News from the snow
Le Praz France
Arguably France's most exclusive resort, well located at the eastern end of the world's largest truly inter-connected ski area (Trois Vallées) and with some of Europe's best on and off-slope in-frastructure, Courchevel would rate in the top 10 selection of resorts around the world for most dedicated skiers. Better known regulars include the Danish and Spanish royal families, Jean-Michel Jarre, Roman Polanski, President Giscard d'Estaing... Unsurprisingly Courchevel shares the reputation of St Moritz, Aspen or Lech for exclusivity and high prices but, equally unsurprisingly, the tourist board is keen to point out that it is possible to stay at and enjoy Courchevel 'on a budget'. Not a particularly attractive resort architecturally, the view from a distance gives little clue to the presence of exclusive boutiques, luxurious chalets and the wonderful restaurants serving dishes of high gastronomic calibre. The first winter tourists arrived in the valley in the 1930s, with the resort 'taking off' in terms of popularity in the late 1950s and the '60s, particularly with the opening of the Saulire cable car in 1950. Today Courchevel has its own special Charter which ensures hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses provide the best possible service and open as advertised throughout the season. The resort is made up of five different base stations, all self-contained villages and all known by their altitudes, (1300 which still calls itself Le Praz and the other authentic Savoyard village Saint Bon). The best known of the five, and the one on which the resort's reputation is based, is the highest and largest - Courchevel 1850.
Arguably France's most exclusive resort, well located in the world's largest truly inter-connected ski area (Trois Vallées) and with some of Europe's best infrastructure, Courchevel would rate in the top 10 selection of resorts around the world for most dedicated skiers. Better known regulars include the Danish and Spanish Royal families, Jean-Michel Jarre, Roman Polanski, President Giscard d'Estaing... Courchevel has it's own special Charter which ensures hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses provide the best possible service and open as advertised throughout the season. The resort is made up of four different base stations, all self-contained villages and all known by their altitudes, except for 1300 which still calls itself Le Praz. The best known is Courchevel 1850.
The Courchevel Valley, which is a part of the huge lift linked Trois Vallées ski circus, is itself divided in to five sec-tions, nominally at least - Loze, Biolley, Saulire, Tania and Moriond. Beginners will find long wide greens and blues above the resort, including the Jardin Alpin trail served by the gondola lift of the same name. Higher up the mountain green and blues include Plan Mugnier, Montagne Russe and The Pyramide run from the top of Roc Merlet which continue down to 1650 via the Indiens run. There are also 12 free drag lifts for beginners spread over the ski area, 7 of them at 1850 but a few each at the other levels also.
Intermediates will find probably the world's best selection of blue and red trails in the Courchevel Valley and the easily accessed additional terrain of the 3 Vallées, one of the best red runs is 'Park City', named after Courchevel's twin-resort in Utah. The runs from La Saulire are some of the most challenging, and it is here too that experts will discover some of Europe's most challenging couloirs - known as 'The Ugly Sisters' and graded black but in some cases nearly 'off the scale' in reality.
Experts have plenty besides to entertain in the Trois Vallées and around Courchevel in particular. Some of the best loved blacks in the valley in-clude the steep and mogul covered Jockeys or Jean Blanc. Another long black mogul run is accessed from the Chanrossa lift after the huge Les Creux bowl. Off piste opportunities are enormous and guides may take you to the empty expanses beneath Le Signal. Heliskiing is available through the Mountain Guides office, which is also your starting point for courses or tours in glacier skiing, off piste, powder and extreme.
Courchevel boasts one of the largest armies of ski and snowboarding instructors in the world, over 550 of them teaching all levels of all snow sports dis-ciplines and each able to speak a number of languages. The six ski schools include three branches of the ESF (Ecole du ski Français & Supreme Ski School) at 1850, 1650 and 1550. Most unusual is the Supreme Ski School which employs British ski instruc-tors who are qualified to both British and French standards and approved by the French Ministry of Youth and Sport.
There is a floodlit slope (open until 7pm nightly) above Courchevel 1650.
All the ski schools accept children, the most comprehensive cover being offered by the ESF in Courchevel 1850 where the Snow Garden has beginners rope tows, bubble cars and larger than life cartoon characters. Children from age 3 to 12 are accepted between 9am and 7pm. 'Children Central' is Le Village des Enfants, where 3 hectares of terrain have been given over to ski slopes for children in total safety.
ESF at 1650 operates more limited hours (no lunch cover) whilst ESF 1550 has two ski kindergartens for children aged 4 to 6 and 6 to 7 who are also beginners or near beginners. Both have rope tows outside and play equipment inside but children need to bring their own lunches as they are not provided.
For Italian food try La Cendrée or La via Ferrata and for seafood Le Tremplin. La Bergerie stages a Russian Party evening every Friday complete with Russian orchestra. 1650 and 1550 have half a dozen establishments, mostly serving Savoyard or Italian cuisine.
In Le Praz try the Bistrot du Praz or La table de mon grand-pere for delicious Savoyard specialities and the Crêperie Kinou for wonderful crêpes, tartiflette and blueberry pie.
A bus links all levels of the resort with additional gondolas to 1550 and Le Praz. The night-time emphasis tends to vary between 'sophisticated' or 'quiet' depending on where you are, rarely getting very lively except in individual establishments. Courchevel 1850, in the former category, has the only discothèque - Les Caves, as well as the La Grange nightclub open until dawn, although some of the bars such as Le Kalico stay open with dancing through to 4am.
Popular places include La Saulire, also known as Jack's, L'Equipe, L'Accord and TJ's. There are cinemas and bridge clubs at both 1850 and 1650 with backgammon and billiards available in 1850. Classical music concerts and piano recitals are staged throughout the season. 1550 has limited après ski but the weekly evening descents on the 2km (1.3 mile) long toboggan run is usually worth attending ,if only for the mulled wine after-wards.
For unique après ski ideas you may consider options suggested by the resort's Animations service who will organise group entertainments including treasure hunts, snow games and themed 'Native American' or traditional Savoyard parties. Be wary of the local Mutzig beer - it's extremely potent!