Courchevel skiing with cheery, egalitarian bunch taking on the might of a mountain
It may have a reputation as of the world's most high-end ski resorts but Courchevel has plenty on offer for Average Joe and George Clooney alike, writes Margaret Carragher
ORDINARILY, you wouldn't expect to find an airport crammed with private jets and helicopters in the middle of a ski resort – but then Courchevel is no ordinary ski resort.
Located high in the French Alps, this custom-built winter holiday hub has, since its inception in 1946, been garnering superlatives, with more deluxe hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, upscale boutiques, A-list patrons and designer-clad pooches per square inch than anywhere else in Europe.
Then there's the jeroboams of vintage Dom Perignon Champagne retailing at upwards of £4,000 and flowing like water in the resort's most salubrious nightclubs and bars; and diamond dealers as plentiful as ski hire shops along its heated pavements.
Thankfully though, such exclusivity does not preclude your average Joe, as evidenced by our presence there in Ingham's Chalet Hotel Les Anemones last March.
Our early morning flight out of Belfast International Airport and speedy transfer from Geneva had us there in time for afternoon tea – a veritable feast of home-made soup, cakes and savouries served in the bar where, happily for the good man, the Ireland v England Grand Slam was in full swing. And oh, the unifying force of sport: despite the fact that we were among the few non-Brits in the place, and despite the outcome (we won hands down) we were all best buddies by the final whistle.
Time then to get our bearings and rejoice in our location; wedged neatly between luxury goods behemoths Bvlgari and Louis Vuitton and just seconds from the slopes and all three bubble lifts, Les Anemones simply couldn't be closer to the action.
Indeed, given its relative modesty and affordability, we initially found it hard to credit how the place could command such a position. But as we were soon to discover, Les Anemones punches way above its weight with immaculately maintained accommodation; complimentary tea and coffee on tap; a lively little bar with family-friendly entertainment such as quiz nights; complimentary pre-dinner prosecco and canapés, and top-class cuisine with lashings of excellent, free-flowing dinner wine.
Then there's the dynamic created by disparate groups of people being moved around like chess pieces by chalet hosts skilled in the art of promoting lively discourse around a dinner table. Not to mention the chalet hosts themselves, as fine a bunch of hospitality professionals as I've ever encountered, many of whom, as evidenced by their accolades on Tripadvisor (Charlie, Ali and Josh... you know who you are) have been there for several seasons. So: no secret to Les Anemones' success.
Nor indeed to that of Courchevel itself which, together with its neighbouring resorts of Meribel, Val Thorens and La Tania comprise the largest ski area in the world. Extending to over 104 kms (40 square miles) Les Trois Vallees feature a total of 335 runs over 600 km ( 370 miles); 183 high-performance lifts; 2,300 snow cannons; 424 ski patrollers and 3,000 ski instructors. Then there's the constellation of 19 Michelin-starred restaurants, 12 of which twinkle in Courchevel alone, making it quite the starriest ski resort on Planet Earth.
Moreover, as many of these epicurean delights are located in hotels – albeit of the awfully posh five-star variety – one is free to wander into their lobbies for a bit of discreet rubber-necking. Recent A-list visitors include the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (who flew in on a private plane borrowed from the Duke of Westminster); the King of Morocco and assorted Saudi royals; Beyonce, Giorgio Armani, Robbie Williams, and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich (who allegedly wanted to buy the place); and of course, the ubiquitous Beckhams.
However, we didn't see any of them. Or maybe we did. Because even the twinkliest superstars look pretty much like the rest of us when they're suited and booted for the slopes. Add helmets and reflective goggles and you could be sharing a chair lift with George Clooney (another regular) and not even know it.
Where else would you get such social inclusivity? Mountains are a great leveller and lineage counts for little when you're rooted to the spot on a cliff edge that moments earlier seemed no more than a baby slope. I once mistakenly veered on to an almost vertical black run where I stood frozen with fright until an awfully nice chap came along and gently coaxed me, inch by terrifying inch, to safety.
Turns out he was related to the queen – or so he said. And that's one of the great things about this type of holiday; not so much sharing the slopes with the Awfully-Awfullys as being part of a cheery, egalitarian bunch taking on the might of a mountain.
As perennial wusses we stuck to Courchevel's intermediate runs, many of which converge on a viewpoint overlooking its famous airport. Accessible only via a narrow Alpine valley, its runway is among the world's shortest at just 537 metres (1,762 ft) with a gradient of 18.6 and a sphincter-loosening vertical drop at the end.
Having featured in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies (not to mention several hair-raising You Tube videos) Courchevel's airport ranks high on The History Channel's list of the world's most extreme airports.
And as private jets swoop in and out it's hard to imagine that this resort was originally conceived by two local men interned in a Nazi prisoner of war camp as a means to create much-needed employment in its vast and remote reaches, and provide a bit of diversion for the community.
Indeed, much as the resort's marketeers value its wealthy clientele for raising standards and attracting events and services that might otherwise not exist, they are keen to point out that it's not all about top notch luxury. According to tourism manager Nathalie Faure Bernoud you can buy Coca-Cola cheaper in its smart Verdons restaurant than in McDonalds.
And our one dining out experience, on the chalet staff's day off, cost us less than €50 (approx £44) for a delicious meal and two glasses of wine in the resort's celebrated Neuf Neuf restaurant. AND there's a Spar shop doing no end of business in the place. Courchevel – keeping it real.
:: Margaret was a guest of Inghams. Inghams offers a seven-night holiday on a catered basis at the four-diamond Chalet Hotel Les Anemones in Courchevel, France, from £857 per person based on two sharing in January 2019. Price includes return flights from Belfast and airport transfers. Lift passes, equipment hire and tuition can be pre-booked through Inghams. To book, visit inghams.co.uk/ski-holidays or call 01483 791 114.
:: In 2014 Inghams celebrated its 80th year and the brand continues to pride itself on being among the UK's most experienced specialist tour operators featuring a wide range of award-winning holidays. It offers winter holidays to over 90 resorts in eight countries, with flights from 21 UK regional airports.It also has a popular Lakes & Mountains summer holiday programme to many European destinations.