The last time I stayed in Courchevel it was in a tatty roadside chalet a long way down the mountain. One detail sticks: pickled cockles piled high on a platter at the closing banquet, à la Fanny Cradock. That was more than a decade ago.
This time, we were staying at 1,850 metres, which is another world. The resort, always chichi up top, has undergone a kind of wholesale rebranding in recent years and now the high end of Courchevel is ridiculously high-end. There’s Prada and Chanel and Gucci and Cartier. Three of France’s 16 ‘palais’-designated hotels are here. There are 12 Michelin stars (more per square metre than anywhere else in the world), dished out among seven restaurants, including two for Pierre Gagnaire at Les Airelles. And the seafood is not vinegary cockles. It is driven from sea to mountain daily so that if you are a Holly-wood star on a no-carb diet, you can pick at top-notch sashimi up here in the clouds, at the newly opened Koori restaurant at L’Apogée hotel.
Courchevel was the first purpose-built resort in France, and the first designed to be ski-in-ski-out. Until 1945, there was only pasture and a barn in the village centre at 1,850 metres, where three bubble lifts now converge. The Hôtel des Trois Vallées was put up, and a single ski shop next door, and thus began the transformation of the mountainside and the fortunes of its property owners. A treacherous altiport was built in the 1960s for use by private jets, and the Winter Olympics in 1992 confirmed Courchevel as one of the world’s top ski resorts. It is part of the largest ski area in the world, a 600km expanse much of which is very high, so that even in December when so many French resorts were cursing the lack of snow, conditions were fine here.
Over the past 15 years or so, it has become the chosen winter playground for Russian billionaires, which is reflected in the prices in shops and restaurants and hotels at the top — €50 for a plate of spaghetti is pretty normal. A few years back Lacroix started making diamond–encrusted skis aimed at the Russians (Russkis!). It’s hard to see how you would enjoy your lunch with those parked outside in the racks.
We stayed at the aforementioned L’Apogée, perched overlooking the high village. My god but it’s nice. The air wafts notes of cedar and vanilla. The fires roar silently in the logburners. The walls are dark and muted and warm, and the staff are the perfect level of cheerful and attentive.
In the morning you go downstairs to the ski shop, where your feet are coaxed into sheepskin-lined boots. You go outside with your group to find your skis laid out, ready to be clipped into. Off you swish into the Trois Vallées, and when the light fades and you return to the hotel, an escalator transports you up the last tiny slope back to the ski shop. There are none of the boring bits. No stumping about on numb feet with clobber over your shoulder, no lurching on the bus.
This must be how the other half ski.