My skiing history is littered with disasters. Aside from the general humiliation of ski school (I was a late beginner) and six-year olds whizzing past my inept snow-plough, there was the pot-head ski instructor at Chamonix who introduced a nervous novice to black runs; ill-advised heli-skiing with friends who were just too good for me; a husband terrified of ski lifts in the Tyrol; and a general dread of height and speed. Ski boots hurt and the clothes are unflattering unless you are of Kate Middleton proportions. I tried langlauf – the cross-country version – with a vague idea of Edwardians in tweed jackets, but how wrong I was: it’s all bulging thighs, purple lycra and the same aggression as demon snowboarders.
It was with a huge sigh of relief that I finally gave up skiing. Ski Sunday on the telly and the Winter Olympics would do very nicely. What could possibly entice me back?
The answer, it seems, is a mixture of curiosity and greed. I was intrigued that LVMH had launched a small elite hotel in the French Alps that is only open from mid-December to early April. It has been named Cheval Blanc, after the exclusive red Bordeaux wine label that LVMH took over in 1998, and one of my favourite chefs, Paris-based Yannick Alléno, is in the kitchen. The hotel is in Courchevel 1850 – a magnet for the rich in winter – and the restaurant already has notched up two Michelin stars. The opportunity to visit was simply too good to miss.
I tried langlauf – the cross-country version – with a vague idea of Edwardians in tweed jackets, but how wrong I was: it’s all bulging thighs, purple lycra and the same aggression as demon snowboarders
In a top-of-the-range white Mercedes, the two-hour journey from Geneva airport passes in a flash. At Courchevel we speed through resorts on the lower levels (1300, 1550, 1650 metres) and climb up to the rarefied air of 1850, with its super-deluxe chalets and hotels. Cheval Blanc fits right in with traditional rustic architecture: pitched roofs heavy with snow, stone chimneys and mustard-coloured walls contrasting with carved wooden balconies.
Only a discreet plaque with Cheval Blanc’s prancing horse logo indicates that I’ve arrived – and then wow: there’s a vast, gleaming, mirrored horse, partly invisible because it reflects the snow, standing guard at the entrance. It’s the Trojan Horse by Bruno Peinado, a clever take on the ancient legend, and it’s stunning, so brave and modern amongst the Alpine kitsch.Preview
This sets the tone for what I find inside. The hotel feels like an art project, superbly realised with taste and wit and affection. There’s a huge amount of original modern work throughout the hotel by artists, photographers and designers including Andreas Gursky, Takashi Murakami, Karl Lagerfeld, Ettore Sottsass and India Mahdavi, and the vast snow scenes of Walter Niedermayr with their tiny colourful figures are a cheerful leitmotif throughout the hotel. It’s not self-conscious or self-important, it just feels natural – and very beautiful.
Sybille de Margerie has designed the interiors using rich textiles, leather, fur, velvet, wool and earthy colours. There are just 36 rooms and suites, and my bedroom is a cheerful mix of traditional and modern with silk curtains, cowhide upholstery, faux fur and beaten leather. My artwork tally includes an eccentric chair by Gilles Hoang (for looking not sitting) and a natural wood sculpture by Gilles Caffier.
So what’s outside my cosy lair? The balcony looks out over Christmas trees dusted with snow and huge icicles cascading from the roof – absurdly picturesque.
But more appealing is the hotel lobby, where a small shop has the latest Louis Vuitton holiday essentials (mink gilet anyone?), and the bar is a warm huddle of après-skiers tucking into hot chocolate and a mountain of cakes.
Ignoring the appeal of carbs overload, I check out the boot room and immediately fall in love with a chic monochrome ski suit with face-framing white fur collar, until I remember that I don’t ski. All around, sturdy men are cleaning and preparing equipment and booking private lessons for Cheval Blanc’s pampered guests. Courchevel 1850 has an astonishing 650 ski instructors speaking a dozen languages and many visitors will luxuriously employ an instructor for every member of their group. Apparently Mr Arnault has for years had the same ski instructor – who’s even allowed to address the great man as “Bernard”.
The high point of my day is dinner at 1947, the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant where Yannick Alléno has achieved two Michelin stars for Cuisine Moderne, his imaginative reworking of classic French cooking. This is the chef who maintained three stars at Le Meurice in Paris while at the same time writing a best-selling book on the food of the French capital and opening a fashionable new bistro concept, Terroir Parisien. The first is in the 5th arrondisement, the old Latin Quarter and, in November 2013, a second opened in the swanky business district, Place de la Bourse.
