Escapism. Goodness knows we all need some after the last couple of years. Crossing the Masai Mara at sunrise by hot air balloon to watch the migration or boarding the Glacier Express across the alps is arguably bucket list-worthy. However, for me, the instant gratification of short-haul travel is equally satisfying, waking up to the mundane breakfast at home, yet taking lunch somewhere completely out of the ordinary. With French Alpine resorts open, this can only mean taking that midday intermission mountainside.
Just two short hours by road from Geneva airport is the world-renowned Les Trois Vallées, with its 600 kilometres of runs spread between the three main resorts of Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens. As you approach the Tarentaise Valley, the meandering river at the valley floor slices through a thick pine forest. Ever-twisting hairpin roads wind their way through the snowy treetops, leaving behind short glances of each village you pass. If time isn’t on your side, or simply to enjoy the evolving landscape from above, a transfer across the Alps from Geneva with the Alpine Airline is a must. The definition of a scenic route, our destination is at the highest point of the mountain’s residence, with unspoilt views across to Italy’s Mont Blanc peaks.
Courchevel 1850 gives you the finest in alpine style. Speckled across the mountainside are its famous resorts and opulent retreats, laced together by an enticing network of slopes. Where better to head for a mix of divine relaxation and hedonistic luxury we all crave. Our journey’s end, Airelles, Courchevel, is no exception.
Its Austro-Hungarian style is eye-catching, with its colourful frescos, decorative balconies and stained glass windows, but melds seamlessly to the snowy setting. They call it The Palace, as if in a fairytale. It’s often said in editorial meetings that the rather cliched use of the word ‘magical’ is a sure-fire way to a redraft. In this case, I will make an exception. After more years away from the mountains than I care to specify, I have to call it as I see it.
On your arrival, staff in traditional Savoyard dress step forward to greet you. As you soak in your surroundings, it’s true ski lodge style, warm and welcoming, but with a subtle scale of grandeur that unfolds before you with every step. The magnificent roaring fire of the lounge lures you in with its soothing woodsmoke scent and homely crackle, I make a mental note to unwind before it with a Negroni at some point very soon. The staff ready my room and deliver my luggage, with the gladly met offer to unpack on my behalf. Ski room appointments, our personal ski instructor and tomorrow’s spa visit are arranged in but a moment. Service here is understated, yet countless; before you can think it, it’s done. After our morning of travel, much-needed refreshment is in order, and without a second thought, we are welcomed straight to our waiting table.
La Table Des Airelles is the most fitting introduction to the beautiful dining offered at the Palace. Their ever-changing lunchtime banquet is, quite simply, imperial. As I ponder over a reception of local cheeses and charcuterie, I make a mental note that I will be burning quite a few calories on the slopes, as I tuck into a bakery’s-worth of homemade bread whilst readying myself for further culinary decisions.
A light lunch of oysters, langoustine and lobster? Take a salad to pair it, and a bottle of house white to savour beside it. This isn’t any house wine, of course, it’s the wine of the Airelles house, Château d’Estoublon. You’ll want to ensure you send some home ahead of your departure, to revisit its tangy yet floral notes and crisp finish which pairs with fish so exquisitely.
It goes without saying that in a spread this decadent, the dessert section is going to be more than captivating. Rich chocolate mousse, devilishly enticing cheesecakes, and glossy ganache-covered sponges. Cream choux-pastries and mille-feuille, traditional Tarte Normande and creme brulee. Even tremendous slabs of La Maison Fouquet chocolate to nibble with coffee. Unleash your inner child, let your eyes widen, and indulge.
After lunch, I was eager to get outside to explore. Swiftly heading to my room to wrap up a little warmer, I found a Les Airelles Fusalp jacket laid out waiting for me, the perfect addition to my wardrobe. Perfectly cut and wonderfully warm, just the ticket for a little stroll. The mountain road past the Palace follows the array of slopes that run to the centre of Courchevel, with some gentle walkable routes too. Catch the last of the sun’s warmth before it dips below the peaks, and wonder at the view of the valley from above.
I returned to my room, pink-of-cheek from my walk and the lunchtime wine, replete from the afternoon. The Edelweiss suite is where I rested my head each evening, a generous 70m² in which to spread out as you ready yourself for the day before you, or relax after the evening behind you. After my fleeting visit after lunch, this time, I was ready to marvel at it.
