A Few Days In

Forget Chamonix. Courmayeur Is the Alpine Winner

by Jessica Cantlin
Courmayeur, The scene at Chez Croux in Courmayeur. All photos by Jessica Cantlin.

COURMAYEUR, Italy – At the northern border where Italy meets France and Switzerland, lies Val d’Aosta, the country’s tiniest region. Known for its lush valleys and soaring peaks, Val d’Aosta is home to Courmayeur, Italy’s subtly superb mountain village and ski area. Situated on the sunny side of Mont Blanc, Courmayeur is often overlooked in favor of Chamonix, its neighbor on the other side of the mountain.

After spending a week in Courmayeur and an afternoon in Chamonix, I will never return to Chamonix, a town a little too attractive to package-seeing tourists, totally wanting in charm, and hopelessly lacking the things that I love so much about traveling in Italy.

A year ago, after another ski week in Sun Valley, Idaho, my husband, two teenagers, and I  decided we had had enough of the unpredictable snowpack and $200 daily lift tickets. After not much research, I decided we would ski in Italy for the friendly people, good food, good coffee, and reliable snow and soon stumbled upon Courmayeur, a smaller mountain with terrain for all abilities and a quaint village with excellent restaurants.

Auberge de la Maison.

The Happy Hotel

We stayed at the lovely, family-owned and -operated Auberge de la Maison. Just five minutes from the center of Courmayeur, the hotel has an alpine ambiance and a repeat clientele that hail primarily from Milan, Turin, and Paris. From the moment we arrived, we felt at home. Though family friendly, there are no screaming children racing around the lobby or bombing the breakfast buffet; the vibe is understated elegance at home in the Alps. The rooms are beyond comfortable, with wood-beamed ceilings, balconies, and views of Mont Blanc. On the ground level is the hotel’s full-service spa with steam room, sauna, and an indoor/outdoor hot pool with mountain views. Accommodations are on a half- or full-board basis. The breakfast is beautiful, and the wonderful (if formal) restaurant serves dinner made from locally sourced ingredients: Piedmontese beef, fontina cheese, and Barolo.

We didn’t book full board, so we ate at Courmayeur’s excellent restaurants. (If you go, you should make reservations in advance for both lunch on the mountain and dinner in town. Not that it’s hard to book a table, but Italians prefer that you book ahead. The hotel is happy to help.)

Alpine après ski snacks.

It’s Italy. Let’s Eat!

Lunch in the Alps is nothing like the slope-side meals we are used to in the USA. No sourdough chili bowl, no burgers made from Costco patties, and definitely no Cesar salads. Eating on the mountain is serious, so buckle up. If you are a first-tracks kind of skier, grab a quick cappuccino and croissant for breakfast, hop in the shuttle, and summit with the first gondola. Mid-morning, bustle up to one of many mountain bars for another coffee and pastry (Chez Croux was our favorite). Pull off your goggles, relax in the sun, and relish in that fact that you are staring at the back side of one of the highest mountains in the Alps. Ski past noon, and you have the slopes to yourself while the kids take their pasta lunches early. Book a 2:00 pm table at La Grolla (just uphill from the Val Veny tram) or Chiecco (a stone’s throw from the Dologne gondola), our favorite lunch spots. La Grolla makes ridiculous BBQ boar ribs and polenta with porcini. Chiecco serves bruschetta with tomato and ham and fresh pasta. If you are really going for it at Chiecco, the tomahawk of local beef shows up sizzling and is carved table-side — over the top delicious. Wherever you eat, order an appetizer of locally cured meat and cheese. Both restaurants have excellent wine lists, so go ahead and order a fine bottle of Barbaresco.

For such a tiny town, Courmayeur excels at dinner. For Piedmontese beef in a cozy mountainside room, Ristorante Lo Sciatore, the main steakhouse in town, does not disappoint. It also serves incredible paccheri Bolognese made from steak trimmings. Cadran Solaire along the pedestrian-only main street, a lovely and large restaurant owned by the Auberge, serves sophisticated fare in amid a surprisingly family-friendly ambiance. Pizzeria du Tunnel serves excellent Neapolitan pizza in a cozy building just off main street. Make sure to make a reservation, because du Tunnel is packed in high season.

If indulging in post-ski, casual aperitivo is your jam, Café de la Poste, on the main street in town is a sophisticated place for an evening Negroni or an Aperol Spritz. Feel free to arrive in your ski gear or don your fur — this place has it all. If the front room is full, head to the cozy, dark room in the back. And if you cannot bring yourself to leave the hotel, the excellent bar at Auberge serves food until 11 p.m. Their French fries are A+.

The view from the top.

Enough About Food. Let’s Hit the Slopes

Courmayeur is an intermediate mountain. More aggressive skiers will find challenging terrain off piste; on-piste options are very manageable for all abilities. If you are unfamiliar with the mountain, as we were, I recommend hiring a guide for the day to get oriented on the mountain and quickly become acquainted with less crowded terrain and the lifts with no lines. (Though there are few lines anywhere.) We hired Max from Società Guide Alpine Courmayeur. A serious alpinist, he not only introduced us to the mountain, but gave us tips to improve our skiing. Unlike some of the more well-known ski areas in the Alps, Courmayeur is not directly linked to other areas (though in the summer you can take the gondolas all the way to Chamonix). Upside: It’s not an overwhelming mountain to become acquainted with. Downside: For serious skiers who track runs, Courmayeur may not offer enough terrain to entertain for an entire week. La Thuile is a good alternative just short hop down valley, and Chamonix is 20 minutes away through the tunnel beneath Mont Blanc.

Not a skier or need a day off the slopes? Take the tram to the summit of Mont Blanc to take in the views from Point Helbronner or spend a day at QC Terme Pré Saint Didier spa and thermal bath just outside Courmayeur.

The 411

A few notes on logistics. The hotel can arrange up ski passes, which cost about 60€ per day, per person. Ski rental at 4810 Rental Courmayeur came with a 15 percent discount courtesy of the hotel and totaled about 180€ per person for the week. (We brought our own boots.) The hotel runs a complementary shuttle service to and from the mountain (they will also give you a lift into town for dinner).

Getting to Courmayeur is very straightforward. We flew into Milan, rented a car (I’m glad we opted for an SUV) and drove two hours to the mountain. Geneva is closer and arguably more convenient, but this boils down to which airline you prefer and where you want to have your first post-flight mean. (Milan, of course.)

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