To Courchevel for impeccable skiing, gourmet food and luxury lodgings

Resort in the French Alp’s Three Valleys, Europe’s largest ski destination, exudes casual chic

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 12:02am

The dining room is bright and quiet, the grey-uniformed servers moving with cultured efficiency. It is lunchtime at Le Chabichou, in the French Alps. I’m supposed to be skiing the slopes of Courchevel, but a change of plan placed me here instead, and I’m happy about it.

The heavy snowfall has lifted, revealing perfect, sheet-white slopes, the vista crowned by Mont Blanc, in the distance. With my American wife, German-American son and two British cousins, I have come to Courchevel, which, together with the rest of the Three Valleys, is the largest ski area in Europe, at the perfect time.

I deposited the skis and boots at chic sports shop L’Atelier, changed into jeans and presented myself to the tourist office, asking for the name of a good restaurant. A woman recommends Le Chabichou, a two-star Michelin restaurant founded and run by Michel Rochedy, the man who brought gourmet cooking to this corner of the Alps.

And so the bread arrives, escorted by two different kinds of butter. I order the lunch special. One amuse-bouche and then another builds a hopeful anticipation for the appetiser. What particularly intrigues me, however, is an egg-shaped portion of spinach and carrot sorbet.

Courchevel is actually comprised of five villages: Saint Bon, Courchevel Le Praz, Courchevel Village, Courchevel Moriond, and Courchevel. The villages are sometimes referenced by their altitude in metres above sea level, with plain Courchevel (aka Courchevel 1850) being the highest and therefore the most desirable. There are 19 five-star hotels in the region, including three “palais” super-luxury properties. Consider, in contrast, that the famously exclusive St Moritz region of Switzerland makes do with nine such properties.

The combined Three Valleys area offers kilometres of easy and intermediate slopes – and more than a few challenging runs for experts. In a week of trying in great conditions, we could not ski it all, but we could not have done as much as we did were it not for Dominique Chambard, one of the area’s approximately 1,000 instructors. Dominique introduced us to the lifts, which, like the train system of France, utilise the hub and spoke system – here to move people from base areas with gondolas and chairs radiating towards the outlying runs. Now 59, he recalled his youth, which was not long after skiing came to this corner of the Alps, immediately following the second world war; only a short time before, what is now Courchevel 1850 was little more than a summer pasture for cows. (They still graze here, incubating the milk for Beaufort cheese.) A masterful teacher, Dominique watched my wife and me ski nearly the whole day until he told each of us exactly what we needed to change to perform better – and he was spot on.

Courchevel has embraced casual chic. When, two days after our arrival, we had a few hours of spa time at the small and exclusive K2 hotel – a palais indeed – it was no offence at all to show up in our ski gear with bathing suits and swim goggles in a simple tote bag.

In the pool, our son splashed everywhere, swimming under the artificial waterfall and making the island in the middle (named Saint-Barthelemy, after our previous resort destination), a meeting point for adventures with daddy. What the K2 spa area is for the high end, the new and huge Aquamotion facility is for the rest of us. An indoor water park with a large family area with four pools and a water slide, it also offers a similar “adult swim” set of facilities upstairs for when you want to plunge and sauna without the children.

On Wednesday night, a great crowd gathers at the base of the 1850 lifts. As if through the blackened dark sky itself, but actually atop the slope directly above, we make out a lighted serpentine procession in the distance. It grows longer and continues down a winding path directly in front of us – dozens of torch-bearing ski instructors. There follows a fireworks demonstration put on by a Dutch team that, with its fusion of ground-hugging and high-flying pyrotechnics, is the most elegant and exhilarating we can remember. At one point, the crowd is alight as if in sunshine. We can smell the explosives, and we watch debris flutter over our heads like falling leaves.

Almond cake with a raspberry sorbet that has prominent notes of red pepper – a sweet and spicy finish that works. Fine cuisine is at its best when it delivers the unexpected, and I have had lovely surprises throughout at Chabichou. I conclude with espresso as flavourful as a coffee harvest and a selection of chocolate and macaron petit fours. My culinary indulgence has cost a mere 60 (HK$520) plus the price of the beverages.

The next morning, a taxi arrives before dawn and takes us to the Chambery train station – where a team in red jackets greets us with the news of a rail strike that will have us stuck until noon. I have just enough French, however, to interpret an announcement that a special bus has been put on, leaving in 10 minutes.

The bus carries us to Geneva. The two gateway airports to Courchevel are in Lyons and Geneva, but due to load factors and other airline algorithm mysteries, Swiss International has flown us through Zurich for half the price it had wanted to transit through Geneva. So a train ride to Zurich now awaits, but Swiss trains are a pleasure, and we all enjoy the experience.

Because of the need for land travel, it is difficult to return to the US or most other destinations outside Europe the same day you leave Courchevel. We therefore spend the night in the Park Hyatt Zurich. The hotel’s staff is used to strange people arriving with a caravan of ski bags. Early the next afternoon, following a leisurely departure for the airport, which is close to town, we board Swiss International for the flight home.

How to end a great trip to the French Alps? With Swiss ice cream, served as we near our destination. As we enjoy that, we commiserate as a family that, Courchevel being so large and having so much to experience, we never came close to doing all we wanted. Reason enough to come back as soon as the first snows of a new season fall.

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