Tucked away by the side of the gentle Bellecote run in Courchevel is a remarkable Alpine retreat that is prestigious beyond the dreams of most hotels in even this exclusive resort. For some unfathomably fortuitous reason I’ve been lucky enough to find myself staying here!
The hedonistic hideaway in question is Hotel Les Airelles. The opportunity to spend a few days in a five-star ski hotel is always attractive of course. But this is no mere five-star hotel. Five-star hotels look in envy at Les Airelles. For this hotel is proud to hold a classification higher than that, and one of only 16 in France to have gained the honour.
It has the distinction of being a ‘Palace’ hotel, a class fairly recently established by the French department of tourism. It’s awarded to hotels with quite exceptional location, comfort, personalised service, multi-lingual staff, incredible cuisine and fabulous spa facilities.
The official citation is that they must have exceptional qualities ‘that embody French standards of excellence and contribute to the enhancement of the image of France throughout the world’.
Hotel Les Airelles has all these qualities and more. The staff/guest ratio is something like three to one. Not one staff member to three guests. Three staff members to each guest. And the raison d’etre of each seems to be to meet every desire of a guest even before the guest has thought of it.
It could scarcely be a greater contrast to the simple delights of Le Grand Bornand, not far away in the French Alps, where I have recently been spending wonderful days on the slopes. But both are a joy to visit in their own way.
From the moment you arrive it is plain that Les Airelles, in the wooded Jardin Alpin above Courchevel 1850, likes to do things differently. At the door the bellboys immediately grab attention in their white shell-jackets and calf-length Austrian-style uniform coats. The look is topped off with a white beret – a unique fusion of Austrian and French style. Guests and passers-by love to photograph them and they have become something of a tourist attraction in themselves.
Clearly, a stay here was going to be a theatrical experience as much as a ski trip – although skiing is very much to the fore, with the slopes just a few metres from the boot room. Not that you’re allowed to personally transport your skis those few metres. A boot room attendant does that for you. As well as put them on the snow for you, pointed in the right direction – and then wait to make sure you are satisfactorily clipped into your bindings and pointed in the right direction before waving you off for a day of ski fun in Les Trois Vallees.
When you get back tired late afternoon they’re more than happy to help ease off your boots for you as you sit back and relax, sighing appreciatively. Les Airelles really is a haven of seemingly limitless self-indulgence.
The hotel is eccentric in look as well as atmosphere – it’s a bit like a fairytale castle, with circular turrets and mullioned windows. The walls are decorated with tromp-l’oeil in pastel shades.
The interiors are apparently based on the styles of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The original owner, Madame Raymonde Fenestraz, was inspired by the stylish but tragic life of the 19th century Empress Elizabeth of Austria – or possibly by the image of her portrayed by Romy Schneider in the film Sissi. Sissi, as the Empress liked to be called, was stabbed to death at the age of 44 by an Italian anarchist – but her spirit lives on, it seems, in the elegant Les Airelles.
One of the hotel’s several restaurants has double Michelin-star menus by Pierre Gagnaire, one of France’s top celebrity chefs. I met M Gagnaire in the boot room where he told me of his love for the skiing in Les Trois Vallees and how he delighted in spending time away from the kitchen on the slopes. But he has other restaurants to attend to around the world and regrets that he gets to ski only at the beginning and the end of each season.
Although he’s not here all season, his influence definitely is, in the shape of such culinary signature dishes as squash gnocchi with pine honey, mousseline of anglerfish flavoured with fir tree brandy, carabineros shrimp perfumed with clementine and iced dessert a la Chartreuse. Well, it makes a change from tartiflette (although, to be fair, the hotel is happy to provide that too if that’s what your heart desires).
There’s also an Italian restaurant, the Cala de Volpe (noted for its truffle-topped pizza and lobster-stuffed ravioli), the staff of which spend winter in Courchevel and summer at their home restaurant at the Cala de Volpe Hotel on the Italian island of Sardinia.
The hotel also has its own piste-side restaurant for mountain lunches, Le Chalet de Pierres, on the homeward-bound slope just above 1850. And the hotel has a horse-drawn carriage to take you back from the base area, if you end up there for an apres-ski cocktail. It is, of course, no ordinary carriage. It is designed by Hermes of Paris.
There is yet another USP back at the hotel. Les Airelles offers cryotherapy – a healing and anti-ageing treatment, which involves entering a capsule to be immersed in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of between -110C to -170C for between 30 seconds to three minutes. It might be a chilling prospect, but results include renewed energy and serenity. Which is all very much the aim of Les Airelles.
Hotel Les Airelles, part of the LOV Hotel Collection, has mid-season rooms starting at 1,105.90 euros a night, including half-board, for two people. A larger junior suite would be 2,405.90 euros a night.
The hotel has 37 guest rooms, 14 suites and a 550 sq ft private apartment. Bathrooms feature a hammam. Ski and boot rental can be organised through the hotel’s own ski shop. The hotel can arrange limousine transfers from airports.