The “High Life” in France

The very chic Altapura Hotel in Val Thorens.
The very chic Altapura Hotel in Val Thorens.

It was the French who taught us the joys of apres ski, but, it turns out they know a thing or two about the before and during as well. Just ask Vincent Lalanne-Cloute, director of promotion for Les 3 Vallees, the ski area that sits between Lyon and Geneva in the Savoie region of France. “It’s huge, the largest in the world, with 25,915 acres of skiable terrain and interconnected runs that cater to all abilities and interests,” he says. “A pure ski dream for Americans.” But he wasn’t nearly finished, citing easy access via two major airports and 10 ski-accessible Michelin-starred restaurants within the resort’s eight towns. Add posh hotels, indulgent spas, one-of-a-kind experiences and services that include ski butlers and private chefs, and it’s no wonder the region attracts luxury travelers from around the globe. Outside of Les 3 Vallees, areas like Tignes and Val d’Isere also draw high-end travelers with unique activities, free-skiing and some of the Savoie’s most creative food.

Skiing in France is surprisingly different than skiing in the U.S. A network of ski lifts and runs that link far-reaching towns, villages and resorts make it easy to schuss from place to place, either for lunch, a special activity or, with a valet service on hand to transfer bags, as a way to change venues without losing a day on the slopes. Off-piste skiing is allowed nearly everywhere, giving skiers the freedom to zoom down the mountain wherever they wish. Because of this, night skiing is generally not offered, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. After the slopes close for the night in Courchevel, for example, one can take a moonlight snowmobile tour of the mountain (it was something I experienced during my recent visit to the area and something I highly recommend). Meanwhile, in Val Thorens, I sat shotgun as a professional took our car over a slick ice-driving course and, later, I soaked in a heated outdoor pool as snowflakes swirled around me. Post-ski bodywork is also part of the experience, and there are full-service spas in nearly every hotel and community wellness center.

Throughout the region, activities for kids abound and include everything from basic ski-school to snowparks where little ones can try out ski jumping, acrobatics and racing in a safe environment; lifts at many of the resorts are equipped with special electromagnets that keep children in place on the ride up the mountain.

the towns
Although each resort is anchored by a town, some, like Meribel, Tignes and Courchevel, extend up and down the mountain, with different hamlets at various altitudes. Val d’Isere and Val Thorens each center around a single village.

Courchevel
In star-studded Courchevel, Chanel-designed gondolas sweep skiers to the top of the mountain and diners at Michelin-starred Azimut slip their feet out of their ski boots and into custom-made woolen booties while they eat. Hotels, most of which offer direct access to the slopes, are quietly glamorous. Guests of the 4-bedroom penthouse within posh L’Apogee (rooms from about 900€, approximately $1,060 at press time) enjoy custom furnishings and a rooftop jacuzzi. A Sisley Spa offers traditional Russian bania treatments—birch branches, sesame oil massage, hot and cold plunge—in a private suite.

Within the art-filled Hotel Le K2 (rooms for about 900€, approximately $1,060 at press time), Le Kintessence, was recently awarded two Michelin stars for chef Nicolas Sale’s tasty variations on a single ingredient. Red lacquer and a circular pool set a dramatic tone at the resort’s Goji spa, where exfoliations performed with Himalayan salt reveal fresh, soft skin. At Aman’s 31-room Le Melezin (rooms from about 880€, approximately $1,030 at press time), rooms are done in warm neutrals with honeyed wood accents and silk-covered walls. In the spa, Thai-influenced treatments utilize stretches, acupressure and herbal compresses to soothe and stimulate. Perched high on the mountain, Hotel Annapurna’s (rooms from about 580€ with breakfast, approximately $700 at press time) oversized rooms and mountaintop spa overlook unfettered views of snowy peaks as well as the occasional hot-air balloon. Hiring a guide for the day was a worthwhile splurge (as it was in all the towns I visited): Mine led me on a varied course that included long, meandering runs on sparkling fresh snow, fist-pump inducing off-piste shortcuts and trips to trails that hadn’t yet been swarmed by other skiers.

Meribel
Located at a slightly lower altitude than neighboring Courchevel, Meribel’s offerings include scenic ski trails cut through forests of tall pine. There are also two freestyle snow parks and 10 specific zones designed for daredevils, children and even those who prefer to ski in quieter, less-challenging areas. On Thursdays, registered skiers can hit the slopes at sunrise.

Meribel’s apres-ski tradition begins on the mountain at La Folie Douce, moves on to the Rond-Point for music and dancing and ends in town at Poste de Secours. Those with calmer activities on their minds can make their way to the Olympic Sports Complex, which was constructed for the 1992 Albertville Games and has been transformed into a wellness center offering a full line of Payot spa treatments, a hammam, indoor ice skating, swimming and workout facilities. My apres-ski choice was a stroll through town, where I tried on fabulous fur hats, tasted cheeses at the fromagerie and watched a ski-jumping exhibition. Beyond namesake mushrooms, dinner at the atmospheric Le Cepe utilizes light sauces to refine hearty French specialties like duck breast and veal stew. Here, a top accommodation recommendation is the hip Le Savoy (rooms from about 290€ with breakfast, approximately $350 at press time), located in the center of town. Its spa uses essential oils of peppermint, basil and other therapeutic herbs that both relax and refresh ski-sore muscles.

Tignes
Home to the Olympic freestyle skiing competition in 1992 and four X Games, Tignes is a mecca for adrenaline junkies, who come to take their chances kiteboarding and hang gliding from skis, freeriding, snowboarding halfpipes, skiing boardercross and heli-skiing. There are plenty of ways for non-skiers to get their thrills, too, including snake gliss (sledding in a connected line), mountaineering, bungee trampolining and ice-diving, which required me to don a dry suit and strap on an oxygen tank before entering the town lake through a hole in the 2-ft.-deep ice.

