How to spend a weekend in Courmayeur, Italy's gourmet ski town
With Mont Blanc as its backdrop, this elegant Italian mountain town is an indulgent choice for gourmands. And as home to some of Europe’s best ski terrain, there’s plenty of opportunity to work up an appetite.
Skiers in the Alps frequently like to boast of Mont Blanc views. Even distant ones. So, when the herculean hunk of crystallised magma towers right over your resort, as it does in Courmayeur, you have some genuine bragging rights. The glacier-clad force of nature straddles the border between France and Italy and, at 15,774ft, claims a hat-trick of superlatives: the highest point in Italy, the Alps and all the EU.
Futuristic cable-cars ferry all comers from Courmayeur to Punta Helbronner, one of 11 peaks along the Mont Blanc Massif. A platform at 11,370ft gives incredible views of the southeast face of Monte Bianco (as Mont Blanc is known in Italy). Vast ice flows cascade toward France and Italy, with ice pinnacles the size of houses and crevasses 600ft deep — Punta Helbronner is also the starting point of the world-renowned off-piste ski run, the Vallée Blanche.
Courmayeur’s panoramic stardust is paralleled by its culinary flair, a highlight of which is aperitivo time, where drinks often come with free snacks at many bars along the pedestrianised high street, Via Roma. Furthermore, the region’s food festivals see local and international chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants showcasing the absolute best of mountain cuisine.
Day one: hit the slopes
Protein load with a plate of fried eggs and prosciutto at three-star, family-run Hotel Bouton d’Or. Owner Patrizia also bakes pastries for the breakfast buffet. Husband Andrea shuttles guests to the cable-car or gondola at nearby Dolonne. If renting ski equipment, wear suitable footwear for aprés-ski. Both lifts arrive at the ski hub of Plan Checrouit, where you’ll find meeting places for ski schools, a choice of restaurants with great views and the convenient Ski In rental shop with overnight storage for skis and boots. The 60 miles of ski terrain across the Checrouit and Val Veny sectors has predominantly wide easy blue and red runs, but guides or instructors are advisable to explore the steeper slopes off the Youla or Arp cable-cars.
Strong intermediate skiers can time an hour-long, noon descent from Youla cable-car, through the Vesses couloir with views over Val Veny and Miage glacier, to arrive in time for lunch on the Zerotta plateau. The north facing aspect preserves snow quality over the 3,200 vertical feet of ski terrain, with moguls carved into the narrower stretches of the couloir. Just before the plateau, near Zerotta’s chairlift, bacon-like aromas tantalise the tastebuds. Suckling pigs roast over the fire pit on the terrace of Capitan des Alpes. This dish is a favourite of Heston Blumenthal, co-curator of Courmayeur’s annual Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience. Veggie offerings include chestnut and blue cheese gnocchi or fondue of nettle ravioli.
The cable-car back to Courmayeur’s resort base runs until midnight, so on-mountain aprés-ski is de rigueur. Bust some moves to live music on the Super G terrace at Plan Checrouit. The party scene suits all ages. For something a little less demanding on the legs, sit back and sip an Aperol spritz on the terrace of chic La Loge du Massif. Heaters and sumptuous chairs with sheepskin throws make watching the sun set over the Gran Paradiso National Park a luxury. As the afterglow fades across these Pennine Alps, head inside to the fireplace, and perhaps grab a dinner menu; wild boar ragu is all the rave here. A handful of piste-side restaurants, within easy walk of the cable-car, stay open for dinner — but reservations are essential.
Day two: take to the skies
Hotel transfers or public buses drop skiers out at Entrèves for the ride of a lifetime on Skyway. Board one of the sleek, shiny spaceship-like aerial trams and there will be no need to jostle for viewing position. Each vessel regularly rotates completely so all passengers enjoy maximum alpine drama during the 7,100ft climb. Explore the Hangar 2,173 museum at the mid station, dedicated to the extraordinary engineering feats of cable-car systems. The top station terrace at Punta Helbronner gives a reach-out-and-touch view of Monte Bianco. Then ride back down: only extreme off-piste descents start from here on the Italian side. Check out the Valleé Blanche itinerary to Chamonix, in France, as an easier alternative (see below).
Brave Skyway’s Sky Vertigo walk or take in the exhibition of mountain crystals and perhaps a glass of Prosecco at Bistrot Panoramic. From Skyway base, grab what some consider the best pizza in Courmayeur at Pizzeria du Tunnel or head directly back to the slopes, above Zerotta, via the Val Veny cable-car to Pré de Pascale. Or burn the carbs at Val Ferret on 12 miles of cross-country ski trails through forests of larch, Scots pine and silver fir, the peaks of Mont Dolent, Dente del Gigante and Grandes Jorasses peering over the tree-lined foothills below. Rehydrate at Hotel Lavachey, which has welcomed guests since 1898. Rental equipment, lessons and trail maps are available at Courmayeur Ski & Snowboard School.
Kick off aprés at La Bouche, where mixologist Valentina conjures cocktails from mountain herbs, flowers and fruits alongside small bites. The covered outdoor space is where DJs or bands create chilled mood music. The half-mile pedestrianised Via Roma starts just north with Bar Roma and its huge aperitivi table brimming with charcuterie, pizza slices, cheeses, and salads included in the price of your drink. Sup a few beers and you can eat substantially enough to constitute dinner. A younger crowd enjoys the street’s lively American Bar, while intimate Le Privé is the place for negronis a deux. Feast on Mocetta sausage and potato salad at nearby restaurant Cadran Solaire, run by the Garin family, founders of Auberge de la Maison.
