Helen Hayes packs her winter woollies, throws her diet out the window and explores the many, many delights of Courchevel.
We realised we weren’t in Kansas anymore when we skied to the door of Courchevel’s Annapurna Hôtel for lunch. Instead of clumping through a crowded buffet leaving a trail of snow behind us, we were met by a lovely lady who explained we should take off our ski boots. We did. She then gave us slippers to put on and said she would heat up our boots while we ate. What? Really? We then quietly went through to the stylish restaurant, past the massive heated indoor pool, through the spectacular bar with coffee tables made of redwood slabs and a counter topped with gorgeous ice-like glass, and sat down at a table which had views looking up the impossibly pretty mountains. It was that easy. From the slope to fine dining – with accompanying wines – in minutes.
On the Slopes
Our lunchtime introduction set the tone for the rest of our stay in this luxurious resort. Courchevel is known for its five- and even six-star accommodation, its bounty of Michelin-starred restaurants and its high-end shopping. All of which, when added to the world-class ski and snowboard terrain, attracts A-list celebrities the likes of Posh and Becks, William and Kate, Giorgio Armani and Russian squillionaire, Roman Abramovich. Most celebrities will be found in Courchevel, which is the highest of the four villages making up the resort. It sits at 1,850 metres, with Courchevel Moriond at 1,650, Courchevel Village at 1,550 and Courchevel Le Praz at 1,300.All the villages are very cleverly designed, with most properties ski-in/ski-out, and it’s easy to ski to all of them.
We’re lucky enough to be at the legendary Le Chabichou, a Relais & Châteaux property with impeccable service, a two Michelin-star restaurant, huge spa and ski shop with young men who lay your skis out on the snow in the mornings and help you into your boots.We really could get used to this. As Courchevel is so huge, with 58 ski lifts, some 150 kilometres of terrain and 95 trails (or 96, depending on who you ask), we organise a guide/instructor for the morning. The lovely Francoise meets us and off we swoop into a world of white. We are almost speechless as we make our own tracks in fresh powder. We ski down to Courchevel Village then back up to the top of Chenus and down to the village of La Tania, which has spectacular runs through gorgeous forests of Nordic pines, spruce and fir. My face hurts from smiling and I hear myself mumbling, “Oh wow” over and over again like a stuck record.
Francoise keeps us moving with an “Allez, allez”, and we crisscross the valleys heading up La Tania gondola, up another two chairs and finally up the Saulire tram to take in the view. We alight at 2,730-odd metres and have the world at our feet. We stop for a hot chocolate at the Panoramic Restaurant perched on the clifftop. It is absolute bliss. Francoise points out Mont Blanc, Aguille de Fruit and other peaks – the names mesmerising in her exquisite French accent. She also shows us the way to Méribel, the next resort over and part of the mind-boggling LesTroisVallées – the biggest ski area in the world. The resorts of Courchevel, Méribel,Les Menuires, Saint Martin de Belleville and Val Thorens are all linked, and a 3 Vallées lift ticket allows you to ski at all of them.
Another “allez” and we’re off again, past a giant red gorilla that’s one of 10 animal sculptures that Parisian artist Richard Orlinski has created around the resort. They certainly make for good Instagram shots. We ski from the top of Saulire, down towards the steep and short airport runway where private jets and helicopters drop off the rich and famous, and venture up and over to Courchevel Moriond. Francoise waves au revoir as we hoon down a host of big, beautiful runs – our favourites being Chapelets and runs off the Pyramide t-bar.
As a reward for all that skiing, we tumble into the welcoming Cucina Angelina at Portetta hotel in Courchevel Moriond. Recently opened by popular English chef Angela Hartnett – who was a protégé of Gordon Ramsay and has the Michelin-star Murano restaurant in London – this fine Italian restaurant has a beautiful outdoor terrace with a fire pit, comfy lounges and trees decorated with fairy lights. Angela herself is in the house, but we’re too busy demolishing the exquisite Pollo alla Milanese accompanied by a lovely local white wine to bother her. With lovely restaurants dotted all around the mountains and in the villages, a long-ish lunch before an afternoon of skiing is par for the course here.
Courchevel has seven Michelin-star restaurants, and the free shuttle bus connecting all the villages makes it easy to get around.We try the new (and, as yet, un-starred) Koori Restaurant at the swanky L’Apogée Hotel, and are blown away by the exquisite Japanese dishes that we see prepared in front of us, including soft crab tempura wrapped in flambéed salmon, and mochis (Japanese rice cakes).
At Le Chabichou, chefs Michel Rochedy and Stéphane Buron gained their second Michelin star in 2014 with inventive cuisine using fresh produce and herbs from their own garden. The restaurant has been an institution amongst food lovers for many years and if you’re a budding MasterChef, there are cooking classes (in English) once a week. The bistro, La Chabotté, was added in 2011. For a more casual meal without foregoing style, Les Suites de la Potinière is perfect. Our plans for a quick, light dinner at this bar-and-restaurant-in-one soon evaporate, and end with a dessert of chocolate pudding featuring a salty caramel interior and vanilla-infused French custard, followed by the local digestif, Génépy. Made from a local plant only found in these parts in summer, it might knock your socks off at first taste, but really grows on you.
Courchevel is the land of spas, and bath robes are well and truly in. You’ll see people in their robes and slippers sauntering around their hotels on their way to, or from, the spa. The Spa by Sothys at Le Strato is stunning, created out of slate and stone, and with glamorous touches like a huge chandelier over the large heated pool. The relaxation room is lavishly luxe. After the treatment, we melt into a lounge in the bar, staring out at the sparkling lights of Courchevel backed by the ghostly loom of the mountains.
Le Chabichou’s spa is enormous and has ice baths, hot baths, salt caves, a pool,Turkish bath and a banya (no, I don’t want to be whipped with birch branches), while Le Spa de L’Apogée at L’Apogee Courchevel is smaller but equally as beautiful, and uses Sisley products. The biggest spa-cum-aquatic playground is the new Aquamotion centre, which opened in December 2015. It’s an architectural marvel offering something for everyone – a huge restaurant, rock climbing wall, surf wave, ice pool, saltwater cave, heated indoor and outdoor pools, waterslides, mini cliff jump and lively 110-metre wild water rapid. We try just about all of them, then move into the wellness centre with its 19 treatment rooms and our waiting massage therapists.
Fun and Games
Apart from the incredible skiing in Courchevel, there’s a host of activities available. The sledding track is long, windy and fast, and the snowshoeing is scenic and informative. There are nine snowshoe circuits ranging from 45 minutes to three hours. One of the prettiest is the walk to La Rosière, featuring a gorgeous lake beside a forest. There are guided snowshoe walks, as well as free cross-country skiing and Nordic walking trails. Hot air balloon rides and scenic helicopter flights are available, or you can do a tandem parachute jump down over the winter landscape. There’s ice skating, ski touring, shopping at places like Moncler, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Fendi, and every Wednesday night, there’s night skiing with a fun atmosphere in the Verdons area. And if you have any energy left, remember you’re on the doorstep of Les Trois Vallées, with more than 170 lifts and 600 kilometres of terrain. Sacré bleu! Pass me the Génépy.
NEED TO KNOW
You can fly to Dubai with Qantas, and then with Emirates, from Dubai to Lyon or Geneva. From there, organise a transfer with Rail Europe – it’s less than three hours to Courchevel from both airports.
Hire a guide/instructor through ESF 1850 or visit the website here.