Tignes’ Grande Motte Glacier offers not just some of the highest altitude skiing in Europe, but sky-high dining as well, thanks to Jean Michel Bouvier, who gave up a Michelin star to cook from his heart when he opened Panoramic 3032 (the glacier has an altitude of 3,032 meters, about 9,900 ft.). Cozy with rough-hewn wood and sheepskin throws (and a resident St. Bernard named Igloo), the restaurant serves comforting Savoyard specialties like fondue and rich, bacon-laced casseroles; the onsite craft market is filled with hand-made treasures. Bouvier also owns the restaurant in Tignes’ chic Les Suites du Nevada hotel (rooms from about 420€ with breakfast, approximately $500 at press time), where the spa pool overlooks the clubby lounge.

Val d’Isere
Olympic ski legend Jean-Claude Killy’s hometown is a picture-perfect mosaic of shops, alpine-style hotels, centuries-old stone churches and ice sculptures complete with an outdoor ice-skating rink and town square. Linked via an over-the-mountain pass to Tignes to form Espace Killy, Val d’Isere is known for a spate of cross country and beginner runs perched at the top of the mountain. Other activities include Thursday night winter carnivals, fireworks, snow golf, historic tours, night skiing and a varied menu of festivals and events that range from snow polo to yoga and classical music. Hotels owned by the same families for generations line the streets; within Le Blizzard (rooms from 540€ with breakfast, approximately $600 at press time), individually decorated rooms mix high-tech flourishes with gracious antiques and the lounge sparkles with energy. The small Clarins spa features a jacuzzi tub set into the snow. At the Relais & Chateaux’s Hotel Le Savoie & Spa (290€ with breakfast, approximately $340 at press time), an appetizer of crab set atop a gelee of espelette peppers set the tone for a 7-course dinner that popped with unexpected sparks of flavor.

Val Thorens
Beyond direct access to the slopes, Nordic-inspired Altapura Hotel (rooms from about 302€, approximately $350 at press time) brings new meaning to the term high-level luxury. The 88 rooms have soft faux-fur throws and Mac minis (which deliver ski tips each morning), and the in-house fondue restaurant pairs different varieties of its melted specialty with local wines. The Pure Altitude spa is designed to resemble a birch forest (albeit one with an indoor-outdoor pool); my blissful massage was followed by a cup of tea designed to minimize jet-lag. Perched at the top of the mountain, the stylish Koh-I-Nor Hotel (rooms from about 430€ with dinner and breakfast, approximately $500 at press time) features thoughtful details like a child-sized buffet and a concierge to meet skiers arriving for lunch—and a spectacular view—at the glass-walled Bistro Gourmand. At the spa, don’t miss the star-light ceiling in the hamman or the opportunity for an exfoliating rubdown with real diamond dust. Val Thorens’ 7,500-ft. altitude is the highest in Europe and gives the resort a 170-day ski season within a protected bowl. For non-skiers, there’s fun to be had on a 11,800-ft. zipline, a mountain-biking course down Peclet glacier and, at 6k, France’s longest toboggan run.

Club Med’s New Val Thorens Resort
This past December, Club Med added to its inventory of accommodations in France with the opening of the 384-room Club Med Val Thorens Sensations. Guests have access to a 360-degree digital ecosystem that includes a specialized resort app, providing mobile check-in, interactive screens in-room, informative screens throughout and WiFi throughout the slopes. Rates include accommodations, meals and beverages, ski passes with lift tickets, ski instruction for all experience levels, select activities and entertainment. clubmed.us

Collette Lives it Up in Paris
Skiing is all well and good, but wow…Paris, what a darling. Collette’s new product line, Spotlights, includes in its lineup a 7-day tour of this glamorous city. The tour company emphasizes that this new product line will offer “authentic experiences not easily available to individual travelers.” In Paris, that means checking out Paris’ oldest cabaret theater, and even spending a day in Reims and Epernay discovering the Champagne region. Rates start at $1,749 pp dbl land-only and include seven meals. Departures start in May.

fall, spring and summer skiing
To guarantee snow, Les 3 Vallees doesn’t open until mid-December, but the resort welcomes skiers through mid-May.

The regular season at Espace Killy, which comprises Tignes and Val d’Isere, runs from Nov. 29 to May 3, 2015. In Tignes, the Grande Motte glacier begins its season in early October, closes May 10 then re-opens June 21 to Aug. 3 for the summer season.

Val d’Isere’s summer schedule runs from June 7 through July 13 on the Pissaillas glacier.

What travel agents are saying…
“The [3 Vallees] area is very popular with our clients who ski. People go there because the skiing is so phenomenal but, of course, in France it’s also about the food and the luxuries you find at top hotels. Skiing and spas go hand-in-hand with my clients. It’s a very nice pairing for one’s vacation.” —Susan Farewell, Founder & CEO, Farewell Travels LLC

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
On the Tracks in France (August 2014)

contact information
Altapura Hotel: en.altapura.fr
Atout France: us.rendezvousenfrance.com
Hotel Annapurna: annapurna-hotel.com
Hotel Le K2: hotellek2.com/enKoh-I-Nor: hotel-kohinor.com
L’Apogee: lapogeecourchevel.com/eng/home
Le Blizzard: hotelblizzard.com/en/index.php
Le Melezin: (800) 477-9180; amanresorts.com
Le Savoy: hotel-savoy-meribel.com/en
Les 3 Vallees: les3vallees.com/en/accueil.1.l2
Les Suites de Nevada Hotel: les-suites-du-nevada.com/en