Les Étoiles De Courchevel

Courchevel France harbors the who’s who of the international jet set in more five-star hotels than most world capitals.

By Leslie Woit

From the travails of war, a gilded cage is born, Courchevel France in Trois Vallées is one of the world’s most glamorous ski resorts — the winter retreat of kings, queens, and oligarchs. Yet its plans were hatched not in a glittering salon, but behind the barbed wire of an Austrian camp for prisoners of war. As an architect, town planner, keen skier, and visionary, Laurent Chappis completed his doctorate during his incarceration at a prisoner-of-war camp in Austria.

Sardonically, Chappis referred to his stalag camp as “l’université de captivité”. While behind bars, he and fellow POW Maurice Michaud, a Savoyard engineer, drew plans, sketched drawings, and mapped the world’s first purpose-built ski resort. With his idea of ski-in, ski-out accommodation, Chappis spurred a revolution in mountain urbanism and earned a reputation as a young “anarchitect”. His raison d’être for Courchevel was high-minded hedonism with a difference: a state-sanctioned “People’s Resort”. It was styled as a health-giving retreat for young winter sports enthusiasts and fellow travelers on a budget. Socialism meets skiing. A Utopian version of la belle vie on skis. My, how the pendulum has swung…

It’s been 70 years since Courchevel became the first ski resort in France to be built from scratch, yet these days, no itch in Courchevel goes unscratched. Hail the maître. Ring for the butler.

Les Etoiles De Courchevel

Cherchez le moniteur, preferably one who’s equally talented aux des sports de glisse and at slaloming round a carte des vin. Today no fewer than 20 five-star hotels — sybaritic palaces of silks, velvets, marble, mahogany, and crystal — pepper the edges of Courchevel’s Aubusson-groomed pistes.

Where to begin? Perhaps with a glass of bubbly inside one of France’s only five-star-plus hotels outside Paris. In “Courch” there are three such “palaces”: Les Airelles, Hôtel Le K2 Palace, and Cheval Blanc. (The last is owned by Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France, who, when denied planning permission for his private chalet, erected an entire hotel instead. His penthouse is available for rent at €34,520 per night.)

Les-Etoiles-De-CourchevelPerchance we should begin with a hotel that’s slightly more sportif, such as Hôtel Manali, whose rooms are inspired by heliski destinations favored by its McLaren-Honda Formula 1 team owners. There’s also the Hôtel Annapurna, owned by Claude Pinturault, father of podium-stealing World Cup racer Alexis. Then again, for a whiff of French ski royalty, we could try Courchevel’s haute-luxe Le Strato, owned by Laurent Boix-Vives, former owner of the Rossignol empire.

Alors… Two newer hotels are giving Courchevel’s traditionalchâteaux a run for their money. The aptly named L’Apogée Courchevel is a velvet-lined jewel-box run by the Oekter family. The hotel is laden with beautiful Baccarat crystal, a plush cocktail lounge, and a louche cigar den, plus a pair of top-drawer Japanese and French restaurants that would be equally at home in Paris, London, or New York City. And let us not forget Hôtel Barrière Les Neiges, which opened last year with nightly live music and a chic Argentine grill that will sate the appetite of the blood-thirstiest emir, oligarch, or hedge fund honcho.

It is these high-flyers who are among the species most commonly sighted in Courch, flocking in by helicopter or looking natty in their NetJets. To best take advantage of Courchevel’s uber-convenient altiport (Europe’s highest tarmacked runway was famously featured in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies), it’s Jetfly that makes the come-and-go a breeze. The private jet company delivers guests smack into the midst of the Trois Vallées’ 373 miles of slopes that comprise the world’s largest linked ski domain.

Did we not mention the skiing? Oh yes, there is heaps of that and it’s tough to beat. But like many Courchevel guests, we’ll get around to that later…

victoria beckhamFirst, let’s join the beautiful people, the crème of the one-percent crème, whose luggage travels separately. Their monogrammed baggage is sometimes accompanied by staff, sometimes by wives, or sometimes it’s simply left behind for next time. (Photographs remind hotel staff of the re-placement of items so guests feel fully
chez nous upon return.)

Much is made of the resort’s infamous Russian clientele, but in truth Courchevel guests hail from more than 50 nationalities, making it one of the world’s truly international ski destinations. Indeed, Courch’s ESF Ski Schools employ more than 1,000 instructors. It’s an army of moniteurs speaking dozens of languages and schooled in the fine art of teaching, guiding, and booking everything from restaurants to drivers, massages, even firework displays. French, English, Russian, Ukrainian, Brazilian… depending on the week, the month, or the holiday, the babble of languages in Courchevel’s cafés, clubs, and lift queues shifts like snowdrifts in a storm.

For some of the most diverting people-watching and fascinating fingering of sumptuous objets, we head for the shops dotted round the village of Courchevel 1850, the highest and most exclusive of the four villages that comprise the Courchevel region. Nibble a pain au chocolat and spring for a tub of Beluga at Le Chabichou – L’Epicerie Fine. Linger in Christian Lacroix, where a set of specialty diamond-decorated skis can set you back more than €40,000.