Stepping into the room, you encounter the traditional alpine lodge aesthetic, with the decadence of chateau living. Deep mahogany detailing, rich fabrics in gold, emerald greens and ruby reds, hand-painted detailing and marble bathrooms. A handsome lounge was laden with Veuve Clicquot waiting on ice, a sweet treat from the patisserie and local magazines to peruse. La Maison Fouquet chocolates accompany candied and savoury gourmet snacks handmade in Marseille, artisanal sodas and fresh fruit juices.
Beyond this, the eye is drawn to the glittering snow dusting the balcony. From there, an enchanting view of Le Jardin Alpin shows where you might ski out the next day, directly onto the slopes. It’s 5 pm as I breathe a deep sigh of bliss, arrived through my surroundings, and a sip of crisp champagne. The hum of the Gucci-sponsored gondola may have ceased for the evening, but the chilled air still carries a gentle buzz of excitement from the terrace below and the resort around us.
Readying for the skiing ahead means a trip to the boot room, where the Bernard Orcell ski valets tend to every related need. If you pack light, the valet will expertly fit and advise you on a kit from their extensive selection. A spot of shopping will more than likely take your fancy too, as the ski boutique offers plenty of temptation to add to your ensemble for the slopes, from the new Fendi alpine capsule or La DoubleJ Ski Kit ready-to-wear collections. Maybe something from the new range of Tom Ford shades (always a weakness of mine) or the Bogner La Plagne 2 snow boots.
With a busy day behind us, and everything prepared for the next, it was again time to dine. My day revolves around the excitement of three wonderful meals, with fabulous activities in between, after all. We were headed to one of the three restaurants of The Palace, Piero. We were more than well looked after by Marco Garfagnini, who graciously oversees this winter season. Treated to the chef’s selection, dish after dish arrived before us, a heady mix of raw and marinated fish, coupled with rustic salads, followed by authentic pasta dishes. Each element of the menu takes inspiration from Marco’s Tuscan roots, with a fitting French twist and, of course, beautiful ingredients like the Albacore tuna with truffle and sesame.
Through each course, you are guided expertly through the sommelier’s striking wine list, including the aromatic Gewurztraminer, Cuvée Laurence, 2018, its subtly-spiced notes working in harmony with the fusion menu. To finish, be sure to try their lavish dessert, Au Mortier. Pistachio, caramelised hazelnuts, amaretti with mascarpone and amaretto, prepared before you, and served with an illustrious iced Negroni gratin.
The next morning, I woke with the sunrise stretching through the satin drapes, bounding off the snowy balcony, gently waking me from my Egyptian cotton slumber. Revitalised, I was looking forward to a hearty breakfast and excited to get out to explore. The draw of Les Trois Vallées is no mystery when you consider its available runs. With 600km of slopes in the area and 339 interconnecting runs, it’s the world’s most comprehensive skiing experience. Within minutes you can be on the Les Marmottes lift and open the day at the top of La Saulire, the highest point in Courchevel. At an altitude of 2,740 metres, the full mountainscape unfolds at your feet, where better to feel the exhilaration of the wind whipping past you and fresh powder smooth as butter beneath you as you make your way back down.
From lessons for beginners to local guides for the more adventurous, the Ecole du Ski Francais Courchevel are always on hand and can be swiftly organised by request of the concierge. If like me, you’re a tad nervous and a fan of a little sit down from time to time to ‘enjoy the scenery’, the tentative skier will find their feet on a mix of 17% green and 39% blue runs. And with every peak accessible by lift, you can still enjoy the best views without the worry of a tough journey back down as penance.
For those on the other level of the scale, a generous mix of 33% red and 11% black runs interweave across the mountainside, with an equally formidable off-piste area. Legendary runs test and thrill, such as “Jean Blanc”, a technical run with a gradient of over 40%, named after one of the resort’s founding fathers, hosting a covetable view at its conclusion.
For a relaxing break from whatever you take from the piste, The Chalet de Pierres awaits you for lunch. People-watch in style with a glass of wine, maybe alongside something cheese-driven, truffle-related and traditionally French from their Savoyard menu, and take in the landscape as you plan the afternoon’s routes across the mountain. Deliciously satisfying on all accounts.
If enjoying a family break, the Ecole du Ski can of course impart the wisdom of the mountains to have the tiniest in your group confidently whizzing past you in no time. Back at the Palace, their Winter Camp offers childcare off the slopes with an immersive range of entertainment on site. With lots of activities, like dog-sledging, available for the whole family, no one is left out; even the spa has a range of child-friendly treatments.
