeur is chic and stylish, with excellent mountain restaurants and cafés. And you don’t need to be an expert extreme skier to enjoy the off-piste, as much of it is easily accessible from the controlled runs, allowing for some low risk side-country skiing. But if you want to truly experience skiing the Courmayeur backcountry without chartering a chopper, do book a guide from the resort’s mountain guides’ office – where you can also arrange heli-skiing if you do fancy the chopper ride.
Other James Bond style activities popular in Courmayeur include riding a skidoo up the closed ski pistes to a restaurant at altitude at night, for aperitifs under the stars before dining by a mountain refuge fireside. Both Rifugio Maison Vieille on the Checrouit side and La Grolla over in Val Veny offer this, but you must book through Ehvoé to organise such unforgettable nights out with skidoo and all included ! Good ski lunch spots include the restaurant of Maison Lo Compagnar just past the snowpark by the Dolonne gondola base station, www.maisonlocampagnar.com, and the Petit Mont Blanc at the bottom of the Zerotta chairlift, which is famed for its barbecued suckling pig that is extremely popular with heli-ski guides and their clients.
Dining anywhere in Courmayeur is so fine that the place is highly favoured by foodies, including top British chef Heston Blumenthal who cites Courmayeur as his favourite ski resort and has hosted gourmet ski weekends here every winter since February 2014. Even the cafés and bars are Aosta-extraordinary: for the most traditional and charming coffee and cake go to the Caffee’ della Posta on Via Roma in the centre of Courmayeur, where the locals watch the world go by from the front room and retire to the rear room wine bar for après-ski. Along the street is another classic, Bar Roma, where the complimentary anti-pasti spread served with après-ski drinks is hearty enough for any hungry snowsports aficionado.
Courmayeur might be a small mountain town, but its shopping and nightlife are as hip as that of Milan or Turin. The mountain sports stores are much chicer and seem less expensive than those in Chamonix, while fashions by top Italian labels can be found at great prices in outlets in the valley capital Aosta. Cutting edge Milanese nightclub Club Haus 80s – exclusive party planners that have hosted events in Ibiza and Saint-Moritz – set up shop with a residency in Courmayeur last winter, a success it built on this winter bringing in big name DJs Sven Väth and Solomun.
The Italian side of Mont-Blanc can be reached in just half an hour by car or bus and Ehvoé can advise how to get there or organise day trips and transfers from Chamonix to Courmayeur. Ehvoé’s chalets Lumière and Arandellys are ideally placed for easy access to the Mont-Blanc Tunnel, as are the apartments in the centre of Chamonix: Cocoon, Blaitière and Cascade. Indeed, getting to Courmayeur from anywhere in Chamonix is very easy.
So go get some Italian ski style this winter!