Geoffrey Riddle samples the extensive slopes, luxury hotels and gastronomic delights of this group of villages that makes up one of France's most famous ski stations.
Top-class ski resort Courchevel ratchets it up another notch
Soaring high above snow-capped peaks, it is easy to understand why, given the opportunity of reincarnation, most people would like to return as a bird. The white corduroy slopes stretch out below my hanging skis and the air is fresh and crisp. The sun, set high in a blue sky, glimmers off the mountains and ahead of me with a crown of cloud, Mont Blanc stands proud as western Europe's highest summit.
With Herve, my trusty parapenting pilot, we grab the thermals and go ever higher, climbing to what seems an altitude in excess of the mighty mountains that immediately surround us. The peak of Saulire, the main mountain of Courchevel, stands at 2,700m, while the Col de la Loze, Dent de Burgin and the Roc Merlet all frame the resort's 150kms of ski area. As we begin our descent, Herve tells me that in summer he is regularly escorted by a convocation of squawking eagles, but as they are migratory birds I was not so lucky during the first chills of winter.
Mapped out below were the five villages that make up one of France's most famous ski stations, Courchevel 1850, 1650, 1550, Le Praz and Saint Bon. Each has its own personality - St Bon is the original settlement, while Iron Age remains have been found in La Praz. Much like the Jackson Five, however, Courchevel is bound together by the most famous of them all and 1850 is undoubtedly Courchevel's draw card.
There was a time not so long ago when 1850 appeared to have sold its soul to the modern and illusory god of "bling". If visions of fighting paparazzi pursuing yet another vacuous celebrity flanked by seemingly redundant bodyguards was not enough to turn away even the most devoted clients then an expanding coterie of beautiful women milling around on their own in hotel bars was. And yet, over the past two years, the 2,000 regular inhabitants of this Three Valleys resort have wrested back control.
Last season Courchevel managed to secure World Cup ski races for the first time in 31 years to promote the mountain aspect of a resort that is linked to the largest ski area in the world. In an effort to get away from the largesse endorsed by such hotels as Cheval Blanc, the palace hotel that boasts a giant shimmering horse sculpture, the lead was taken by the Laurent Boix-Vives family, who last season opened the 25-room boutique hotel, Le Strato. It is an extended homage to the Alpine tradition that courses through the family's veins, having owned the Rossignol ski company that invented the first carbon fibre ski in 1964. The mantle was taken up this season, however, by a project much grander in scale. The K2 is a chalet hamlet concept which has just opened for this season and it is the antithesis of the pretension that promised to overwhelm Courchevel.
The K2 may have some outlandish features but the brouhaha surrounding the hotel's opening is precisely because it threatens to dominate the high-end landscape in Courchevel for the next few years. Everything in the hotel has been thought through to the finest detail. The Anglo-French owners have purchased their own ski lift, there are lifts that take your car from village level to the underground car park outside your chalet and the underground disabled access is unparalleled.
Inspired by the world's second highest mountain, the red wooden double doors that lead into the hotel would not look out of place on any building in the Karakorum Range. The reception of the K2 adheres strongly to the alpine tradition of stone and wood; building materials which Courchevel temporarily forgot during parts of last century. The hotel is warmly lit throughout, but it needs to be because the clean, minimalist look feels cold, almost corporate. Of course the flashy few that will be inevitably attracted to the curiosity of the K2 will still be able to show off, but in the main the hotel is rooted in the philosophy of the region which inspired the brand and the needs of that in which it finds itself.
There are other luxury hotels in the resort that cater extensively for children (the small boutique La Sivolière is the other), but the extent to which little ones are catered for in the K2 is impressive. The games room would struggle to contain the most animated child, while the cinema and music room could occupy children for hours - just don't expect them to share.
Of course, I was not in Courchevel to simply admire hotels, but also to sample the extensive ski area and gastronomic treats.
