Les Trois Vallées is the world's biggest ski area and Courchevel 1850 is its richest resort. Here, Russian oligarchs and Michelin-starred restaurants are two a penny – but a beer can cost you €18
Courchevel 1850 has all the natural wealth of Les Trois Vallées at its disposal, and a good deal of unnatural wealth besides. This glamorous, purpose-built resort has become the ski destination of choice for the nouveau-riche – and then some. As you sit in Le Cap Horn restaurant, watching the Lear jets and helicopters fly oligarchs into the altiport, it's clear that Courchevel 1850 is the place that people "want to be seen to be seen in". Nowadays, even the snow there looks expensive.
In people-watching terms, nothing much surprises in Courchevel 1850 any more. Doesn't that guy having lunch at the next table look like Vladimir Putin? Yes – because it is Vladimir Putin. The same might apply to the Roman Abramovitch lookalike standing at the bar. "Has there been some mistake with the bill?" you ask the barman. "Non, monsieur, €18 for a pint of Guinness is correct."
Throughout the Three Valleys region, it's no longer the case that the Russians are coming; they have well and truly arrived – and to emphasise the point further, many of the road signs are now written in both French and Russian. We Brits still have a stronghold in the other two major resorts nearby – Méribel and Val Thorens – but super-stylish Courchevel 1850 has truly become a winter playground for the Muskovite Millionares. That is especially so in January, when Russian bookings peak .
Courchevel village is awash with stylish wooden chalet-style buildings – especially in Jardin Alpin, the wooded area just above the compact village centre. Horse-drawn sleighs add to the ambience. Exclusive art galleries and boutiques cater for well-heeled visitors while Le Forum, in the village centre, is a multi-level complex with shops, cafés, an ice rink, a climbing wall and a bowling alley.
Emblematic of the international jet set is the altiport, located next to the Pralong piste. Just watching the Lear jets take off and land is hair-raising enough, since this is probably the hardest airport in the world to negotiate. High winds and the narrow valley terrain make any approach hazardous, after which the pilot has just 1,700ft in which to pull up – and on a steep gradient at that. The cliff face at the end of the runway acts as an extreme motivator to get this right…
The vast Trois Vallées ("Three Valleys") ski area can be accessed from Courchevel 1850 plus eight other resorts: Courchevel 1300 ("Le Praz"), 1400 ("La Tania"), 1550 and 1650, plus Méribel (the most central), Les Menuires, St Martin de Belleville and Val Thorens. Please note that the piste maps all show Courchevel as being the most westerly when in fact it is the most easterly. The piste maps are back to front!
The main lift station in 1850 – La Croisette – houses the tourist office and is where the télécabine arrives from Courchevel 1550. It is also the main route up the mountain to link into the other two valleys, taking just 20 minutes or so to convey skiers from La Tania in the Courchevel Valley to Méribel in the middle valley. This demonstrates just how good the lift system is, and how easy it is to access the entire Three Valleys piste.
For tame runs, the nurseries at Pralong (next to the altiport) are best. The long, green Bellcôte run (take the Jardin Alpin télécabine) lets beginners find their ski legs before enjoying a vast choice of long cruising blues. Piste grooming is of a very high standard.
The Three Valleys provide the best intermediate skiing and boarding in the world, with something to suit everybody. Because the lift system is so good and the links between valleys easy, moderate intermediates can make full use of the full area lift pass and ski into Méribel before heading over to Val Thorens. Leave plenty of time to return after lunch; it's an expensive taxi back if you have to drive round the mountains. Timid intermediates will enjoy the easy cruising slopes of Pyramides and Grand Bosses (above 1650) and the Biollay run above Le Jardin Alpin. There are high, open pistes above the tree line, as well as lovely scenic wooded runs such as Folyères and Moretta Blanche down to La Tania. The reds of 1650 (Bel Air, Chapelets, Rochers) are lovely, quiet tree-lined runs. Another great red is Boul Blanc, taking you down into La Tania.
