In Juneau, we are lucky enough to have mountains and ski slopes basically in our backyards. In Cholet, France we are eight hours in the car away from Chamonix, a town in the French Alps. The road trip went by relatively fast — singing and sleeping. On hour seven, we saw our first view of the Alps. After not seeing snow-peaked mountains for six months, I was thrilled.
Chamonix reminds me of Juneau in some ways — while we were driving in I saw some lost-looking tourists, and lots of stores catering to them — really playing up the French stereotypes.
You can buy berets and souvenir T-shirts that have little slogans like “après ski Chamonix” with an outline of a wine bottle. Chamonix’s downtown is absorbing — there is almost no need to ski with all the things to do. From boulangeries to ski/ clothing shops, I could spend all day just walking around the streets and window shopping. I liked to “people watch” the skiers and snowboarders in the centre ville. Seeing Patagonia and The North Face everywhere added to the Juneau feeling.
In the midst of the gear rental shops, you can find French grocery stores with meat maturing caves in one aisle, and an international section in the next, with Lucky Charms and peanut butter. You can also find lots of fromageries.
Chamonix is located in the Haute Savoie region of France. The local Savoyard cuisine is rightly famous for its cheese and my host family tried a new kind almost every day that week. They already knew their favorites of course, but they wanted to share the many varieties with me. It was a good excuse for them to eat even more cheese than normal. One that they adore (and even brought some back to Cholet) is the Comté. Little cheese fact: the Comté is made from cows that graze at high altitude — at least 400 meters.
Another specialty of the mountains is the fondue Savoyarde. After a long day of skiing, dipping bread into hot melty cheese is amazing — it’s a little stressful trying to get the long string of cheese onto your plate and not all over the table, but it’s well worth it.
If you go to Chamonix in the winter, make sure and put these three things on your list:
• Take the tram to Les Aiguilles du Midi. It’s like the Mount Roberts Tramway on steroids — the highest cable car in Europe at 3,842 meters. At the top, you have a view of all the French, Swiss and Italian Alps.
• Chamonix is home to the longest backcountry skiing runs in Europe, so if you’re a big skier, I recommend getting a pass that allows you to take all of the lifts throughout Chamonix. You have access to little beginner slopes to backcountry “pistes noir” and a bus that takes you to all of the slopes.
• I recommend skiing for a while, then finding a high altitude café with an outdoor terrace. With the sun reflecting off of the snow, you can get a tan while you take a break. Watching the lifts go up and down the mountains and seeing skiers zig-zag down the slopes is super relaxing, and why my classmates and host families love winter break so much.
• Bridget McTague is a Juneau-Douglas High School student who is spending her junior year abroad in Cholet, France, as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange. Follow along with her travel adventures by reading her bimonthly column “Bridget Abroad” in the Juneau Empire.