Top Winter Getaway: Courchevel, France
Published: March 2009
By Alexandra Marshall
A timeline of when—and why—the French ski town of Courchevel developed.
If people had known what a playground for the posh the French resort town of Courchevel would become, the many international powers who have ruled it over the centuries may not have given it up so easily. The Alpine region of Savoy was, up until 1860, a spoil of European wars, having been held by France, the dukes of Savoy, and the Holy Roman Empire. Situated in Les Trois Vallées, 138 miles from the Italian border, the world’s largest contiguous ski area now known as Courchevel is the result of one of the most successful experiments in postwar exurban planning (and the creation of the first passenger chairlift). Celebrities and captains of industry have loved it almost since its inception in the 40’s, and they keep coming back. Nowadays, Courchevel claims 60-plus resorts, two Michelin-starred restaurants, designer boutiques, and ostentatious mega-chalets. It’s the kind of place where you can have as much fun off the slopes—was that Posh Spice at J. Mendel?—as on them. And with some of the finest skiing in the Alps, that’s saying a lot.
After Emperor Napoleon III helps the House of Savoy banish the Austrian Empire from its territory, he is given the regions of Savoy and Nice. In one fell swoop, two of the world’s greatest vacation areas—the southwestern Alps and the Côte d’Azur—are united under the French flag.
Skiing changes dramatically as, halfway around the world in Sun Valley, Idaho, James Curran, a bridge engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad, invents the simple chairlift while looking for a way to load bananas onto a conveyor. With concurrent advancements in gondola technology, Les Trois Vallées will become the largest fully linked slope system by 1979.
Not even fascism can stop a vacation concept whose time has come. Avid French skier and architect Laurent Chappis, while imprisoned in an Austrian POW camp, finishes his doctoral thesis on…developing a ski paradise in Les Trois Vallées. Chappis even manages to get his hands on a scale map of the area while he’s still in captivity.
As building is completed, Chappis lays the groundwork for mountain resorts everywhere: he experiments with ski-in/ski-out residences and the protection of natural resources. Courchevel’s tiered development has three lift platforms, named for their height in meters; 1850 becomes the most elite, with the Hôtel de la Loze (doubles from $364) opening one year later.
Courchevel’s new airport welcomes the jet set, but building it is no easy task. The perilous 1,722-foot uphill runway, carved out of the mountainside, finishes at an abrupt vertical drop. It seems nothing is too dangerous for society swashbucklers.
November’s Sports Illustrated declares that France has Europe’s best skiing, triggering an economic (and cultural) boom. Après-ski chic gets a starring role in films from Charade to The Pink Panther, and in the 60’s, Brigitte Bardot sets up her winter HQ in a chalet in the neighboring Trois Vallées resort of Méribel.
In the early 80’s, greed is grand. The famous Byblos hotel, in St.-Tropez, expands in Courchevel with the opening of Byblos des Neiges, now the Palace des Neiges (doubles from $1,091), which was favored by everyone from the Aga Khan to King Juan Carlos of Spain. Farther up on the mountain, the world’s highest-capacity cable car is installed, holding a record-breaking 160 passengers.
Courchevel cashes in again when the slopes of neighboring Albertville host the 1992 Winter Olympics. Le Praz, at 1,300 meters, adds the alias “Courchevel 1300,” and becomes the home for the ski jump competitions. Meanwhile, the rustic Hôtel le Montana (doubles from $188), just outside of Courchevel, is built to house Olympians.
The British invasion brings boldface names, including Elton John, Robbie Williams, and Princess Michael of Kent, and hits its peak when David and Victoria Beckham retreat to Courchevel to repair their marriage after a scandal involving their nanny. The Beckhams rub poles on the slopes with Giorgio Armani, George Clooney, Paul Allen, and LVMH’s Bernard Arnault.
The mountain’s primo stay, Hôtel de Charme les Airelles (doubles from $1,382), will reopen this month after a $51 million renovation with ski valets, a tandem sauna and snow cave, and a 5,900-square-foot premier suite. Nearby, new residential suites, like the $1.4 million–minimum Le Padisha apartments (44-20/74-94-07-06; mgm-constructeur.com), are on the way.