From the snow of Central Asia to the mountains of the French Alps – yes, still snow-covered, and looking magnificent in the spring sunshine. But the luxury ski resorts of Courchevel are all, already, closing. They only have a four-month season, says the gal (who got there, all the way up to Courchevel 1850, at 6,000 feet above sea level, just in time). It is a three-hour drive from Geneva, though some helicopter, others fly into Lyon, for a 90-minute drive, and others take private planes to Chambéry. But the drive was fascinating, along the non-stop villages of Lac Annecy and finally up, up, negotiating the steepest U-bends.
And there I was, finally, at Cheval Blanc, the glory that the owner of LVMH built – and not surprisingly the chalet has a prominent and beautiful Louis Vuitton store to the right of its main entrance. I am greeted by doormen dressed in theatrical alpine gear, tweed jackets with fur bits, and lederhosen and long socks. Greeters’ gear seems to be a distinguishing factor here at the top of Courchevel – the hotel next door has grown men incongruously clad in white sailors’ togs, as if straight from Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Here at the overgrown chalet that is the 36-room Le Cheval Blanc, I am, by the way, also greeted by a ten-foot mirrored sculpture of a giant horse (Le Cheval if not the Blanc). I go in through revolving doors, to a totally memorable lobby.
There is a real wood fire on the left, with blazing logs in a glass-sided double fireplace, warming both the lobby lounge behind and here, the lobby itself, where you can lounge in leather chairs looking through some of the cleverly-chosen books on the easy-reach shelves, tomes on, well, Christian Dior – there are fortunately a lot of brands in the LVMH stable. You can also admire, as do all newcomers, this amazing, full-sized crouching bear, covered in fuchsia feathers. It is by Milanese artist Paola Pivi, who now lives in Anchorage and only seems to produce bears, in a variety of poses. Presumably most of Alaska’s chickens run round bald these days.
Actually there are so many memorable points about my stay at Le Cheval Blanc. Take dinner in White, probably named because of the snow visible through 1.5 of the big square room’s walls, the missing half-wall being formed of a private-dining extension, with 12 fur-covered high chairs around a significant rectangular table. The ceiling above is flat, wood inset with open squares of what looks like back-lit marble. I start simply, magnificently, with a flamed truffle tart. It is exactly as described, but the taste is more so. It is sensational. Some would pair this with one of the two champagnes-by-glass available, Moët & Chandon 2004, or Dom Pérignon. Others would go to the Le Cheval Blanc wine list (there is also an ‘others’ wine list). How about a 1947 Magnum, at €127,000? There is a display of Le Cheval Blanc bottles in a vitrine next to a wall-set fire, this one log-look.
The meal continues, splendidly. A simple green salad comes with Pensanto oil, from Perugia. My sole is filleted table-side. I go on to what is called a contemporary vacherin with red berries and pine needle infusion. What will this be? I get what looks like a white tennis ball with silver leaves on top, and berries are carefully poured around. The tennis ball turns out to be meringue. I break it open, to find amazing dark-fruit sorbet inside, a eulogistic end to a perfect, but not filling meal. White, by the way, is described as the hotel’s ‘brasserie’. Le Cheval Blanc’s 1947 restaurant, with two Michelin stars and headed by Yannick Alléno, late of Le Meurice, is already closed for the summer, but it is difficult to imagine how it could have bettered this.
With the countdown already under way, the last Le Cheval Blanc junkies are making the most of every minute – with no minimum stay, which is rare in the Courchevel 1850 category, 75 percent of those who stay are repeats, with an average stay of seven nights. Evening-long, tonight, groups of regulars are sitting, drinking and talking in the lobby bar, the other side of that real-log fire. The pianist plays, for the last time, and I go upstairs to bed, to savour staying over in this memorable luxury hotel…