The mountains are the gift that just keeps giving. The winters give us snow. The summers give us sunshine. But throughout, remains the mountain culture. The alpine life. The history. The gifts of nature. As the snow melts and we finally pry ourselves away from our skis it’s time to jump in our cars and explore. It’s time to go, Day Tripping. Here we travel to Chamonix to discover the Mer de Glace glacier and the little red Montenvers train.
TRIP TIME: ROUND TRIP TAKES ABOUT 3 HRS
The Mer de Glace is something I had overlooked for the best part of 10 years. Who’d take a slow train up a mountain when you can high-speed ski down one? Plus I’d had enough of speed-adverse trains and dirty underground tunnels in London. So nothing about a train ride glacier tour seemed remotely appealing or holiday-esque. But at the end of this winter, when faced with creating an itinerary for visiting family, I had one Chamonix morning left to fill. The Mer de Glace was my only option and thank goodness it was, because it is now one of my favourite day trips this year.
2.5 – 3.5 hours
- Good walking shoes
- A small snack
- Your camera
- An extra layer in case you get cold
THE SEA OF ICE — THE STORY
The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) is France’s largest glacier. It is 7km long, with a surface area of 40 km2 and it descends from an altitude of 3900m (at the point where the Leschaux, Le Tacul and the Talèfre glaciers converge) down to 1400m. It was first discovered by two English explorers (William Windham and Richard Pocock) back in 1741 and was only accessible by mule until 1908. That is when the little red train was built and the site finally opened up to the general public. It has since become one of the world’s most visited natural sites.
The tour takes around 3 hours, longer if you fancy a lazy lunch up there, so it’s perfect as a morning or afternoon activity. We visited in the morning which meant we were finished well before the heat of the midday sun, which can be important, for reasons you’ll discover later on. Quick parking tip, if you are driving there, leave your car in the free parking next to the train station, or at the Amusement Park. Both are free and not as busy (or costly) as Chamonix central.
THE LITTLE RED MONTENVERS TRAIN
The little red train is a rack and pinion railway, which quite literally claws its way up the mountain. It takes you from Chamonix town all the way up to the Montenvers site at 1913 meters above sea level. You’ll pass through alpine forests and mountain tunnels with epic mountain views of both the Chamonix valley and the surrounding mountains. The train normally departments about every 20 minutes or so, a bit like the Gatwick Express, but much more fun, reliable, and clean. At the top you will arrive at the Montenvers site which is a tiny little train station, quite literally, the end of the line, where you will find a gift shop, an incredible restaurant and the starting point for your Sea of Ice journey. From this starting point you can take in the glacier views, head straight to the restaurant, or take a gondola cable car down to the ice caves. You can also enjoy the free Crystal Museum.
THE FREE CRYSTAL MUSEUM
Chamonix has (and I did not know this) a long history of crystal collecting from the surrounding mountains. The Crystal Gallery offers a quick taster of some of these incredible gems that have been discovered in the region (some of them the size of a small avalanche). The gallery itself is dug out of the mountain rock and a quick walkthrough gives you the chance to look at an amazing collection of rare and beautiful specimens such as quartz, amethyst, and pink fluorite. It takes just a few minutes and is on the way to the viewing point.
THE GLACIER — STAGE 1
Next take a short walk from the train station (or Crystal Gallery) to the viewing point where you can take in panoramic views of the Mer de Glace. You can see what feels like 10 kilometers of glacier running through the valley of mountain ranges. You can also watch the skiers arriving at the end of the Vallee Blanche having descended down from the Aiguille du Midi (one of the most famous off-piste skiing experiences in the world, but as the glacier has now retreated they have to walk the latter stages). We found we just sat here for quite some time taking it all in. It’s not often you essentially sit next to a bloody great glacier so, what’s the rush.
For those of you who have already worked up an appetite, or for anyone not wanting to go any further, the restaurant is, thankfully, pretty wonderful. The entrance is just by the viewing point, close to the train station, so you can enjoy glacier views while you dine. And the restaurant is very different to the depressing panoramic restaurants you so often find at altitude, when you are trapped with no other dining choices, such as the Panoramic Restaurant in Torgon where they sell instant dried coffee in a beige plastic cup with an angry grimace and a charge for using the loo. No, this is a nice restaurant, with international attentive staff, all bilingual, and happy. They don’t mind if you just want a coffee with your noisy 7 year old travel companion, or prefer a full 3 course meal in a large group. You will be welcomed either way and can happily while away the hours here just taking in the views – that of the Mer de Glace glacier, the Drus and the Grands Jorasses.
Ready to get up close and personal with the Glacier?
THE GLACIER — STAGE 2
It’s time to take the gondola down to Ice Caves. The gondola entrance is located down from the little train station and it is, to be honest, really quite old. It’s more of a one-on, one-off kind of affair with small red gondolas that hold about 6 people, two gondolas together, every 100 meters of cable. You get on, start to descend 100 meters. Then stop as the two gondolas after you arrive at the top and people get on and off. You’ll do this twice or thrice on the way down and feels, for some reason, like you are in a retro Bond-film. If you don’t like the sound of that then you can always walk down which takes around 20 minutes on a footpath.
JUST ANOTHER 400 STEPS
Yes that’s right. At the bottom of the gondola there are about 400 steps (broken up by flat walks and viewing and sitting points) down to the entrance of the ice caves. We wish we’d known about the 400 steps before arriving at them, as we had a 7 year old with us, and a small lazy dog. Both ended up being carried. The descent is an easy one and there is much to see and lots of points of interest where you can stop and rest. You can also read about the glacier on the way down and there are markers carved into the rocks to show how much the glacier has descended over the years (for any naysayers who dismiss the effects of global warming).
Once at the bottom you can go into the ice caves, which are ice tunnels underneath the glacier itself. Inside there are beautiful ice sculptures, and seats, and you can actually reach out and touch ice that is quite possibly millions of years old. It’s incredible. So take your time, and enjoy it, because afterwards you have those 400 steps back up…
This is where the water, the snack and the suncream come in handy. It’s 400 steps back up. But fear not. There are flat walkways, viewing points, seating areas and the general amusement of watching skiers, who have just skied down the Vallee Blanche, walking back up with you, skis and all. No one is in a rush. No one judges the odd bead of sweat or fit of panting. We are all in the same boat! At the top I recommend taking the funny gondola back up. It’s easier than the 20 minute walk. And you can take in the length and breadth of the glacier as you travel. This might be one of the most visited natural sites on earth but you are still witnessing something few others have seen, and, with its constant retreat, some may never have the chance. So take it all in.
Back at the little train station you can either pop back to the restaurant, the crystal gallery or sit and enjoy the views. The gift shop sells moderately overpriced stuff toys and fizzy drinks and the train back down is as much fun as it was on the way up — which is the exact opposite of the Gatwick Express, which is not fun, in either direction. If you’ve still got energy to burn when you get to the bottom then pop to the amusement park. There is a high speed luge there with your name on it, a bouncy castle, and a mini arcade with stuffed toys.