Before I arrived there was not even a flake of snow on the mountains but four days before my arrival more than two metres fell which, when added to by the extensive snow cannon network, will make an excellent base for the rest of this season.
As the ski area around Courchevel 1650 comprises grassy slopes, and not rocks, it was deemed the safest sector to ski in. To the top of Saulire I went with Florence, my guide, and took one of Courchevel's favourite runs. The Creux red piste starts off as a wide motorway with a steep pitch, but as it curls around into the gully in the shadow of the Roc Merlet mountain it narrows into a delightful glide through trees and rocky outcrops. From the top of the Roc Murgier chairlift we were then able to access the intermediate runs located above Courchevel 1650, although beginners are well served in the sector with numerous green and blue runs. After a morning of picking our way through deserted pistes and tracking out safe fields of powder snow we decided to return to 1850 for lunch, which was taken at Le Strato.
Jean-André Charial may have only one Michelin star for his efforts in the restaurant located on the Cospillot piste but it is surely only a matter of time before he is awarded another to go with the two he has received for his work at the Oustau de Baumanière, his summer kitchen. Now going grey after 30 years working over the stoves of his exquisite Provençal retreat, Charial is just the tonic that is needed in 1850; passionate, knowledgeable and with a zeal about food that is infectious. Deeply-rooted in growing his own produce, there were two olive oils that originated on his farm for drizzling over the warm bread we were offered. Charial had performed wonders earlier with a fennel jelly and caviar, as well as scallops on a bed of truffled creamed potato. Sitting by the fireplace afterwards, however, he was phlegmatic about creating such food for certain visitors and unsure about whether his crusade would ever be truly appreciated. "I don't think people are coming to Le Strato or Courchevel for the food," he said ruefully. "Sometimes it is sad, but it's the place. It is how it is here."
Courchevel's reputation as a resort of ostentation went hand in hand, in many people's eyes, with the arrival of a particular type of Russian businessman. The theory went that Courchevel used to attract French and British skiers and that they were scared away by the power of the rouble but Helene Serane, who for 20 years has run the impressive Le Melezin Hotel, part of the Aman resort chain, disagrees. She has seen the resort grow and far from the fable of 1850 morphing into an international player, the elegant French woman highlights that Courchevel has always attracted monied skiers from around the world.
"The Brazilians used to always come before Carnival, and around 12 years ago we had a huge influx of Venezuelans. They were everywhere, but since Chavez has been completely in power you don't see so many of them. The British have always come and so having Russians here is no different."
And the clientele base is splintering further. There were more visitors to Courchevel last season from Saudi Arabia than Scandinavia, illustrating that new markets continue to open up. Five years ago scarcely a single visitor from Dubai went to Courchevel, but since the opening of Ski Dubai in 2005 things have picked up dramatically. The world famous indoor ski area has seen a sharp increase in UAE skiers, with 211 visitors from the Emirates skiing in Courchevel last season.
And the draw of Courchevel is obvious for people living in the region - it is a resort that does not compromise on facilities. It has top-class shopping, seven Michelin-starred restaurants, 12 five-star hotels and two palace hotels. For those accustomed to the delights of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, that can only be a good thing and with Courchevel now beginning to regain its soul, now may be the time to increase those visitor numbers.
If You Go
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.ethihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Geneva cost from Dh3,350, including taxes
The stay A classic room in the K2 for per night half-board for two people: Dh8,100 from February 25 until the end of the season. (www.hotelleK2.com, 0033 4 79 40 08 80). Hotel Le K2, Rue des Clarines, 73120, Courchevel 1850, France.
The food Le Strato offers three menus; Menu Strato at Dh528, Menu Tradition at Dh744 and the Menu Evolution at Dh936 (www.hotelstrato.com, restaurant: 0033 4 79 41 51 80, hotel: 33 4 79 41 51 60). Le Strato Hotel, Route de Bellecôte, 73120, Courchevel 1850, France.