The height of luxury
Few other phrases so efficiently lower a traveller's expectations. Hasty construction, soulless architecture, forgettable food. Think of beige, down-trodden labourers and a million balconies offering the same views, hanging out the front of the same bland, uncarpeted rooms.
And yet it's a purpose-built resort that is one of the world's most glamorous destinations. In fact, when it comes to winter sports, nowhere is more exclusive or expensive than Courchevel. Located in the Savoie region of the French Alps it has evolved to be synonymous with fabulously wealthy clientele, gaudy excess and piles of money bigger than the mountain on which it was built.
The new five-star hotel L'Apogee has just opened, bringing the number of top-rated properties to 16. However, the French have a grading beyond this - the palace. Only eight properties around the country have been deemed luxurious enough to earn this title and Courchevel has two of them - that's two more than any other ski resort in France.
There are eight Michelin-starred restaurants here, five of which have two stars, including a couple associated with Parisian masters Pierre Gagnaire and Yannick Alleno. There are tales of Russian billionaires skiing into bars and buying them, haggling, if you can call it that, by bidding in increments of €5 million ($8 million) until the owner relents somewhere around the fourth one. Within days, they had a newly acquired €20 million ($33 million) property bulldozed and replaced with a private villa.
In most of the world's other ski resorts, stories like this would seem apocryphal, but not in Courchevel. These are the slopes of choice for everyone from Prince William and Kate, to Vladimir Putin, to Christina Aguilera. It's the association with celebrity that partially explains how Courchevel transformed from an almost communist ideal, a people's park, into the world's most exclusive, most expensive ski destination.
"Many people came here in the 1950s," says Emilie Meynet of Courchevel Tourisme (the fact the resort has its own tourist board speaks volumes).
"The ministers and presidents of France wanted to come here because it was new," she says.
"Later, people started buying chalets and it became more exclusive. In 1961 they created the first altiport. It allowed people with private planes to come here; by the end of the '60s, regional airlines allowed everyone to come to Courchevel."
Courchevel's airport is quite obviously the work of a madman. Or an action-movie fanatic. While both are plausible, the latter seems more likely - as it was used as the setting for a Bond movie opening sequence in Goldeneye. No commercial airlines fly here these days, just the private jets, often flown in by the wealthy guests themselves when a very narrow set of climactic conditions allow.
It was never meant to be like this. The primary driving force of the development, Laurent Chappis, hoped Courchevel would, in its own way, offer a tonic to the horror of war. He had plenty of time to think about his motives, having spent five years in an Austrian prisoner of war camp.
When I first read of him, I imagined Chappis sitting on a dusty floor, emaciated and malnourished, staring out beyond the prison walls to the mountains. Staring and imagining a brighter future, one in which people, free from oppression and squalor, had the time and resources for forgotten concepts such as leisure. But, while five years as a prisoner of war is nothing to be dismissed, it clearly wasn't as oppressive as other camps - Chappis was not only able to hatch the plan for Courchevel, he completed his doctorate while incarcerated. Within months of being released, he was in the mountains, making ready to change them forever.
"Just after the war, many people came to the valley to work but they didn't stay in the mountains because the life was very difficult," Meynet says.
"Until World War II, for many people living here the only income was from the sale of cheese. Afterwards, they decided to build the first ski resort in a virgin site to attract people back to the mountains."
They started with a bare mountain which allowed the early planners to build perfect runs, then construct their resort around them. It's a big part of why so many Courchevel properties today have the luxury of being ski-in, ski-out. The lifts could be built without concessions to locals - no one was there to make any complaints.
The lifts actually start in La Praz, 500 metres below the most expensive part of the resort, but from there, tourists can access all villages and runs. While there are different prices in each of the mountain settlements, it's generally true to say that the lower you go, the cheaper it becomes.
Until 2011, the villages were referred to by their altitudes, starting with Courchevel 1300 and peaking at 1850, the most luxurious of all (even though it's actually located about 1780 metres above sea level). The tourist board says the names were changed to La Praz, Courchevel Village, Courchevel Moriond and simply Courchevel in order to remove any fears people may have about the imposing altitudes, even though altitude sickness would not play a part unless you were much higher.