Unlike some high-profile chefs who seem more interested in the chemistry of food rather than enjoyment, Alléno understands that whatever whimsy and cleverness his cooking can provide, at some point in the meal customers want “real food”, that sink-your-teeth-into-it moment. “Like all middle class Frenchmen,” he says, “I believe all meals need a real plat”, or main course. Hurrah for that.
The restaurant, which seats just 25, is named after the legendary 1947 vintage of Cheval Blanc – but that’s the only nod to history. Everything else is hyper-futuristic, creamy white and curved like a space/time continuum, with a huge pierced shell within the leather-clad room, etched glass screens, and banks of virgin snow beyond the windows. It makes you feel like you’re in a space-age igloo. There are huge lamps like industrial hoppers, chairs draped with white sheepskin, and waitresses in sleek Courrèges-style shifts that recall 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Apparently Mr Arnault has for years had the same ski instructor – who’s even allowed to address the great man as “Bernard”.
Each season, after six months of preparation, research and creation, Alléno devises multi-course tasting menus that are beautiful to look at, delicious to eat, and served with a great deal of balletic theatre. He wants to discover the true nature of flavour, and his menu is pure gastro-porn: corn extraction with fine gold glitter; milky essence of cod and capers; beef tartare in aspic, seaweed cushion and oyster snow; a fragrant broth of fish and morel mushroom; pigeon fricassée with black truffle and juniper berries; pear roasted in a cocoa pod and pear liqueur transformed into a candy. These delicate intricacies of taste and presentation are brought to a close with an infusion of mountain herbs (foraged of course) along with a sweet mouthful imbued with rosé champagne.
Access to the best wines and champagnes is a secret weapon at 1947 and the kitchen has found new ways of wine and food pairing, using the great names in Moët Hennessy’s stable. The chef blends the components of winemaking with the ingredients used in cooking such as a loin of veal marinated in barrels from Château d’Yquem and cooked using chalk from the Ruinart quarries, while vegetables may be fermented in vine leaves from Krug’s Clos du Mesnil. It’s a brilliant but playful exploration.
Needless to say, the wine list at 1947 is amazing. Whatever you want – and can afford – they will have it, but it’s reassuring that the sommeliers treat those of us on Planet Normal with the same respect as those in the parallel universe of High Net Worth.
Of course you won’t eat in 1947 every day – it’s a place for very special occasions – but that’s no hardship. The main restaurant, Le White, is a large, bright room decorated in tones of cream and beige, with a coffered ceiling in warm bronze and elegant drifts of flowers in tall vases. A baby highchair in walnut and cowhide brings a touch of class to an everyday object. Le White overlooks the ski runs, so there’s a constantly moving frieze of lifts and skiers threading their way past the snowy pine trees. The food here, again under the supervision of Alléno, is elegantly modern, appealing to all tastes. There may be oysters or sea bass tartare with seaweed, a simple burrata and tomatoes with basil, Dublin Bay prawn ravioli, fillet of John Dory with colonnata, confit shoulder of lamb or a vast Black Angus rib eye steak served with sauce Béarnaise. For a real taste of Savoy, perch at the long sharing table for local sausage, ham and cheese fondue along with local wines and deliciously moreish bread.
Inspired by the skiers outside clearly having the time of their lives, I decide that a walk in the snow trumps the lure of the Guerlain spa and so – kitted out with boots, snow shoes and a gnarled local guide – I head out into the mountains. It’s a terrible mistake. He leads me across pistes full of suicidal downhill racers, across ice fields and into forests where hidden tree roots tip me into a snowdrift. It’s utterly hilarious for the guide, who clearly thinks that wimpy non-skiers are fair game. I limp back to the hotel, exhausted but elated at still being alive. Some pampering treatments in the spa (they don’t list anything for wounded pride, alas) and a decent cocktail in the bar restore my amour-propre. While I love the mountains my reputation as a failure remains intact. I will never be a skier but, if you’re travelling with friends who are, choose a hotel with the delights and distractions of Cheval Blanc and you’ll never feel left out. C
Cheval Blanc, Jardin Alpin, 73120 Courchevel, France
+33 4 79 00 50 50; chevalblanc.com
Cheval Blanc, Courchevel is the first of a small luxury hotel group under the LVMH banner. A luxurious new resort, Cheval Blanc, Randheli opened 15th November 2013 in the Maldives and there are plans for Paris where the landmark building La Samaritaine will be transformed into a city hotel.