Nothing to wear? Fix that in a handful of misspent moments at Louis Vuitton, Prada, or Chanel. For fur go to Brentana. For cashmere consider Eric Bompard. For bling try Cartier or Graff. And just because you’re in the mountains, don’t imagine there’s anything provincial about the service. Kid-glove treatment from Hermès has included the ferrying of VIP purchases all the way from Paris in a taxi. In just six hours that Kelly bag could be yours for €30,000.

Les-Etoiles-De-Courchevel-2

Don’t stop there, mon amour. Courchevel is uniquely designed to favor an even more energetic kind of consumerism: ski-in, ski-out shopping. Schuss straight to the door of Fendi in the beautiful interior of Cheval Blanc. Duck into L’Apogée to — wonder of wonders — pick up a pair of mink Birkenstocks in its lavish ski boutique. For a little more than €1,000 they’re easier on your Swiss bank account than the fur-trimmed Bogner ski suit at Maison Orcel. Located in Hôtel Barrière Les Neiges, Bernard Orcel is the resort’s largest “ski room” featuring leather banquettes, friendly ski boot concierges, and an all-day dessert buffet.

Less a place for the famous to be seen, Courchevel is the place for the super-rich to be both super and rich. Back in the day, the St. Tropez of winter resorts was put on the map by the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. More recently, skiing celebs run a modest gamut from David and Victoria Beckham to George Clooney, Giorgio Armani, and Leonardo DiCaprio — all largely left by both the public and the paps to mercifully mind their own beeswax.

prince henry and kateA healthy handful of the more royally anointed also exchange crowns for helmets here – along with the chance to schuss and sway unfettered and unmolested. You might pass the King of Morocco or the Aga Khan, who recently had two new chalets built for maximum privacy and ski-from-the-door convenience. The Saudi royals’ travel style is altogether different: Each winter they arrive in a posse of a hundred or more, booking out digs such as Les Airelles in all its pomp and palatial entirety. Erring on the side of British discretion, Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of
Cambridge, arrived en famille last year with George and Charlotte in tow. After lunching at La Cave des Creux, they stayed quietly in a private chalet while very smartly offered the press one photo op in front of a different chalet door. Just a few years before, the royal couple danced on the tables at Le Tremplin, a resto run by Jean- Jacques Bertrand, ex-World Cup ski jumper and terminal bon vivant.

Then there is the east-bloc-ocracy. When the Berlin Wall came down, the new Russians embraced Courchevel, especially during the Orthodox Christmas holidays. By 2003, Chelsea Football owner Roman Abramovich was executing the ultimate oligarch shopping spree. Hovering overhead in a helicopter with three bodyguards and a fixer, he phoned down $250-million worth of offers to buy a chalet… any chalet. Remarkably, there were no takers. He made do with taking 40 suites in what was then called the Hôtel Byblos. The Byblos gained further notoriety some years later when Mikhail Prokhorov, current owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, generously entertained a party of pretty depending on the week, the month, bothered. A dawn police raid — again with helicopters, plus a herd of Alsatians for extra frisson — saw him and his friends tossed in the hoosegow on trumped-up and quickly dropped charges relating to prostitution and drug trafficking.

What kind of killjoy France is this?

Courchevel-chefs

Then again, when life gives you citrons, you throw a soirée, just as Ukrainian steel-king Victor Pinchuk did for his 50th birthday. He invited 300 guests, booked 11 five-star hotels in their entirety, and ordered up a purpose-built tent for a Cirque du Soleil performance. Said to be a Courchevel record for host-with-the-most, Pinchuk paid £4 million. No one said skiing was cheap, especially when you’re hiring three-Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse to fix dinner.

One of several reasons the French are better at life is their food. Eating well is understood here, and with seven Michelinstarred restaurants in Courchevel (and a further 14 in the connected resorts of the Trois Vallées), one may spoon, slice, skewer, and sip one’s way through a winter of culinary decadence. Le Chabichou lays one the world’s loveliest tables. Along with Chef Stéphane Buron, Chef Michel Rochedy has been at its helm since de Gaulle was in office. His 80th birthday party last year was a who’s who of renowned chefs and foodie friends. On any “regular” evening, the timelessly elegant room hums with respect for grand gastronomy and good conversation. It attracts you-name-its, from heads of states to Gérard Depardieu. Dinner at Le Chabichou keeps even Gordon Ramsay quiet.

And we couldn’t possibly wind up without a little homage where homage is due.

Les-AirellesCourchevel serves up a topographical smorgasbord that could feed the world. This is ground zero for glossy grooming, wide cruising, and some of the best powder stashes anywhere. The lift system is gargantuan, stretching in all its Trois Vallées splendor from Col du Fruit in the east to Méribel, La Tania, Val Thorens, and Saint-Martin-de- Belleville in the west.

“Ski your hearts out, comrades!” Monsieur Chappis must be crying from above, perhaps enjoying a little residual fizz from one of those balthazars of Krug regularly sprayed into Courchevel’s heavenly airspace. Long live the People’s Resort. Vive le Savoie libre.