Peak Condition: Courchevel & Gstaad
World-class gastronomy, immaculate slopes and the pinnacle of après-ski glamour – why Courchevel and Gstaad are the jewels in the crown of Alpine skiing.
Winter comes early in the Alps. “It’s in late October that the weather really starts to change,” says Patrik Wiederkehr, Director of Switzerland’s prestigious Suvretta Snowsports School. “That’s when we start to get that special sizzling cold – when the temperature can drop to -10°C at night, and the air becomes dry and clear. By the end of November, the snow usually extends from the mountain peaks right down to the valley floor.”
This effects a striking transformation across towns such as Gstaad, Courchevel and Wiederkehr’s St Moritz – and not just in the switch from rich autumn colours to dazzling white. The pace of life picks up, too. While everyone else is turning up their collars and taking refuge indoors, the thrill-seekers of the world are zipping themselves into Gore-Tex jackets and heading uphill, as the ski season begins. The snow also turns remote mountain valleys into some of the most fashionable places on earth.
Courchevel, for example, is a purely modern invention, a Vichy French official in the 1940s having cooked up the idea of putting a ski resort in Tarentaise Valley. In contrast, Gstaad’s roots as a farming village can be traced back to the 1400s at least, while St Moritz has been settled since the Bronze Age.
When it comes to winter glamour, St Moritz was the clear pioneer. In 1864, Johannes Badrutt, proprietor of the Hotel Kulm, bet a group of British aristocrats that if they didn’t find winter in the Alps as sunny and enjoyable as summer, he would refund the cost of their holiday. The experiment was a success, and Europe’s blue-bloods have been returning to the Alpine ski resorts every winter since.
The ingredients of that pleasure might be the epic mountain vista that still takes your breath away, the run you’ve skied down more times than you can remember (and which you sometimes ski in your dreams) or the restaurant where the maître d’ knows your name and the barman starts mixing your cocktail of choice as you walk through the door. And while destinations like Courchevel, Gstaad and St Moritz might share all of the qualities above, some of their distinct characteristics are down to their own respective histories.
Let us not forget that, in centuries past, life in the Alps was hard. Short summers, fierce winters and poor communications meant poverty was endemic, and communities would routinely send their men away to look for work. The Swiss, for example, marched off far and wide to fight in other people’s armies. The Ladins of the Dolomites, meanwhile, worked in Germany as house painters. Now the world comes to them – and it’s not just the snow that sparkles in the sunshine, but champagne flutes, supercars and, of course, diamonds.
But each and every ski resort has its own particular appeal, and perhaps, to a certain extent, its own partisans – those ski lovers who return time after time, year after year. They come back for the particular delight that is a rehearsed pleasure – that one you know, love and eagerly anticipate.
There are no fewer than 20 five-star hotels, while the road to Courchevel’s mini-airport leads to some fabulous private chalets…
Although St Moritz was the first, these days both Courchevel and Gstaad have overtaken the Swiss grande dame in the glamour stakes. You might not sense this, however, if you stood at La Croisette, Courchevel’s hub of lifts and pistes. The resort is part of France’s vast Les Trois Vallées ski area, and the overwhelming first impression is of a destination dedicated to sport. But hidden away among the trees is the glitz – in abundance.
There are no fewer than 20 five-star hotels here, three of which are in the even more elevated Palace category, while the road to Courchevel’s mini-airport, or Altiport, leads to some fabulous private chalets. Many are available to rent, complete with Michelin-standard chefs and platoons of staff. This, coupled with broad, inviting and beautifully groomed pistes – perfectly suited for intermediate-level skiers – contribute to the resort’s enduringly popularity.
Lunch is undeniably the key event in the Courchevel day, and every slope is studded with come-hither restaurants. Foodies will want to ski over to La Bouitte, in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, to worship at the gastronomic temple of René and Maxime Meilleur. But for people- watching, Le Cap Horn, just above the Altiport, is the place to be. Its vast terrace is buzzing whenever the sun comes out, and there’s a sense of social theatre as waiters and guests sweep along its plush red carpets. Needless to say, the menu and the wine list both reflect the affluence of the clientele.
But if your definition of luxury is a little more low-key, might we suggest Gstaad? Here, as in St Moritz, winter holidays have a long pedigree. The resort’s social hub, the Gstaad Palace hotel, opened back in 1913, and in the Sixties and Seventies, the resort was the regular haunt of cinema luminaries such as Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, and James Bond star Roger Moore, while – for those lucky enough to have membership –the Eagle Ski Club remains one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants.
Nevertheless, Gstaad offers its devotees a considerably more relaxed style of winter holiday than they will find in Courchevel or St Moritz. Guests here take their cue from the pretty, forested landscapes of the Saane valley, and intersperse their skiing with atmospheric winter walks and plenty of revitalising spa time.
Gstaad’s lift system spreads over the mountains on both sides of the village, and unless you’re holidaying there over Christmas or New Year, the slopes are famously – and blissfully – uncrowded. This is the kind of resort where you can lean hard on the edges of your skis and make big, joyful turns across the full width of the piste without worrying about tangling with other skiers.
Bear in mind, however, that most of the slopes here are below 2,000m. If the weather is mild, jump in a taxi to the Col du Pillon and take the cable car to Les Diablerets – there, the pistes rise to an eye-watering 3,016m. Just be sure to save some time afterwards for Gstaad’s boutiques, because this is the kind of Alpine village where you find branches of Prada, Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren – and, of course, a Graff boutique.
So, will this connection between the Alpine winter and the rich and famous endure? “Yes, of course,” says Patrik Wiederkehr. “As long as the snow falls, people will always come to The Alps. Snow awakens a sense of wonder in everyone – whether they’re young or old – and a sense of fun too. It makes the mountains irresistible.”
Graff, Courchevel, Rue du Rocher Tel: +33 4 79 24 59 12