I've lived for about two months a year in Chamonix (more specifically, Les Houches) for about eight years. I usually go for 3-4 weeks in winter/spring, 3 in summer and 1 in autumn. I have hiked all over the valley and a fair bit in the surrounding country, and I've skied just about everywhere. At the moment, I'll focus on just these two activities, but I may include more (especially on nightlife) when I have done a little more research.

The valley has had a somewhat isolated existence since it was first settled - nobody really knows when that was - and played a prominent role in the English Romantic movement: Byron and the Shelleys were frequent visitors, and Frankenstein was inspired by a visit to the Mer de Glace. Since the construction of the Mont Blanc Tunnel and the Autoroute Blanche, the valley has become much more industrialised and accessible: both a blessing and a curse. Its stunning landscape - to me the most Himalayan that the Alps get - draws many thousands each summer and winter. The skiing is, if you're good enough, some of the best in the world. The hiking rewards taxing walks (many that require crampons) with superb views of the mountains, such as the gothic Aiguilles de Chamonix and Massif du Mont Blanc and/or visits to secluded waterfalls or idyllic pastures (with cows thrown in for free).

The valley itself is very near the borders of Italy and Switzerland - the tunnel links into the Val d'Aoste in Italy and you can drive over the Col des Montets and through Vallorcine into Switzerland. The accent of the spoken french there is clear and slow, making the people easy to understand - even the farmers - not that everyone doesn't already speak English. Anyway, enough of the background.

Skiing (In order, going downstream)

  • Le Tour: Pleasant and easy; the main skiing area is in a bowl reached by a 6-man bubble lift. The pisted, marked skiing is great and very safe, but not so easy to navigate in a white-out (i.e. when it's snowing) because there are no trees. There are, however, some quiet(ish) runs down on the Vallorcine side which are north-facing and usually have good snow. If it's cold, wrap up warm for the long express chairlift back up and over into the bowl. If you're with a guide in good conditions, you might try some of the interesting (and dangerous) off-piste. Although the skiing here is higher than that of Les Houches, the snow often goes more quickly - Le Tour is south-facing and the trees at Les Houches provide shade.
  • Argentiere: "The Best Skiing in the World"(tm). There is a huge amount of skiing here, most only accessible if you're more than competent and/or with a guide. The main feeder cable car into the ski area takes you to Lognan. From there, there are several options - look at a map of the area outside Lognan station for details. The Grands Montets is the place for good skiing. After some 230 evil slippery metal steps out of the lift (in ski boots, remember), turn left (unless you're mad - turning right is roped off and leads you to La Face) and then the choice is yours. You're skiing on a glacier here, so take a guide to watch out for cravasses (most of which can't be seen from the slope above). Safe trails are bordered by ropes. The valley's best ski restaurant is just below Lognan, at Plan Joran (again, see map). I recommend the Spaghetti Bolognese, but it's all excellent. Still better than the recently-improved Lognan station restaurant.
  • Flegere/Brevent: I've grouped these two together here for several reasons - first, you can go between the two via a short piste followed by a cable car called 'liason' on maps - as a result it's possible to ski every run in the two areas in a day. Second, they have roughly equivalent landscapes - they're above the treeline and have rocks under the snow (as opposed to ice or grass). Third, they are roughly the same standard of skiing (mostly red and blue runs, with some blacks). Fourth, a pass for one will allow access to the other. I don't often ski here, I have to admit. It does get quite crowded at high season (Christmas/New Year's, February Half-term, April/March), but can be worth it if there's good snow (which is usually January-March). It's basically all you expect from a French ski resort. This is the closest skiing to Chamonix proper.
  • Les Houches: The standard required to ski here is on a par with Le Tour, but it's all below the treeline which means that it's easier to see where to go when the light goes flat or when it's snowing. This is where our flat is - in the chalet-like appartment blocks just to the left of the run down near the bottom of the Prarion lift. The skiing here is, in a word, charming. It's not difficult, on the whole, although it does have a piste used once a year as the Men's Downhill (which I watched Herman Meier aka "Herminator" win in 1999). Our favourite restaurant here is the Taniere, reached from the long red run towards St. Gervais, round the back of the hill (again, see map).
A note on guides: there are several guide companies in the valley, but the only ones I'd trust my life with is the "Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix Mont Blanc" and the ESF (Ecole du Ski Francais). If you decide to go with any others, make sure they are properly prepared, especially if you're going off piste (for which they should have crampons, ropes etc. for emergencies). Cravasses and avalanches take no prisoners. Another note: for flat light, use orange lenses. For good sunlight you'll probably want something stronger. Yet another note: I've been talking about 'blue runs' and so on. The standard classification of a ski run is as follows: Green - very easy/nursery slope.Blue - easy. Red - Hard. Black - Very hard.This is totally subjective and relative to the resort (a blue at Argentiere would qualify as a red anywhere else) and depends heavily on the conditions (amount/type of snow, visibility etc.) Ski maps are readily available from tourist offices, lift stations and Maisons de la Presse (stationer/bookshops).

