I’ve been a Francophile since long before I knew what the word meant, and luckily for me, not only is there a profession perfectly suited for this passion, but I found that career early on. In the nearly-40- years I’ve been an international agent, I’m quite fortunate to have been to France at least once – and many years up to 4 times – annually. Yet there was one corner of the Hexagon that eluded me, and that was the French Alps.
So when offered an opportunity to tour the Alpine peaks and valleys for a week with fellow agents, I was pleased to join them and what follows are my candid, personal CliffsNotes describing the locales I experienced in early April – as viewed by a non-skier.
Chamonix – or “Cham” to its followers (who are mostly Brits) – was a Must See on the Victorian “Grand Tour of Europe” and thus was the earliest of France’s Alpine locales. From here, the courageous would set out to climb Mont Blanc and hikes would feature the Mer de Glace – Sea of Ice glacier. The first Winter Olympics were held here in 1924 and today’s skiers will find a huge variety of skiing areas and conditions with slightly more than 80 runs. Chamonix is superb for active travelers and has nice summer hiking options as well, many accessed by the small rack rail to the L’Aiguiille du Midi. Not ski in, ski out, and with a generous dose of ski bars, France Today said Chamonix “attracts both the chic and the shabby,” but only the chic will want to shack in the stylish interiors of Hotel Mont Blanc. Stellar bathrooms and simply amazing cuisine, this open-all-year hotel has some amazing views of the local celebrity – Mont Blanc – and is an easy walk to the heart of the action.
Courchevel – here is the Glitz and the Glam of skiing. Think Chanel skis, Bulgari and Prada shops, and a snowy St. Tropez. Frequently called the Gateway to the Trois Vallees, Courchevel began after WW2 and today has over 370 miles of ski “pistes” or runs. Fair to say that many are attracted by the Apres Ski life, and there are an incredible 15 5-Star hotels perched at Courchevel 1850 – the highest and largest of the 4 stations and named for the altitude, 1850 meters or roughly 6100 ft. With access to an amazing range of skiing, Courchevel is superb for both beginners and top skiers and most accommodations are ski in/ski out. What I found astonishing is that the resort is open only December to April – there is virtually no life in Courchevel outside of those months except for maintenance teams toiling away with a November 30th deadline. Fine dining abounds and we were treated to a stellar dinner at cozy little Le Genepi whose gifted chef Thierry Mugnier has been named “Maître Restauranteur de France.” Courchevel also offers night skiing on Wednesdays from 6PM, snowshoe treks, paragliding and a sport stadium featuring air boarding and ski-scooting. We enjoyed a marvelous stay at the 4-star design property Hôtel des 3 Vallées where rooms and suites on the high floors afford killer views over the city and slopes, with #306 as a real favorite.
Val Thorens – this is the highest Alpine ski resort in Europe at 2300 meters and is part of the world’s largest ski domaine – Les Trois Vallees. In fact, it is possible for intermediate levels – due to a fast and efficient lift system – to ski from Courchevel to Val Thorens and back again, with several ideal stops for lunch or a hot wine during the day. Dating only from the 1960s, they say this is the most-visited international ski resort in France, with over 70% of the skiers coming from other countries and with the ease of ski in/ski out facilities and such a large variety of really great skiing, I can understand why. As a non-skier, I found Val Thorens to be the least atmospheric of the visits we made on the trip and this too is open only December-April – but the views (when the April clouds and mist lifted) were simply stupendous. Val Thorens is the most accommodating to the 21st century skier, offering free internet on the slopes and Go Pro cameras that attach to helmets, catching your most agile moves. Here we LOVED the warm welcome and cuisine featured at 5-star Hotel Fitz Roy where lift-view rooms would be a top priority. Treated to amazing fondue and raclette in a charming and cosy restaurant called appropriately La Fondue which featured the best of both Alpine specialties, we saw families, couples, and groups of friends alike enjoying the slopes in front of and outdoor dining on the sunny deck at the Fitz Roy.
Magical Megeve – purpose built after WW1 by Baronness de Rothschild specifically to rival St. Moritz, we were greeted in Megeve by the jingle of horse-drawn carriages and the whoosh of spring mountain streams coursing through the pretty-darn-enchanting town. Even under the grey and rainy skies of early April, the scene was captivating and it was easy to imagine Megeve – with a huge Swarovski crystal dressed Christmas tree and a fresh carpet of sparkling snow – in the height of the ski season. After WW2, celebrities flocked to seductively charming Megeve, where chalets (originally just a shepherds’ mountain hut) had morphed into luxurious and the most charming of accommodations. Certainly for the affluent, but not ONLY those with deep pocket books, there is superb Alpine atmosphere here with relaxed (not intense) skiing. With a summer season for wonderful hiking and lots of interesting winter options available (skiing behind horses, dog sledding and evening slope openings), we saved what I considered to be the best for last, and stayed at wonderful Alpaga resort, jewel of the Hotels d’En Haut crown. Offering 5 private chalets (simply gorgeous) for families to rent and avail themselves to hotel facilities and services including a Kids Club, and also 27 imminently comfortable and equally stunning rooms (with the best beds of the 2-week trip), 5-star Alpaga Megeve has a Michelin star restaurant taking mountain gastronomy to a new level. Creative cuisine is served in their La Table de L’Alpaga dining room, which opens onto a terrace with direct view to Mont Blanc. Their health and wellness La Colline Spa has an inviting pool in addition to the steam room, gym and treatment rooms. With smiling service everywhere we turned (truly, nothing was too much trouble) and exceptional interiors, add a winter or summer stay at Alpaga in Megeve to your bucket list!