There are a few challenging runs to set the pulse racing, including Suisses (below).
Three favourite runs
Combe Saulire (red) Take the Verdons télécabine to the Saulire cable car which takes you up to the top of Saulire itself (2,738m), then descend via this exhilarating red. It is best skied before lunch, when it is still well-groomed and before it becomes congested. This is a great warm-up for the day ahead. (Take the cable car back up to try these two reds: Creux Haut and the slightly tougher Marmottes. They are longer descents down to the Chanrossa chair and over to the lovely tree-lined – and quieter – slopes of 1650.)
Col De La Loze (blue/green) Take the Chenus télécabine from the main La Croisette lift station to the top at 2,243m. Then enjoy the beautiful long cruise through the pines right down to the little hamlet of La Tania at 1,400m.
Suisses (black) This seriously steep and challenging descent is usually traffic-free (I wonder why). At the foot of its descent, it passes close to the altiport at Pralong – so why not stop for lunch at Le Cap Horn restaurant (see The Dining, below)… because you know you’re worth it.
COURCHEVEL 1850 AT A GLANCE
Number of lifts 198
Highest lift 3,200m
Lowest lift 1,300m
Altitude of village 1,850m
Number of slopes 275
Number of runs 644
(103 green, 221 blue, 243 red, 77 black)
Total piste length 600km (entire Three Valleys)
Beginner pistes 54 per cent
Intermediate pistes 35 per cent
Expert pistes 11 per cent
Longest run 5km
Cross country 120km
Pros and cons
Extensive, superbly groomed slopes for all abilities
Excellent lift system
Ski to door
Varied villages to suit different budgets
Becoming an unrealistic choice, a ghetto for the rich
Centres are not traffic-free
Villages lack charm
High prices (at Courchevel 1850)
Après-ski mainly in 1850 – and expensive
If dialling from the UK, prefix all telephone numbers below with 00 33 and omit the first zero. RR indicates reservation recommended.
Excellent (and very expensive) mountain restaurants are not in short supply, as might be expected of a resort with such wealthy and celebrated guests. However, there are good-value choices here as well. Good self-service places are easy to find; the choices listed here are all table service.
Le Cap Horn (04 79 08 33 10) RR Located near the altiport, just off the Pralong piste, this is the place for people-watching: stop off for a drink, sit on the terrace, listen to the DJ and watch the soap opera unfold. If you want to eat, bring your credit card! Always an expensive treat, Le Cap Horn now caters to the Russian elite, meaning some wines on the menu cost more than €9,000.
Le Pilatus (04 79 08 20 49 ) RR Situated just below Le Cap Horn, by the altiport, this place has a large sunny terrace and excellent food – a sensible, cheaper alternative to the above.
Bel Air (04 79 08 00 93) RR Located at the top of the 1650 télécabine – or ski down the Col de Chanrossa to build up an appetite for the fine Savoyard cuisine, accompanied by friendly service. Great value and splendid views.
La Soucoupe (04 79 08 21 34) RR This renowned restaurant, at the top of the Col de la Loze lift on the run down to La Tania, offers both self-service and table service. Excellent food and great value.
Chalet de Pierres (04 79 08 18 61) RR Ski down the Verdons pistes to Le Jardin Alpin to sample the renowned – and pricey – fine cuisine in a lovely setting.
Le Panoramic (04 79 08 00 88) The aptly-named Le Panoramic is located right at the top of the Saulire cable car. Courchevel's highest restaurant offers superb top-of-the-mountain views. The upstairs floor serves super Savoyard cuisine.
Kalico (04 79 08 20 28) Located at Le Forum, this ski-in bar-restaurant-club is always lively from lunchtime onwards and attracts a young crowd. Serves Tex/Mex food, open until 4am.