In any case, the names were changed and at the top of the mountain things have only become more and more expensive.
I ask Salome Abrial, also of Courchevel Tourisme, if she's noticed much change through the financial turmoil of the past five years.
"The crisis in Courchevel, it is ..." she trails off, wobbling her hand in front of me with a doubtful look on her face.
"It was a small crisis?" I offer. "Yes, exactly," she replies.
"There have been problems in France and in other countries, but for the people who come here on holidays? Not a lot."
The clearest example of just how recession-proof Courchevel has been comes in the form of a white horse. Le Cheval Blanc is one of Courchevel's official palaces (Les Airelles is the other) and undoubtedly one of the most opulent hotels in Europe. It's the kind of place to make a shambling travel writer feel intimidated when walking through its grand doors; a hotel where the staff are so beautiful it's hard to meet their eye.
Owned by the billionaire Bernard Arnault, it is home to a two-star Michelin restaurant, a Dior boutique and a penthouse that costs a cool €30,000 ($49,960) a night. Last season that suite ran at around 90 per cent occupancy. In a town of high-end excess, there aren't many places to go beyond Le Cheval Blanc.
Yet all of the bells and whistles wouldn't count for much if the skiing wasn't world class. That's arguably the greatest benefit of purpose-building this resort, rather than letting it evolve over time.
There are 150 kilometres of runs for people of all abilities and ages. Or almost everyone. I have a head that's slightly too large, feet that are slightly too small, an old knee injury and subsequently a pretty dreadful sense of balance.
I can, however, go sledding. Even that seems near perfect in Courchevel, with slaloming runs that send me hurtling between trees and around hairpin bends. I can't stop giggling during each frenetic 20-minute run.
Then I take one corner too sharply and fly off a small cliff, perhaps a 3 metre drop into powdery snow.
And as I'm flying through the air into the great white beyond, it dawns on me that maybe it's not worth analysing what Courchevel was and what it has become too closely. Maybe, it's simply the most expensive because it's the best - and maybe that's OK.
The writer travelled courtesy of Courchevel Tourisme.
GETTING THERE Fly to Doha (about 14hr) and then Geneva (7hr 10min). See qatarairways.com.
This fare allows you to fly via another Asian city to Doha and to fly back from another European city. Courcheval is 149 kilometres by road from Geneva, from where you can hire a car, take a bus or train to Moutiers and then a bus or taxi to Courcheval, a distance of just under 25 kilometres.
STAYING THERE In terms of altitude, there isn't much beyond the five-star La Sivoliere, a gorgeous alpine retreat in what was Courchevel 1850. Doubles start from about $831 bed and breakfast, with a minimum booking of two nights.
DINING THERE There is no shortage of dining options in Courchevel, from truffle specialists to fondue fountains, but you may as well try for a table at the eponymous restaurant in L'Hotel Le Strato. It comfortably justifies its two-Michelin star rating.
MORE INFORMATION courchevel.com
FIVE MONEY-SAVING IDEAS
SHARE THE FUN You immediately start to save money the further down the mountain you look, but if you want to save money at the very top, then Courcheneige offers all-inclusive weeks from around $3195 based on two sharing. See courcheneige.com.
MATES' RATES The Pass Duo offers access to the slopes at a reduced rate for a couple in the resort for six days or more. Best of all, you don't even have to be a legitimate couple - simply find a friend to share the cost. See courchevel.com.
TOOTIN'-SCOOTIN' If you need to entertain the kids for a reasonable price, snow-scooters are also available, from just $42 on selected days of the week.
TASTY PRICES Eating for a reasonable price is a big challenge - even the small in-resort supermarkets aren't cheap. However, Hotel Tournier, in the heart of Courchevel, offers lunch menus from just $15. And if you head down the mountain to Le Praz, restaurant Azimut offers lunch from under $45 - great value for a restaurant with a Michelin star. See aubergedelapoutre.com.
Sydney Morning Herald