Top three spa hotels in Courmayeur
1. Hotel Royal Golf
This five-star boasts the rare winter indulgence of an outdoor heated pool. The Royal Private Spa has massage suites and Turkish baths dedicated to couples, while The Gourmet Ski Experience (see Foodie Experiences) launches here with an extravagant buffet. Doubles from £260.
2. Auberge de la Maison
With heaters and reclining chairs with blankets, Auberge de la Maison’s decked terrace helps guests make the most of its prime Monte Bianco views. This four-star, alpine retreat in Entrèves has hay bath spa treatments, hot tubs, pools adorned with candles and Mont Blanc-branded sparkling wine. Doubles from £260 B&B.
3. Maison Saint Jean
This cosy four-star hotel in Courmayeur’s centre, rich in wood beams, lush leather and local stone, is where, due to specialist refrigeration that sucks air from bottles, proprietor Aldo proudly serves even the finest wines by the glass. The spa hosts a gym, sauna and relaxation area overlooking the indoor pool. Doubles from £145 B&B.
Top five foodie experiences in Courmayeur
1. Peak of Taste
March 2023 sees edition two of this annual celebration of all things gourmet. Up to 10 foodie events fill the month, likely to include the popular high-altitude dinner where guests enjoy aperitivo and nibbles at Punta Helbronner before descending for a banquet at mid-station Pavillon.
2. Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience
A spring weekend utopia for lovers of skiing and fine food, and one of Peak of Taste’s blue riband events (16-19 March 2023). The likes of Marcus Wareing and Paul Ainsworth have appeared in previous years; Clare Smyth is already confirmed for 2023.
3. La Chaumière
This is both a casual bistro serving pizzas and pastas, and a gourmet restaurant hosting fine dining, all set in a cosy chalet where giant windows sparkle with the Aosta Valley’s shimmering lights. Try the fondue of Fontina cheese with egg and black truffle or arctic char with dill mayo and apple jelly.
4. Maison Vieille
At the top of Maison Vieille chairlift, this alpine refuge has Monte Bianco as a backdrop to its minimalist mustard-coloured walls. A perfect spot to kick off the skis, sip rosé or tuck into platters of local salami, hams, cheeses, focaccia or a trilogy of homemade pastas and polenta with porcini.
This homely wooden mountain hut is where owners Anna and Paolo serve a range of delicacies from Monterosso anchovies to Fassona beef and only the finest Italian wines. Save room for the strudel. Accessible on foot or skis from the Checrouit cable-car. T: 00 39 338 700 3035
Four non-skiing winter activities in Courmayeur
1. Let the dogs out
Professional dog sledder Fabrizio Lovati introduces guests to the Alaskan husky before riding sessions riding sessions where you learn to control three or four dogs at exhilarating speed along a forested snow track in Val Veny: an experience few forget.
2. Up up and away
Heli-skiing isn’t just for experts; guides in Courmayeur can tailor descents for strong intermediates. And with heli-ski banned in France, this is a discerning choice for those seeking Mont Blanc thrills. Adrenaline kicks in during the safety briefing, increasing as the chopper engine fires up. By lift off, heli novices will hit the mind-blown zone. On landing, passengers scramble into the snow to huddle, mouths wide open as they take in the silent remoteness of a frozen world 13,000ft up on the Mont Blanc Massif. And then it’s out into the big, untouched beyond.
3. Off-piste in Vallée Blanche
Guides give all skiers a harness, safety transceivers and probes to tackle this 13-mile-long, off-piste, bucket list descent. The vertical drop of 8,200ft is strewn with crevasses often concealed by snow bridges. Mountain guides are essential. The cross border, return trip to Chamonix, including Skyway to Punta Helbronner, descent via Mer du Glace, plus taxi back from France via Mont Blanc tunnel, takes around six hours. The route is accessible for strong intermediate skiers. Remember to pack your passport.
4. Soothe in thermal springs
Natural thermal waters sourced from the belly of surrounding mountains have soothed body, mind and spirit in Pré St Didier since Roman times. A €30 (£28) taxi ride to QC Terme is the perfect antidote to the rigours of skiing where thermal facilities, aromatherapy and mud pools, along with hydromassage tubs, work magic on achy joints. There are saunas, waterfalls, heated pools both indoors and outside, and relaxation rooms with magnificent views of Monte Bianco. Little wonder skiers and non-skiers flock here from all Aostan resorts including nearby Pila and La Thuile.
How to do it
Turin and Geneva are the closest airports, both with non-stop flights from a variety of UK cities, with the likes of British Airways, EasyJet, Flybe, Jet2, Ryanair and Swiss Airlines. Journey time 1h40m.
Trains from London, via Paris, to Geneva take on average 6h 30m.
Both Turin and Geneva are a 90-minute transfer by taxi or hire car to Courmayeur. There’s no direct train, but seasonal shared bus transfers are often possible (tbc for 2022-23 season).
Hotel Bouton d’Or has doubles from £165 B&B.
Published in the Winter Sports 2022/23 guide, distributed with the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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