How a French alpine village became the top luxury resort, catering to the newest crop of wealthy Russians.

by Jay Cheshes

They arrive in Courchevel from Almaty, Kiev, St. Petersburg, and Minsk with oligarchic aplomb in Swiss-made eight-seater turboprops that pull up fast to drop onto one of the world’s shortest and most treacherous runways. They are the new kings and queens of the former Soviet states — the wealthiest Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs — and they have made this high-altitude haven their winter playground. They arrive in droves through Orthodox Christmas — Jan. 7 — occupying the best hotel suites and biggest slope-side chalets, pampered by butlers and private chefs in palatial spreads like the new Chalet Ormello, where 190,000 euros per week buys a staff of 14, a fully stocked wine cellar, and a screening room, Jacuzzi, and lap pool.

In high season, which extends from Christmas to the end of January, the resort begins to resemble an Alpine suburb of Moscow: Courchevelski some call it. The whole town scrambles to make these big spenders feel at home. There are Russian-themed dance parties at the après-ski nightclubs with Russian songs on their karaoke machines. French ski instructors and hotel bellhops wrap their Gallic tongues around nyet andspasibo, and struggle with Cyrillic in crowded classrooms at the Cite des Langues in the center of town.

The oligarchs and minigarchs, flush and discerning, are like high rollers in Las Vegas: the prize everyone’s after. The luxury arms race that’s resulted — hoteliers and restaurateurs pumping in millions of euros year after year trying to outdo each other — has turned Courchevel into perhaps the world’s most opulent place to ski, with more five-star hotels, more Michelin-starred restaurants, more high-fashion boutiques.

As I entered the sumptuous lobby of the Hotel de Charme Les Airelles, following a quick chauffeured sedan ride from the mountain-shack airport, the staff were feverishly prepping for the real start of the season, for the all-at-once arrival of their rich Slavic guests. By that Friday night, the hotel would be entirely booked, most of the rooms committed to Ukrainian steel magnate Victor Pinchuk — No. 336 on the Forbes billionaire list — who’d flown in 300 friends for his 50th birthday. Management were keeping a tight lip on exactly who to expect — rooms start at 1,800 euros per night, and discretion is built into the price.

“The most powerful people in the world come to sit in my office and chat,” said Séverine Petilaire-Bellet, the hotelier at the top of the pyramid — an imposing figure in strings of pearls and a broad-shouldered suit. She’d swung by my table near the hotel’s lavish buffet, a spread fit for a czar, featuring oysters, chilled lobster, foie gras, smoked salmon, and a whole haunch of sliced-to-order Iberico ham. Waiters in bow ties and valets in lederhosen (made-to-measure in Salzburg) cut across the wood-paneled dining room, which stretched into the lobby lounge where young Russians in Chanel ski suits reclined near the fireplace on plush pillowed couches. “I truly believe in keeping our guests’ privacy,” continued Petilaire-Bellet.

And despite her valiant efforts to keep prying eyes at bay, even at the most exclusive hotel in Courchevel — and, by default, perhaps the Alps — gossipmongers and paparazzi sometimes slip in. Already the British tabloids had picked up the story of Pinchuk’s impending festivities, a $5 million affair planned for the weekend. He’d erected a giant 20,000-square-foot tent down the mountain a bit at Courchevel 1650 — the lower you go here, the more the price of everything drops — where Cirque du Soleil would perform, and three-star chef Alain Ducasse would oversee dinner. The British press had tarred the whole lavish spectacle an obscene show of wealth. “Ski resort’s bid to lose bling image is dashed … by birthday bash,” read theDaily Mail. The [London] Telegraph, meanwhile, quoted outraged locals. “I find it scandalous, indecent” said one permanent resident. And it was, in fact, just the sort of attention Courchevel’s gatekeepers have come to dread every year at the start of the Russian season.

It had been bad enough back in 2007, when French police had arrested Mikhail Prokhorov — currently No. 32 on that same Forbes list — following a raid on his suite at the Hotel Byblos. The billionaire, suspected of procuring prostitutes — flying in a bevy of beauties on his private plane — had later demanded a public apology, calling for a boycott of Courchevel until he received it. The apology reportedly came three years later during a meeting between Vladimir Putin and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon (Putin would visit Courchevel later as Prokhorov’s guest). But the resort’s reputation for moneyed propriety had already been tarnished, a spotlight shown on its seamier side as a place where, for the right price, just about any itch can be scratched, and made the rest of the world wonder what else had been coming into town on those private planes.