Hikes (or, as I am used to calling them, Walks):

  • Lac Blanc: there are many ways to do this. The lake itself is on the Flegere-Brevent side of the valley, to the north of la Flegere. Choose your own route to get there and back. If you like walking downhill, go up to Index (top station of Flegere) and walk down diagonally to the lake, then back down diagonally to Flegere. Do in reverse for uphill. If you're adventurous, walk all the way up and down from the valley floor. You can, as said above, choose to walk from Brevent, but this is longer (no problem with that). This walk is popular, especially in the high summer season (July-August). If you've got small kids don't attempt the 'walk' down to Argentiere from the lake - it involves ladders down cliffs. Otherwise, it's fun. You could also walk on (upstream-direction) to get still better views, what's more without the crowds, from the deep green Lacs de Chesery and the Lac de Chevre, eventually getting to the Col des Montets. If it's open, call in at the Refuge des Aiguilles Rouges (at the Col des Montets) and say hi to M. & MMe. Ravanel who run the place during the summer months. Talking of refuges, the one by the icy blue Lac Blanc does good soup, omlettes and Chocolat Chaud (hot chocolate).
  • Grand Balcon Nord - this is another of the walks described above. It goes between the midstation of the Aiguille du Midi and Montenvers, the upper terminus of the historic Mer de Glace railway. In my opinion, the best way to do this walk is to start early at the Plan de l'Aiguille, walking upstream-wards (relatively flat), arriving at Montenvers in time for lunch at the excellent Hotel restaurant. Towards the end, you have the option of heading up to Signal Forbes, with its amazing views of the Mer de Glace, or simply walking round (horizontally) to Montenvers. The upper path takes about half an hour more. After lunch, you could either walk (nice shaded path) or take the train down.
  • Dinosaur Footprints: this one's a bit boring, apart from the actual footprints. Drive to the Emossons dam, then follow the signs. The path is all tarmac and you get the impression of tourism, but if you can handle that (and the length - it's longer than it looks on the map), it's quite a flat (unvaried) walk with an interesting conclusion. Just take enough water. The footprints themselves were made about a hundred million years ago on a beach which then found its way to 2400m altitude.
  • Petit Balcon Sud - this is a low walk on the Flegere side, near Argentiere. It's all in the trees; just follow the signs.
  • Cascades/Pierre a Berard: drive over the Col des Montets, then before you get to Vallorcine turn left. The waterfall walk is signposted. There's a cafe right on the waterfall, and you can walk behind and under the actual falls themselves to a cavern in the rocks. From the cafe, you can walk up the glacial gulley (no glacier there any more) beside the river to its source and the Refuge Pierre a Berard. A good walk to do when it's hot, because of the breeze down the gulley. Also some great places for painting/photography in the trees. Oh, and by the way, you cannot walk down from the top station of the Aiguille du Midi, as recommended above. If you're a keen climber you might be able to abseil, but it's an icy, rocky crag, a needle true to its name. There is no hiking path down unless you have equipment, ropes and crampons for one. However, it is skiable (see Vallee Blanche). See also below, "other things..".
  • There are dozens more walks in the area. Buy a trail map (somewhere around €5) from any tourist office or Presse in the valley.
  • GR5 and Tour du Mont Blanc - big expedition-type walks. So far, I've been too lazy for these.
As always, remember to get the right ticket. It's Aller Simple for one-way, Aller Retour for a return. Other things to do:
  • Aiguille du Midi: Take the cable car to the top and look around. This is incredibly expensive and only worth doing on a perfect clear day, very early in the morning. Note: the writeup above says this mountain is 'near the top of Mont Blanc'. While it is part of the Massif du Mont Blanc, it is a separate peak. From the top one gets a 270-degree panorama - Mont Blanc towers above you across a large gulley and a glacier or two.
  • Luge d'ete (summer bobsled): the name is fairly self-explanatory. This is a bobsled running in a concrete track, near the bottom station of the Montenvers train. In fact, if you walk down to Chamonix from the Mer de Glace, you can ride the Luge (at a small price). Not exactly the kind of thing you go to Cham to do, but it's fun.
  • Musee Alpin (Alpine Museum): a very underrated museum in Chamonix centre, all about the history of the Alps and Chamonix. Great to do on a rainy day.
  • Mer de Glace: Take the train up and pay go go into a grotto dug inside the glacier. There are a few rooms, a bit of scenery (including ice chairs, tables, beds and baths plus weird mannequins and a freezing St. Bernard you can pay to have your picture taken with). The restaurant here (in the hotel, a bit away from the train station) serves excellent food.
  • CERN: Ok, it's nowhere near Chamonix, being about a 2-hour drive on Swiss motorways (for which you need a vignette (sticker) on your windscreen, otherwise you have to use smaller roads) towards Geneva, but it's fun to do if you have a day of rain and have exhausted all other possibilities in the valley (... which, the more I think of it, seems all the more impossible).
  • One more thing: Never underestimate the importance of starting early. This can mean the difference between empty and too crowded to move, perfect snow and mush (see also spring snow), plus it can get really hot in the summer - if you start on Lac Blanc at 8am then you can be home by the hottest part of the day, whereas if you leave it too late, it gets intolerable (the crowds and the heat).

    General Vocab: Crevasse - big hole in glacier, usually tens of metres deep. Avoid. Col - Mountain pass. Ravanel, Charlet and Cachat - Famous family names of the valley. There are streets named after them. Aiguille - "Needle" i.e. peak. Usually very pointy. Signal - Lookout Presse/Maison de la Presse - Bookshop-stationer-newsagents