Set high above Chamonix at nearly 2000 metres and accessible only by funicular (or hike, ski or climb for serious alpinists) Terminal Neige Refuge du Montenvers is where historical heritage, luxury hotel and the spirit of a mountain refuge collide. Alongside some serious design panache, of course, thanks to its purposeful renovation by chic French hoteliers Sibuet, who have transformed this mountain institution into seriously luxe lodgings whilst still preserving its pioneer roots. We sent our girl Beth on a high-altitude adventure to check it out.
There’s a rush as we board the retro red carriage at the start of the Montenvers Railway – the iconic rack-and-pinion train which curls itself around the mountainside from Chamonix village to the top station at the Mer de Glace. I find myself sat on my feet like a child, leaning out of the window as far as I dare – trees ticking by as we slice our way through the fir forest, climbing to 1,913 metres.
Rounding the final corner, the high alpine scenery unfolds before us on a staggering scale – an impossibly bleak valley hewn from the rock by the Mer de Glace – France’s longest and largest glacier. Waterfalls tumble down its perilous, scree-strewn sides, backed by the sheer peaks of the Mont Blanc massif, a clutch of clouds snagged around the summit.
In front of it all stands our home for the night – the formidable granite form of Terminal Neige Refuge du Montenvers. With its stylised symmetry, post-box red shutters and utterly improbable location half-way up the mountainside, it’s straight out of a Wes Anderson movie set.
It’s a scene that, thanks to the sobering effects of climate change has no doubt dramatically altered since it was first discovered by two English adventurers in 1741 – when the ice reached right down to the village. So impressive were the accounts of this landscape, that Chamonix became the destination du jour for famous artists and writers, with the Grand Hotel du Montenvers opened in 1880 as a refuge for these early alpine mountaineers.
As we lunch over a hearty Savoyarde salad at Panoramique Mer du Glace, one of the hotel’s two restaurants, it’s easy to see why this alpine landscape so inspired the likes of Byron and Dickens. The glacier may have retreated more than a mile since then, and the height too drops year on year, but the beauty of the Mer de Glace and these snow-capped pinnacled peaks is as fierce as ever.
While the Grand Hotel du Montenvers fell into eventual disrepair, the hotel has now reopened its doors – thoughtfully reimagined under the Terminal Neige brand, at the hands of uber-luxe hoteliers Maison Sibuet (best known for their posh properties in Megève, St Barths and St Tropez).
The old Hotel du Montenvers’ weathered, granite exterior, wood-panelled walls and authentic features combine with refurbished vintage furniture, red accents and eclectic interiors in an irresistible juxtaposition of design-forward meets old-world explorer.
Our room, one of just 17, is impossibly cosy, with a huge double bed and duvet that you just want to dive into. Two huge windows look onto different sides of the valley, one framing a waterfall. The bathroom boasts a roomy walk-in shower with Altitude spa products, and deep vintage sink, while the suites feature dreamy claw foot tubs for a little added romance. Each room is named after one of the great names that once walked these halls, from mountain climbers to artists in a fitting nod to its heritage.
Repurposed luggage trunks double as side tables and wood panelling give the rooms a rustic edge, but the wood-effect floorboards are soft underfoot, which, paired with the warm glow of hanging bedside lamps, creates a wonderfully snug feel. The window sills are my favourite, just the place to sit with a coffee and watch the clouds go by – the red toy train keeping time as it chugs back and forth below.
There’s also a 10-person dormitory room, but even this is not a refuge in the traditional sense of the word. With plush, curtain drawn single or double beds, there are no sleeping bags on the floor here.
While we might not be roughing it in the more traditional refuge style, we’re relieved to find Terminal Neige Montenvers still has that inimitable, after-hours mountain refuge spirit. Once the day-trippers descend on the last train, a silence falls over the mountain, which (save for a handful of climbers and campers), is effectively yours till morning.
We quickly find a sense of camaraderie with our fellow guests – encouraged by the inviting common areas, homely bar, sinky-soft lounge areas and easy nature of the staff. Upstairs, a suntrap of a terrace is the ideal place to pull up a deck chair and watch the sun sink behind the Drus with a bottle of wine.
Given the remoteness of the location, the rate includes a traditional mountain breakfast and dinner. Savoyarde specialities from stews to fondues and roasts are served in the cosy Restaurant du Montenvers, its glass walls offering uninterrupted mountain views while you dine. The staff couldn’t be more relaxed – never rushing us out, even though, distracted by the views and determined to finish our fondue, we’re the last ones at the table.
After dinner, as is the case in most mountain refuges, there is little to do – but that is precisely the point. The hotel provide a host of board games and books to actively encourage you to unplug, but instead, we wrap up and head out onto the terrace, just the two of us – and a few thousand stars arcing across the Milky Way overhead.
I fall into bed and sleep better than I have in years. Perhaps it’s the red wine, the cheese, or even the mountain air – or perhaps it truly is this place – steeped in alpine history and lovingly brought back to life as this unique luxury refuge for generations to enjoy the Mer du Glace.
Rates at Terminal Neige Refuge start from €160 (approx. £143) per double room on a half board basis and €90 (approx. £80) per person for a stay in a dormitory room (sleeping up to ten people).