These days, it isn't so much the thickness of the carpets as the air that tells you you've walked into a really posh hotel. Wafts of vanilla and truffle combine with expensive wood; it's as if the smell has been piped in like the scent of fresh bread into a supermarket. It can be a slightly suffocating, as I discovered at the latest fragrant monument to the contemporary jetset.
I wanted to see L'Apogée, one of a handful of grand openings in the Alps last year, as part of my attempt to get a sense of the real Courchevel, a ski resort that has, perhaps more than any other in an increasingly rich and competitive field, developed a reputation for excess and mountainous prices, typically converted from roubles.
The hotel rises above the trees at the higher end of the highest of the villages that make up the resort. At 1,850m, the disputed altitude that gives Courchevel 1850 its old name, the air is most rarefied – outside at least – and the roads might as well be lined with fur. Only perhaps in Gstaad, in Switzerland, have I seen a higher count of posh watch shops and luxury fashion labels.
Built for the Oetker Collection, the exclusive chain of a half-dozen hotels owned by the German baking conglomerate that also includes Le Bristol in Paris, L'Apogée is a chic spectacle and worth visiting for a cocktail or dinner in the restaurant (or worth staying at if, say, you can spare more than £10,000 a night for the penthouse). But a growing number of people who live and work in Courchevel are desperate to show that there is more to the place than foie gras and humidors.
Courchevel is part of the seriously huge Trois Vallées ski area that also takes in Méribel, Val Thorens and La Tania. The slopes that lead up the mountain from the main drag in 1850 are home to two five-star “palace” hotels, 16 regular five-star hotels and seven one- or two-Michelin-starred restaurants. But the broader resort offers as much variety as the miles of pistes and back country that made them a destination in the first place.
Ski down from 1850 and you reach Courchevel 1650, where fur coats are a rare species. I met Nathalie Faure, the resort's head of communications, at Portetta, my laid-back home for three days. 1650 is now called Moriond, a subtle rebrand Nathalie hopes will change perceptions. The Russian-inspired luxury image was at one time a useful marketing tool, she says, but now the fear is that it's putting people off one of the world's greatest ski areas.
Moriond lies along a road that clings to the mountain, a steep escalator's descent from the main lifts that link into the Vallées. Its main drag of cafés and ski shops is more relaxed than 1850's. At Le Bubble, a small bar and café, a panini and demi Peroni cost about €6 at lunchtime, a price that wouldn't buy you a peanut higher up the mountain. A pint is €4 at happy hour, and at the Table de Marie, a few doors down, pizzas are between €10 and €15.
There is one five-star hotel, the Manali, but Portetta sets the tone for a new, still chic, yet relaxed Courchevel. It's by no means cheap, but as reasonable as it is relaxed. The lower-key sister to Lime Wood in the New Forest, it rises straight out of the family- and beginner-friendly Belvedere and Mickey pistes, where long button lifts are free. This winter, Angela Hartnett opened an Italian restaurant, La Cucina Angelina, at the hotel. During my visit last March, its heart was Fire & Ice, an outdoor terrace bar with log fires and a pizza oven. It's where I met my guides for a breakneck tour of the Trois Vallées.
While the roubles slosh in mostly during Russian new year in early January, English voices are still the most common in Courchevel. Rory Hoddell is a British ski instructor based in Switzerland and one half of the duo behind Camel Snow, the new high-end, low-key British tour operator. He learnt to ski at 1850, long before its transformation, while his parents sat in the sun at the Courcheneige Hotel. The hotel lies just below the resort's spectacular mountain airport, but, to Rory's delight, it still does a sandwich for €3.
Mark Birch, another ski instructor, joined us. He runs Sweet Snowsports, based in the Vallées, as well as serving as secretary of the British Association of Ski Instructors, and he is desperate for Courchevel to shed its rich image. “With a bit of guidance and knowledge, it can be reasonable,” he said. He pointed out Le Chabichou hotel at 1850. It has a two-Michelin-star restaurant but fewer people know about its delightful Chabotte bistro, where a two-course lunch costs little more than £15. And you can go much cheaper still. Up on the mountain, I picked up a panini and a Kit Kat for €6 at Croc Vallée, a tiny snack bar in Les Menuires. “There's definitely substance to the reputation of this place,” Mark said. “Property prices are unbelievable. The area of this table would cost you 100 grand at 1850, but normal people do still ski here.”
The best stylish skiwear that won't break the bank
The best stylish skiwear that won't break the bank
Heatech thermal, £14.90, uniqlo.com
All-in-one snow suit, £160, topshop.com
softshell ski jacket, £360, sweatybetty.com
snow jacket, £124,99, superdry.com
ski goggles, £130, Lacroix, net-a-porter.com
jersey leggings, £85, Falke, net-a-porter.com
quilted ski jacket, £59.99, hm.com
silver ski gloves, £9.99, hm.com
Simon Usborne flew to Geneva with Swiss (0345 601 0956; swiss.com), which flies from London City, Gatwick and Heathrow. Geneva is also served by easyJet, BA and Jet2.
Portetta (portetta.com) has doubles from €200pp per night, half board. Camel Snow (020 8123 2859; camelsnow.com) offers seven nights' half-board from €1,985pp, with transfers.
L'Apogée, Courchevel (lapogeecourchevel.com). Double rooms start at €950, half-board.
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