As we swing round the hairpins up towards the French resort of Courchevel, we pass a group of workmen putting the finishing touches to a large marquee by the side of the road. The taxi driver turns back and asks conspiratorially, “So have you heard about the party?”
We hadn’t, but soon it’s all we’re hearing about. The taxi driver, and everyone else in Courchevel, can’t stop talking about what is probably the most lavish party the Alps has ever seen. It turns out that we have arrived on the night Ukrainian steel and media magnate Victor Pinchuk has come to the village to spend a reported £3.2m on his 50th birthday party. Cirque du Soleil has been brought in to perform in the marquee, superchef Alain Ducasse, holder of 19 Michelin stars, is doing the catering. All day long, the tiny airstrip that clings to the mountainside beside the resort is buzzing with private planes bringing in guests.
Of course, Courchevel is the natural choice for such a party. Originally established by the French state to be a “people’s resort” where ordinary workers could come to ski, over the past 20 years it has evolved into more or less the opposite – the pre-eminent ski resort for the world’s mega-rich, a place packed with superlatives. As well as having the world’s biggest ski area on its doorstep, the village boasts seven Michelin-starred restaurants and 11 five-star hotels, both a higher concentration per population than anywhere else in France.
Chalets here can cost more than €100,000 per week, while one suite, at the hotel Les Airelles, costs €35,000 a night. New this winter for that hotel is a Hermès-designed horse-drawn carriage on which you can tour the village.
Not everyone is happy about the way the resort is becoming synonymous with excess. “The astronomical prices and the pranks of a handful of billionaires ... discredit the resort in the eyes of public opinion,” blasted Le Figaro newspaper in December. The resort’s own marketing officials are worried that with all the talk of nightclubs, partying and shopping, its core attraction, skiing, is getting overshadowed.
In a bid to redress the balance, this winter they stopped hosting a glitzy annual awards ceremony for famous women and instead brought a women’s World Cup race to the resort, the first time in 31 years it has hosted such a high-calibre event. “We want to get the message out that this is a serious ski resort,” Nathalie Faure, a spokesman for the resort, tells me over a drink in Le Strato, the latest addition to Courchevel’s roster of five-star hotels.
It’s Le Strato that I’ve come to review, and it turns out to be completely on-message for this rebranded version of Courchevel – serious about luxury, but also serious about skiing. It’s as if a ski nut with an unlimited budget has decided to create their fantasy hotel. So there’s a champagne bar in the boot room, as well as a team of staff on hand to help you off with your boots, take your gloves away to be dried, wax your skis and so on. In the morning, the glass doors of the boot room slide open, and you find yourself right on the piste and ready to go – no lugging of gear to the cable car, no shuttle buses, no queues.
The hotel has its own exclusive skis, only available to guests – a serious piece of kit, developed by the Rossignol race team factory. And rather than simply provide an instructor to take you out, Le Strato will arrange for some of skiing’s biggest stars to ski with you, from Olympic gold-medallist Carole Montillet to World Cup winner Luc Alphand.
This has all come about because Le Strato is the fantasy hotel of a ski nut, Laurent Boix-Vives, the owner of Rossignol from the mid-1950s until he sold it for €241m in 2005. A long-time resident of Courchevel, he and his wife Jeannine created the hotel as a sort of dream retirement project. The name harks back to a legendary Rossignol ski – launched in 1964, Le Strato was the world’s first fibreglass ski, won numerous races and sold more than a million pairs.
Inside, the hotel is a quirky mix of the rustic and opulent, which works far better than it might sound. There are carved wooden 18th-century religious statues and huge Murano glass chandeliers; sculptures hewn from driftwood and swish white alabaster coffee tables. In the bedrooms there are bright pink wool broadcloth armchairs, solid oak floors and large backlit photographs of racers from Rossignol’s early days. The restaurant is an outpost of the celebrated l’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence.
All this bespoke design, not to mention the spa and indoor pool, and the staff of 80 for just 25 rooms, doesn’t come cheap. Officially rooms start at €790 per night but, in season, most are more like €2,000. And not everything is perfect. In the morning, as deep powder lay on the slopes outside, I had to wait 25 frustrating minutes to get a coffee at breakfast. In my vast and gleaming white marble bathroom, the stylish and no-doubt hugely expensive mixer tap on the sink would only deliver lukewarm, not piping hot or icy cold, water. There were no less than three televisions (one hidden in a mirror in the bathroom) but I couldn’t turn them off and had to call the night porter, who, similarly foxed, ended up pulling out the power cable. Worst of all, in a €2,000 room there were only two tiny bottles of mineral water in the minibar, which quickly get drunk after a day’s skiing, so waking up in the night, throat dry from the air-conditioning, altitude and the fine wine at dinner, I had to slake my thirst with (lukewarm) water from the taps. Where’s the luxury in that?
Of course, these are minor gripes, the kind of quibbles you can’t help but seek out when everything else is so close to perfect. The food is fabulous, the service is attentive without being obsequious, the skis are the best on-piste skis I’ve ever tried. Perhaps Courchevel can lay claim to a new superlative – the ultimate ski hotel.
Rooms at Le Strato (www.hotelstrato.com) cost €790-€4,000 a night, half-board. Tom Robbins flew with Swiss (www.swiss.com) which has 10 flights daily from London to Geneva, from £103 return, including ski carriage