Here's a top tip: hotels on the piste are often overlooked, but they offer ski-to-door and often have lunchtime specials to enjoy on their sunny terraces. These restaurants would be seriously expensive to book for an evening meal, but they can work out cheaper at lunchtime than the regular mountain restaurants. Some of the most highly recommended are:
Hôtel Les Grandes Alpes (0479 08 03 35) At the end of Bellcôte, back at the village, this is worth considering as both a mountain pit-stop and an evening choice. It has a great-value gourmet lunch buffet (prepared by a Michelin-rated chef) and a sunny outdoor terrace.
Hôtel Kilimandjaro (04 79 01 14 646) The Michelin-starred restaurant at this fabulous boutique hotel, at the foot of the Pralong piste, also has a wonderful terrace.
Le Hôtel Melezin (04 79 08 0133) For a delicious Thai lunch, try the excellent restaurant here – located on the Bellcôte piste. It also has a sunny terrace.
Rated the best for food among all the French ski resorts, Courchevel 1850 boasts two restaurants with two Michelin stars each (2*M). Reservations are recommended for all the restaurants in this section.
Le Bateau Ivre (04 79 08 38 72, www.pommedepin) 2*M Occupying the top floor of Hôtel Pomme de Pin, on rue des Chenus, this place overlooks the village and slopes. It serves inspired cooking in a lovely setting. €100-190 per person. Service noon-2pm and 7pm-10pm.
Le Chabichou (04 79 08 00 55, www.chabichou-courchevel.com) 2*M On the second floor of the Hôtel Chabichou, again on rue des Chenus, this is the place to go for inventive modern French cooking. Choose between the main and private dining rooms, offering nice views of the slopes. €100-190 per person – or try the fixed-price lunch for about €45.
Chalet des Pierres (04 79 08 18 61, www.chaletdepierres.com) Serving Savoyard cuisine, this restaurant is right on the Piste Verdons slope (Jardin Alpin), just above the centre. Superb for lunch (and dinner), with blazing fireplaces and meat cooking above them. Splendid!
La Bergerie (04 79 08 24 70, www.restaurant-courchevel.net) Right of the Bellcote piste, La Bergerie serves lovely food. Recommended for both lunch and dinner. Evening meals are often themed – on Fridays, for instance, it's Russian night with live music. No wonder Vladimir Putin has been spotted eating here…
Best for village atmosphere
Chapelle (04 79 08 03 27) on rue Park City. This cosy little place has open fires with meat cooking over them. Traditional, rustic.
La Cloche (04 79 08 31 30) on place du Rocher. Small, and serving traditional Savoyard cuisine, La Cloche offers excellent service. Its sun terrace is great for lunch. One of my favourites.
Saulire – aka Jacque's (04 79 08 0752) Next to La Cloche, this place is again cosy and welcoming, serving lovely Savoyard food. Highly recommended, good-value – so book early.
Via Ferrata (04 79 08 02 07) on La Porte de Courchevel. Quality Italian food, including pizzas, served in a great atmosphere. French wine, excellent value.
La Cendrée (04 79 08 0896) on Le Maroly. Traditional Italian menu, great Italian wines
Le Grand Café (04 79 08 3838) Located under the Hôtel St Joseph, this place serves wonderful Asian food. Recommended, another personal favourite.
Courchevel 1850 has everything from pubs, bars and discos to Michelin-starred restaurants.
Le Kalico (04 79 08 20 28) Situated right on the piste, at the foot of Le Forum complex, this lively spot turns into a disco later on – and the drink prices rise! Open until 4am.
Best of British
Hotel Catina – aka TJ's Bar Popular with Brits and resort workers, so prices are not stratospheric. Attracts a young crowd – and snowboarders.
Isba Bar Ground-floor bar in Chalet Isba. Cheap but cheerful.
Gringo Underneath the Hôtel Auberge. A firm favourite with resort staff, it does flavoured vodka shots for just €1.5.
