Published in The Sunday Telegraph 2012
“The thing about these skills sessions,” says Andy, hunching his shoulders against the falling snow, “is that we have to adapt them to the conditions.” And conditions today are poor: blizzards and an insidious fog that crawls over our collars and down our necks. Visibility isn’t good enough to go off-piste as planned so instead we will be honing our skills on the mounds of virgin snow that billow across the pistes. With a muffled “let’s go”, Andy sets off and in an instant his bright green jacked has disappeared into the murk. So has everyone else.
Our three-hour skills session – which seemed a good idea last night, before itvstarted snowing – has been organised by our ski company, Powder White (www.powderwhite.com), in conjunction with a local British-run ski school called New Generation. The idea is that while many competent skiers don’t want a week’s worth of formal lessons, they could do with a few pointers to nudge them off their plateau and up to the next level. Sessions might cover new techniques for skiing off-piste, on moguls or on ice, carving properly or even freestyle; whatever guests feel would be of most benefit, depending, as Andy says, on the conditions.
Unfortunately, my group are all much stronger skiers and I struggle to keep up. Most of the time I can’t even see them, though I have their joyful powder whoops to guide me. We end our morning session with another session – at the Fire and Ice outdoor at the Portetta hotel. There’s nothing like an ice shot of framboise and Grey Goose, I discover, to cheer you up. Two are even better.
I’ve always thought of this resort as nothing more than the last marker on the road up to Courchevel 1850. But it seems that 1650 is actually the original Courchevel. 1850 was built on the Plateau des Tovets just after the Second World War. The planners decided it needed to be called something catchier, so they pinched the name of the hamlet below – Courchevel – and added its height for extra pizzazz (except that it’s actually at 1,747m, a good 100m lower than claimed).
1850 went on to become one of the most glamorous resorts in the Trois Vallées, while its (slightly) lower neighbour stayed very much in its shadow. But if you’re looking for something smaller, more low-key and, crucially, cheaper, with great skiing (you have access to the same ski area as you do in 1850), plus all the essential facilities (restaurants, bars, a stock of mid-range chalets, self-catering apartments and a couple of good hotels), 1650 is actually the better resort. You won’t be rubbing shoulders with Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires but if you miss them and the Michelin-starred restaurants, designer shops and glamour of its (slightly) higher neighbour, you can always hop on the free ski bus that runs between the two.
Alternatively, you could rent one of Le Portetta’s four beautifully done ski-in, ski-out lodges, just above the resort. I doubt you could find anything nicer in the whole of the Trois Valleés. Each has a housekeeper, a chef borrowed from the Michelin-starred Chabichou hotel in 1850, an outdoor hot tub, countless charming design touches – and a fabulous scented bootroom with cushions, slippers, little bottles of water, and baskets of L’Occitane lip balm, hand cream, and fun-sized chocolate bars.
Obviously, such luxury comes at a price but it’s still a good deal less than anything comparable in 1850. For shallower pockets there are plenty of cheaper chalets, to rent either on a catered or self-catered basis. Most are just below the resort, so rarely ski-in, ski-out, but you don’t have to mess about with a ski bus as there is a covered escalator that whisks skiers up what used to be nicknamed Cardiac Hill to the village and the lifts.
As for the skiing, there are 150km of pistes, predom-inantly blues and greens, served by 67 lifts, above the resort. Probably not enough to keep anyone but beginners happy for a whole week but it’s simple enough to get across to 1850 and on to Méribel and Val Thorens, weather permitting. Which, alas, it wasn’t during my visit in December when the blizzards only let up once or twice. Oh well. Less time on the slopes means more time for lunch. And when lunch is a delicious wood-fired pizza in the Fire and Ice bar, swaddled in a faux-fur blanket from the hotel, it’s hard to mind too much.
The best accommodation
Chalet Amelie ££
Simple but stylishly done, Amelie is my favourite Powder White chalet in 1650. It sleeps eight but can be rented with Antares next-door, which sleeps 6-7. The two chalets also share a wellness centre with a Jacuzzi and sauna. It’s a short walk from the escalators up to the village and the lifts (book through Powder White, as above).
Le Portetta, Lofts and Lodges £££
Mountain chic doesn’t get any better than this lovely ski-in, ski-out four-star hotel, part of the Lime Wood Group run by Robin Hutson and David Elton. It has 38 rooms and six duplex ‘lofts’, a gorgeous spa, stress-free ski room (with its own ski hire service), and cosy lounge with open fires (0479 080147; www.leportetta.com)
La Seizena £££
Owned by the same hotel company as the swanky Kilimandjaro and the new K2 up in Courchevel 1850, this three-star on the main street has an aviation theme, with bedrooms reminiscent of a first-class cabin (in décor rather than size). It has a buzzy bar and excellent location, opposite the escalator to the lifts (0033 479 082636; www.hotelseizena.com)
The best restaurants
Warm and cosy but lively, in the centre of the village, almost opposite the Ariondaz bubble lift. Classic Savoyarde restaurant serving fondue, reblochonnade and tartiflette from around €12 as well as very good pizzas from €12 (place du Marquis; 0479 011893).
Bar Le Schuss ££
Off the main street, opposite the tourist office. Excellent for a quiet drink (that is, it’s not a seasonnaire’s hang out) or to order a takeaway pizza. At the back, there’s a good restaurant serving mountain brasserie-type food from €12 (0479 078602).
Fire and Ice ££-£££
Sit (on a heated seat) at the slope-side bar, sink a shot or two before your ice glass melts, then order the best pizza in the Alps. Or you can eat in the brasserie next to the bar (0479 080147).