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Mountain Magic in the French Alps

Even pavement can play a part. Narrow stone streets meander to "provide a greater sense of discovery," in Intrawest terminology. "We pay a lot of attention to these details," says Lorne Bassel, Intrawest's executive vice president of development. "Next time you're walking down a street, watch where people linger, and you'll find that the paving patterns are a lot less linear there, as opposed to streets that have lines down the middle, which tend to make people go through faster."

Intrawest engineers the human component as well, in a process it calls "animation." Shopkeepers are chosen for their roles as if they were actors, to provide an engaging human face for the resort. Musicians and jugglers are hired to keep the street scene lively, and "experiential retail" is provided to entertain visitors, with demonstrations of fudge and snow-cone making. At a pub in Tremblant, Intrawest's resort in Quebec, customers tend to get up on the bar and dance once the liquor starts flowing. And that's no coincidence: "The bar is designed in such a way that it's guaranteed to happen," says Intrawest planner Joanne Maislin. "There's a pole mounted on the ceiling over the bar so that you can keep your balance while dancing there. So people do it all the time."

Such details will go unnoticed by 99 percent of the visitors who pass through, but it's exactly something like this—a pub where patrons dance on the bar—that gives a place its personality and makes it memorable, real.

For all the sophistication of his methodology, Beck realized that to perfect the resort village he needed to look not forward, but back, at history. He needed to study the real thing. Intrawest sends teams of employees on 10-day bus tours through the Alps, stopping off at two villages a day. At each destination— Annecy, in Savoy, for instance—they split up, taking notes on the medieval towns' meticulously preserved architecture: the ancient stonework and wrought-iron balconies; the chimneys and winding steps; the narrow, meandering streets, so seductive to visitors.

Through such fieldwork, Intrawest gleans design principles. According to Beck, when public spaces get larger than about 150 feet across, they tend to lose the feeling of personal intimacy: "There need to be boundaries, not just on the sides but also overhead," he says. "At the top of the first floor there should be a whole range of things happening: awnings and signs, balconies, umbrellas, trees—anything that tends to put a bit of a roof above you. It's the sense of being contained in all dimensions that gives you a feeling of security and friendliness."

When I visit Les Arcs in March of 2004, Le Village has been open just a few months. As a light powder wafts from the sky and glazes the rough slates covering the rooftops, construction cranes pivot above a vista that includes the distant Mont Blanc. The streets seem oddly dislocated, old in style but new in feel. The façades are accented by ornate balconies, copper drainpipes, and wooden shutters painted in muted but cheery tones, in a way that suggests pigments faded by long exposure to the sun. The slate on the roofs is real, however, and the beams holding them up are solid timber. As time goes by, the buildings will weather into even more credible facsimiles of their ancient models.

For the time being, though, it feels a bit like a stage set.

"You can come in and create a nice environment architecturally, but you can't create history," says Chris Stagg, vice president of marketing at Taos Ski Valley, an old-school ski mountain in New Mexico. "Taos has been settled for hundreds of years, so you have rich people and poor people, good things and bad things. It's not a museum of the way things used to be, it's a genuine community. That adds a level of reality that you don't get just from the architecture."

Yet the faux-historical village continues its rise. Intrawest has expanded beyond skiing to build pedestrian villages at resorts in warm-weather destinations, including Las Vegas; Kauai; Palm Desert, California; and Sandestin, Florida. East West, which already operates 10 year-round resorts, is building villages at six locations in the West and Southeast.

As for the French, even those who work at Le Village don't seem to know quite what to make of it. "It looks like Disneyland," says Denis Chassard, who recently opened a gift shop here. "But it's beautiful."

T+L contributing editor JEFF WISE also writes for Men's Journal and Details.


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