Jump At the foot of the slopes, this British-run place gets packed. Sky TV, cheap pub grub.
L'Equipe (www.barlequipe.com) In the town centre, opposite TJ's, this place has an open log fire and does food ranging from breakfasts to evening dinners. Sky TV and free W-Fi are among the perks.
S'no Limit Next door to Jump – and just as lively.
Mangeoire A restaurant that becomes a disco. Book a table, then dance off the calories.
Milk Pub This underground venue on the Forum road is great for live music.
Purple Café (at the entrance to 1850) does techno and cocktails from 6pm-2am.
Locamotive This replica of a Paris brasserie, on place Le Forum, does good food and is nice and relaxed.
Le Piggys Located next to the cinema below La Croisette, this piano bar is relaxed – but expensive. Fancy a pint of Guinness for €18?
Potinière This cheap, lively French bar is frequented by locals – and priced more realistically as a result. Satellite TV is available here.
Hotel Olympique This nice, friendly little bar is totally unpretentious – a refreshing change in 1850.
Prends Ta Luge et Tire-toi Located in Le Forum complex, this is a cool-dudes sort of place. Buy some gear, send emails, have a drink and hang out…
There are two glamorous nightclubs in 1850. Expect drinks to average €18 a pop – a sobering thought!
Les Caves (04 79 08 12 74) on Portes de Courchevel.
La Granges (04 79 08 14 61) on rue Park City.
In France, hotel ratings do not generally go up to five-star – so a four-star deluxe is the equivalent. Most four-star hotels in 1850 offer a five-star experience – and all are ski-to-door. Here are 10 of the very best:
Hôtel Le Lana Located to the the right of the home run Bellcôte, so ideal for the village centre (one minute away) but also on the slopes. Traditional luxury; elegant and stylish; rooms newly refurbished.
Les Airelles Opulent and super-swanky hotel at Le Jardin Alpin, just above the village. Deluxe is an understatement.
Le Kilimandjaro Lavishly appointed boutique hotel, above the resort on the Pralong slopes (with a shuttle bus into village). Unique, stylish chalets are linked around a fabulous pool and spa. Very exclusive and expensive.
Byblos Renowned luxury hotel, again at Le Jardin Alpin. Has two excellent restaurants.
Le Mélézin Like Le Lana, near the end of the Bellecôte run – so ideally located for the slopes and village. Super-stylish, with friendly staff and superb gastronomy. One of the best!
Les Grande Alpes Recently upgraded to four-star and worth the new rating, this is a firm favourite with Brits. Renowned cuisine, stylish décor and an enviable location.
Le Chabichou Quartier des Chenus. This delightful white chalet design overlooks the slopes but is only 150m from the centre. Has a famous restaurant with two Michelin stars (see The Dining, above).
Hôtel des Trois Vallées Charming family-run hotel, with superb bathrooms. On the piste, yet the village centre is just two minutes' walk away.
Le Carlina Lovely, intimate hotel on the Bellcôte piste, just 150m from La Croisette. Fine food and furnishings
La Sivolière Guests return again and again for the warmth, welcome and relaxation at this family-run hotel.
BA, BMI baby, Easyjet, Flybe and Swiss all fly from the UK to Geneva. BMI Baby, flybe, Jet2 and Thompsonfly all fly from the UK to Chambéry. The nearest airports are Courchevel altiport (above the resort), Geneva (149km), Lyon (180km) and Chambéry (110km). Buses and trains leave daily from Geneva airport, costing about €70 one-way or €115 return.
The nearest train station is Moutiers, 37km (or a 40-minute drive) away. Buses (approximately €25) and taxis (€90) are available from the station.
A weekend bus service connects the region with Lyon for about €90.
If driving, follow the signs to Chambéry and Albertville, then take the four-lane road to Moutiers and up to Les Trois Vallées.
Tourist office (04 79 08 00 29, email email@example.com).