To enjoy the snow from other velocities or angles, ask your concierge as there are a host of adventures included with any suite or chalet stay. After a fresh snowfall, let them arrange first track access to the slopes before they open to the public, or for the truly intrepid, take a heli-skiing trip to the highest peaks. Snowshoeing with a guide takes the mountain at a leisurely pace for those wanting to explore off-piste. For a romantic foray, take a scenic picnic of different courses just off the slopes, a quaint horse-drawn carriage ride, or the truly unforgettable experience of sledging by night. Away from the slopes, you might take a chauffeured trip into Courchevel village to peruse the shops, from the comfort of the resplendent Les Airelles Rolls Royce Cullinan.
Between speculating over the bruises you’ve earned on the slopes and aching muscles in general, or simply for another opportunity to relax – you are on holiday after all – a trip to the spa is always in order. From fitness to wellness, take your pick from the indoor pool, jacuzzi, sauna, hammam or snow cave, or a tailored treatment from the La Mer treatment rooms. Of their inclusive range of massages, from those to relax or heal post-sport, I particularly recommend The Body Ritual. With a blissful hour employing a mix of stretching, acupressure, shiatsu and Swedish techniques to knead any twinging muscles with the accompaniment of La Mer products, it’s a sublime way to refresh and relax.
The wellness continues in your suite, with a personal hammam. Showers fitted with Skinjay essential oil diffusers are my new bathroom obsession, turning your usual steamy relaxation mode into a full aromatherapy sensory experience. Or maybe a hot salt bath is in order, just get the champagne on ice so your companion can pass you a glass as you recline and get ready for the evening’s events. You can pack that little bit lighter too, knowing that each room comes with a Dyson Supersonic hairdryer in a Les Airelles branded leather case, no less.
Entering the Palace is like stepping into the fold of the beau monde. You’ll come to realise it’s a whole new level of luxury, yet without pretensions, offering the warmth that comes from a place that feels like home or the comforting embrace of an old friend. There is no worry about accidentally creasing a cushion, feeling out of place, or meeting the lofty chill of somewhere that tries too hard.
Their generous lounge, with enveloping velvet sofas and low tables waiting to be filled with refreshments, is a communal spot by a vast roaring fire. Each evening it transforms into a spirited saloon, with live music accompanying your conversation about the day’s exploits. If you enjoy the art of mixology, their cocktail menu is a pleasure. The Gentleman was one savoured choice: Sexton single malt whiskey, with vineyard peach liqueur, juiced citrus and basil syrup, served in a smoke-filled bell jar and served with a spritz of Lagavulin 16. Its clever combinations and experimental presentation are reminiscent of a trip to Paris’ Little Red Door or London’s Artiesan. Later, taking dinner at Le Coin Savoyard is a must. It’s an altogether traditional affair that covers the fine art of fondue, raclette, soufflé and the oh-so-ever indulgent and rich tartiflette, as always, with beautiful wines to complement.
During our stay, we were bestowed the opportunity to take a peek at the new Airelles private chalets, launching for the 2022–23 season.
Diverse living areas with decadent decor and vast stone fireplaces stretch across multiple floors, offering endless space to relax. A personal cinema, bar, games room and lounges afford ample exclusive options to enjoy the company. And with all en-suite rooms, a dedicated wellness space with a swimming pool, fitness suite and spa treatment rooms, your privacy is guaranteed.
The three chalets even offer direct access to Les Airelles’ new dining concept, La Cave Des Grands Crus, a chef’s table experience, with tailor-made menus from the open kitchen. Dine privately surrounded by the hotel’s exquisitely curated vintage wine collection in a private group of up to 16 guests.
When it comes time to leave, a last fleeting glimpse of pine trees and mountainsides crisscrossed with slopes, freckled with ant-like skiers recedes behind you. The only way to soothe the heavy heart at the end of your getaway is, of course, to have the next trip lined up. Maybe next time it should be the same location, just all the more opulent? Just to be sure, get your chalet lined up. Next time, on that first dawn where the sun stretches through the drapes, you rouse knowing your chef is already arranging breakfast in your private lounge. A private morning swim and a daily massage after skiing await you, from the comfort of your residence. Next time, the mountain is truly yours.
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