Courmayeur Is Northern Italy’s Hidden Treasure—and the Perfect Mountain Vacation
Author: Trip City Adventure September 21, 2017
This year, skip Vail and book a trip to Italy.
You’re starting to plan your pre-holiday vacation. Ski towns are fun. Aspen, with all its glorious panoramas and luxury resorts, seems like a solid choice for a destination…right?
My advice: skip the corporate sponsor vibes and overpriced burger bars, and head, instead, to Courmayeur, Italy. Never heard of it? That’s okay. Courmayeur is northern Italy’s best-kept secret: a small, adorable cobblestone-laden town where you can eat well, ski with a view, and feel like a fancy, in-the-know European.
Accessible simply by flying to Geneva and renting a car (the ride is a little over an hour), Courmayeur spans 81 miles of old-meets-new: high-end boutiques intermixed with ancient churches, historic bars with modern design touches, and contemporary ski lodges offering unadulterated mountain landscapes.
Start booking your late-in-the-year vacation to Courmayeur now—here’s what to do when you get there.
Where to stay
There are a lot of high-end places to stay, with expansive suites and direct access to slopes, but IMHO, the Edelweiss Hotel is where you want to be. It’s right in the heart of the city, it’s run by an adorable Italian woman who somehow manages to concurrently run the front desk and the bar all by herself, and—this is important—the bathrooms in the rooms are nice and big (in Europe this is a huge rarity, and a treat). The aforementioned bar in the hotel is also a great place to hang out and get a surprisingly great (and not overpriced) beer or cocktail before your dinner plans—there’s even an outdoor terrace.
What to do
Courmayeur is a city built for outdoor activities. It is located right in the heart of the Mont Blanc massif, one of the largest mountain ranges in Europe. During the fall, it’s a prime stop for those hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc (one of the more popular multi-day treks in the region). In the later months of the year, you can still hike — the Vallée Blanche, the heart of the Mont Blanc massif, is situated right nearby, and offers insane views of glaciers.
But the more popular wintertime activity is skiing. One pass gets you access to the entire Aosta Valley (the surrounding Alpine region), and for the more adventurous, there is also stellar heliskiing. A favorite trail is the 11-mile trek down the Vallée Blanche, offering a more up close and personal glacier viewing experience than just hiking. But the beauty of Courmayeur, really, is that there are no bad views, ever, no matter which slope you are descending.
And for those who want all of the vistas with none of the physical activity, there is always the cable car, which you can catch right in the center of town. It’ll take you all the way up (2,000 meters in 10 minutes!) to the Punta Hellbronner station for a 360 lookout over the glaciers. Hop on a second cable car to traverse the mountains to a station in Chamonix, France, where you can “step into the void” (one of those glass rooms where all you see below you is glacier and snow).
Like any good ski town, Courmayeur also has tons of high-end shops selling Prada, Fendi, Balmain, Gucci, and essentially every other luxury Italian brand you’ve heard of. Even if you’re not looking to buy, a stroll down Via Roma to people- and window watch is an excellent late afternoon activity. Or you could finally buy those Gucci loafers you’ve been eyeing for months.
Where to eat and drink
Your evenings should always start at Caffe de La Posta—one of the oldest bars in town, and where all the locals go for an afternoon drink or espresso. Order a round of Aperol spritzes served in comically large goblets. All orders come with a tray of appetizers that includes the plumpest olives you’ve ever seen, prosciutto, and other fried, pastry-wrapped delights. The staff is exceedingly nice, and the vibes are warm (in the winter, they are literally warm, as the back area has cozy, fireplace-facing seating).
For dinner, your best options are Aria and Al Camin, the former for trattoria-style northern Italian cuisine and excellent wines, and the latter for the homemade steak sauces and baked pesto pasta (which arrives daintily wrapped in parchment paper, with extra pesto on the side). If you want to live like the people in Courmayeur do, dine on the later side, or risk being the only person in the restaurant for the first three-quarters of your meal.
For extra special nights, make a reservation at Dandelion. You’ll have to take a short cab ride there, but the trip is well worth it. The charming spot is located up on a hill in a tiny town called La Palud, and serves what it calls “mountain cuisine”—comforting, Italian-meets-French fare like Cod and Asparagus Lasagna and Braised Veal Cheek with mountain-grown potatoes.
Last, for lunchtime fare (and excellent hiking/skiing snacks), make a pit stop at Pan Per Focaccia, another Courmayeur institution churning out fluffy, oil-soaked focaccia studded with salt and green olives, or tomatoes and cheese.