Make sure you carve time into your Alps schedule to catch the Montenvers funicular from Chamonix to France's largest glacier, the Mer de Glace. The cute, crimson toylike train, Chamonix's oldest tourist attraction, has been shunting sightseers to arguably the most stunning mountain scenery in Europe since 1908. A fab family day out, kids will love the excitingly steep train ride and the adventure of walking into a real live glacier (the ice grotto). It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the surrounding mountains, and it's only up here that tourists can get close enough to touch the glacier first hand (unless you're skiing the Vallée Blanche). Dwarfed by jagged peaks and the spectacular scenery, enjoy a drink on the observation deck & gaze over the snaking tongue of the sea of ice. Definitely put this on your family to do list.
Trains leave every hour from 10.00am from the Montenvers train station. It's a separate station from Chamonix main train station (Gare) but only a stone's throw away (there's a footbridge connecting the Gare to the Montenvers station). If you want to get a prized window seat (best for kids) then get there about half an hour early. It's a 20 minute journey to climb the steep track around the Aiguilles de Chamonix, through thick forest to reach the top (altitude 1913m)
After you disembark the train, make sure you visit the ice grotto first! There's a bewildering 415 steps down to the ice cave so do it while the kids have still got the enthusiasm and enough energy. Take the cable car down to the beginning of the walk way. (Anybody with mobility issues will not be able to access the grotto as there is no other way down than the climb down).
The short cable car ride gets you up close and personal to the glacier. At 11kms long and over 200 metres thick, this monster glacier is the largest in France. It can look underwhelming with it's dirty grey coat of rubble but wait until you get into the ice cave.
Fabulous views of one of the most famous peaks in Chamonix - Le Dru (3754m) from the cable car.
The long winding walkway down to the ice cave wasn't too much of an effort even with a five year old. Don't rush it and take breaks to enjoy the scenery. Can you see the holes? These are the entrances to the ice cave.
See climate change for real as you walk down the stairway. Every so often there are signs indicating the level the glacier reached over previous years. Sadly, it makes you realise how quickly the glacier is retreating.
The grotto is really exciting - even for the adults. Because the ice is so dense it looks beautiful hues of blue. The girls were fascinated.
Touching a real live glacier - so smooth and COLD!
There are some ice sculptures inside with atmospheric lighting.
This is the bribe, sorry treat, that you can keep reminding your child of, as they climb back up the 415 steps from the grotto. Not a bad view to have with your chocolat viennoise (5.50 euros)
Grab a hot chocolate or refreshing beer and enjoy fabulous views on the deck of new restaurant/café, Le Panoramique. There's also a small crystal exhibition near the observation deck. I expected the girls to enjoy this as they are quite into their crystals but they pronounced it boring as there it was mostly the same crystal (quartz fumé) on show. We thus whizzed through in a matter of minutes.
Lunch options at the top are either take a picnic to snack on (but beware it's chilly) or eat at Le Panoramique bistro. There's only 40 seats in the bisto's cosy interior so it's essential to pre-book a few days in advance on +33 4 30 05 19 66. It's a great place to warm up and have lunch (a real treat with fabulous french dishes) but if your kids are fusspots or if you're on a budget then forget the bistro (see menu options & prices below) . The gift shop (boutique) also serves cold drinks & has tables for you to sit down.
Le Panoramique bistro, wedged in between the observation decks, has fabulous views and serves fantastic french fare. The children's menu costs 13.50 euros for a main and an ice cream. Choose from steak haché & mashed potato, white fish & green beans or pasta with ham. Adults can dine on appetizers such as soup (14e) smoked trout (12e) or foie gras (14e) or assiettes (plates) of charcuterie or local cheeses from 14-21 euros. Example mains, braised beef cheeks (24e), lamb shanks (26e) or traditional Pela (creamy potato dish) for 22 euros.
Before you trundle back down to the valley, walk round past the imposing Grands Hotel de Montenvers (currently closed for renovations, re-opening June 17) round to the new Glaciorium.
Another fabulous view of Le Dru and the Grand Hotel du Montenvers which, built in 1880, has sheltered the earliest adventurers and mountaineers from the early pioneering days.
A visit to the glaciorium can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as you want. A vault of information, it has interactive fascinating displays. It's lovely and warm inside, a welcome break from the cold outside. We loved the 5 minute film clip of the life of a glacier with it's 3D simulated avalanche in to the valley (above)
My girls loved finding out about these microscopic animals called tardigrades. Able to live in extreme conditions, tardigrades can survive in glaciers and deserts. In 2007 tardigrades were taken to space by the Russians and were the first multi-cellular animal to survive in space, it's DNA staying intact. Wowser!
It's also interesting to see the tools with which glaciologists measure important stuff. For example this wheel measured how far the Argentiere glacier slides (30cms a day in the Summer!).
If you have bought an Unlimited Mont Blanc ski pass either for the day or week, then the Montenver is included for FREE. It took us 4 hours to take the train up, walk down to the grotto & back up, visit the glaciorium & have a hot chocolate on the observation deck, all at a relaxed pace. If you wanted to ski in the mornings, with the Unlimited MB pass you could still go up the Montenvers in the afternoon, which makes it good value.
Otherwise the ticket prices are below. They include return train trip & the cable car up & down to the grotto steps & entry into the grotto.
Adult: (15-64) 31.50e
Child: (5-14) 26.80e
OAP: (65+) 26.80e
Family pass: 97.70e (2 adults + 2 children + free 3rd/4th/5th child)
WINDY WEATHER - the Montenvers train does not run if it is extremely windy.
TIP: it is not advised to take babies up this high in altitude (1913m). In fact Compagnie du Mont Blanc advise against taking any child under 12 months up to the Montenvers due to fast pressure changes. For young children take sweets for them to suck to help their ears adjust to the pressure. Make sure you wrap children up warmly - it's cold up there even in the sunshine, so gloves, hats & scarves are essential.
For more information, visit www.chamonix.com or www.compagniedumontblanc.co.uk
The Family Freestylers are us - the Nixon family, who relish travel adventures both near & far