Snowfall has become notoriously unpredictable in recent years, but Half-Term is here, the heavens are currently open for business, and so too are some of the continent’s flashiest and most bibulous ski resorts. Eddy Downpatrick talks us through a few high-profile lairs in France.
Flashy Russians, old-school Brits, intoxicated ski-bums (largely Brits) and uni-trippers. At a great and crude oversimplification: Courchevel, Méribel, and Val Thorens respectively, and these make up the largest skiing area in the world.
Despite the oligarchic multiplexes that now (rather spectacularly) litter Courchevel, she is home to some mighty-fine skiing. And perhaps her most-prized asset is the Saulire couloir — among the more accessible and yet gloriously satisfying areas anywhere in the Alps.
Courchevel is a place where managing directors of investment banks can genuinely feel impoverished by comparative measure. As a general observation, there are few places with as staggering a wealth gap as a premium ski resort. Courchevel is one of those that serves to more readily expose the gulf — but think about it: ski bums and middle-income families vs. multiple-times-over billionaires rubbing shoulders in the same watering holes. Yes, if Bill and Melinda Gates walk into a West African village on a charitable mission to cure the next in a string of diseases the wealth gap will be the more pronounced, but ski resorts are places where people at least purport to play on equal terms.
Courchevel, inter alia, has been a kindly breeding ground to some of Britain’s best skiing talent, most notably Scottish Olympian Alan Baxter who was so cruelly stripped of a bronze medal at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City all because of a supposedly-steroidal ingredient in a US-purchased Vicks Inhaler.
From what the author remembers, Courchevel is also home to a commendable cinema (first experience: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001). (For public enjoyment that is — plenty of home cinemas to be found here too.)
Over to Val Thorens. It would be a shame if too much personal bias interfered with an appraisal of the place, but to start with the positives: altitude and concomitant early-season snow; comparative affordability; rambunctious nightlife.
The village feels like it has been expressly designed for inebriated university students to prolong the previous term’s misdeeds and it also looks, to more-politely paraphrase a close acquaintance, like a Soviet cinderblock. There is however a charming Irish pub where you can attempt to break the record for the fastest downing of a yard of ale (the record holder might still be a man by the name of Benjamin Tucker), but all this aside, it is the highest resort in Europe at 2,300m and as such, you are very likely to find good snow in the early and indeed late seasons and therefore be able to stay, affordably, outside of peak season. Lest it be forgotten, in VT you are of course very well connected to the glitzier neighbours that are Courchevel and Méribel.
Last of all we come to mirthful, multi-altitudinal Méribel, perhaps the prettiest (and by this I mean neither dramatic nor stunning) of all the resorts herein mentioned. The wining and dining is ubiquitously first rate and revellers will tend to coalesce around Méribel Centre, though the cosiest hollow is arguably Méribel Villages, peaceful and sleepy, where families hide away in blissful seclusion perched at a favourable vantage point, views meandering down, along, and up the valley face opposite. Two refuges of particular note: Le Blanchot for its sun-drenched terrace, proximity to the altiport (which feels quite James Bond), and its wine list; Le Clos Bernard for its sylvan setting and the arboreal pathway that leads to what is a charming wintry cottage of a restaurant whither one could very easily lose one’s way.
Not a lot comes close to the vast range of tree-skiability found in the Rockies (the tree-lines tend higher over there), but if quantity can contend with magic then Méribel assuredly has the latter. Quantifying as much is empirically challenging, but take it from someone who has cut a fair few lines through forested fluff, if woodland fairies could choose an alpine demesne to call home, it would most likely be Méribel.
Now check out where to ski in Austria…