Its position in the world’s largest linked ski area make this family of French mountain villages an easy winner this winter
There’s no such thing as a bad ski resort, it’s just that some are better than others. Courchevel stands on its own gilded plinth, a clear head and shoulders above its worthy contenders in Europe, North and South America and Japan. 
Why? Very simply, Courchevel is not one, but five resorts – six if you include the lower community of Saint Bon, which can be reached on skis when conditions are good but lacks any lifts of its own – of contrasting character. When taken as a whole it cleverly succeeds in catering for the myriad demands and aspirations of every skier and snowboarder – regardless of bank balance or expertise on or off piste. 
I’ve been to more than 525 ski resorts in 20 countries and I’m often asked which is the best in the world. But this, in turn, begs the question ‘best for what?’ Couloirs or cuisine, doorstep skiing or dramatic views, après-ski or altitude? When judged holistically, the diverse faces of Courchevel and the fact that it’s an integral component of the world’s largest properly linked ski area, make this family of French mountain villages an easy winner.
The concept of Courchevel was largely conceived, not in Savoie but in Austria during the Second World War, by a couple of French soldiers interred in a prisoner of war camp. Architect Laurent Chappis and fellow passionate skier Maurice Michaud wiled away five years of incarceration planning the resort with a series of linked villages. Their plans received government funding and the first lift was built in 1946. Emile Allais, France’s first great ski champion, who won a medal at the 1936 Berlin ‘Hitler’ Olympics, designed the pistes. 
Overall, in terms of architecture, it’s more appealing than some other purpose-built French developments that sprang up during the 30 years after the war. Courchevel undeniably fits better into its natural mountain setting than the concrete edifices of Tignes, La Plagne, and Les Arcs. 
Le Praz was already an existing farming community and while the original buildings of the other communities were no beauties, the villages have long since expanded with more chalet-style buildings in the Savoyard style. Each summer the sound of saws and hammers rings everywhere as homes and hotels are upgraded or built from scratch. Likewise, the pistes and the lift system that serves them are continuously upgraded. Courchevel is not a place to rest on your laurels.
But surely, if magazine articles and travel brochures are to be believed, Courchevel is just a playground for super-rich Russians? Not quite – and for obvious reasons, not anymore. This infamous reputation only applies to the highest village of the resort at 1,850m. Some of its 15 five-stars were specifically built to indulge the influx of oligarchs and their entourages, who annually migrated here from 1990 onwards. In previous winters, wealthy Russians have accounted for only 10 per cent of visitors, but for a phenomenal 50 per cent of the seasonal spend – income for hotels, shops, nightclubs, and restaurants. 
Some of their outrageous behaviour introduced a whole new concept of the value of money and how to spend it. Roman Abramovich, then owner of Chelsea Football Club, reputedly once used a €10,000 bottle of vintage Bordeaux to make vin chaud (mulled wine), while a wealthy Muscovite rented a luxurious chalet for the whole season for €200,000 and only spent a couple of nights there. The British owner of a restaurant confided in fellow restaurateurs that half his tables were empty each evening. He was advised to double his prices and was immediately inundated with Russian bookings.  
A high percentage of visitors who fill the five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants wearing designer ski clothes never actually put on a pair of skis – they are there to see and to be seen. Their daily exercise is largely confined to raising fork and glass from table to mouth. These days the Russians have been replaced by an influx of well-heeled visitors from Brazil, Mexico, the Middle East, India and China and the resort is set to be all the better for it this winter 
Admittedly, prices in the big-name hotels are eye-watering – a friend once paid €60 (£52) for a plate of spaghetti bolognese and €40 (£35) for a small glass of house wine. However, if you shop around you can find much more reasonable rates. Crystal Ski Holidays (020 3451 2821; crystalski.co.uk) is offering the no-frills Hotel Olympic – a stone’s throw from some of 1850’s most exclusive addresses – from £941 for a week’s B&B, with flights and transfers included, this winter. 
Yorkshire-based Le Ski (01484 548996; leski.com) has been offering holidays in lower-altitude Moriond for 40 years this season, as well as in La Tania, which opened in 1992 as a dormitory for athletes during the Albertville Olympics. The passage of so many years indicates Courchevel’s enduring appeal. The operator’s Chalet Premier de Cordée in Moriond sleeps 10 in comfort and costs from £994 for a week’s chalet board this December – far from breaking the bank.
Lofty 1850 remains the ski hub of this end of the giant 600km Trois Vallées ski area, with lifts stretching up towards Méribel and down to Le Praz at 1,300m. If you’re chasing the sun, for the best snow cover on a spring morning, it’s worth noting that, for reasons unknown, the piste map is printed back-to-front. While Courchevel is located on the far left of the area, it is in fact the most easterly resort in the region.  
But much my favourite of the villages is Courchevel Moriond (1650), which has its own magnificent ski area that suits all standards. Importantly, this is tucked away from the main arterial pistes of the Trois Vallées. While it is still connected, the link is not easily discoverable. Consequently, the Moriond slopes remain largely uncrowded even on high-season weekends. You can eat and stay here for much less than in its sophisticated sister on high. 
My go-to cruising run is the long swooping blue that follows the line of the Arondiaz gondola in Moriond – it makes you feel, perhaps erroneously, that you’ve really cracked this skiing business. By contrast, Suisses is a wicked stomach-churning black that takes you from Vizelle down towards the resort’s altiport. Dou du Midi is a less demanding and hugely enjoyable red that descends from below Chenus all the way down to Courchevel Village. 
After all that skiing you will need lunch – and here’s where Courchevel excels again. The resort has no less than 14 Michelin-rated restaurants including eight with stars. Chef Yannick Alléno’s Le 1947 à hotel Cheval Blanc has three, and if you’re lucky enough to book a table – there are just five of them – you’ll experience one of the finest restaurants in France. 
La Soucoupe (00 33 4 79 08 21 34; lasoucoupecourchevel.com) at the top of La Loze lift is expensive but wonderfully welcoming on a cold day, famous for its prime rib of beef cooked on the open fireplace. Le Bouc Blanc (00 33 4 79 08 80 26; leboucblanc.fr) near the top of the La Tania gondola serves everything from burgers and grilled salmon to vegan bowls and pasta at more reasonable prices. 
My overall favourite though is Belair (00 33 4 79 08 00 93; belair-courchevel.com), which is what a French mountain restaurant should be, but rarely is: the menu has barely changed this century – classic French dishes (not a foam in sight)…a dozen snails… côtes d’agneau and a gratin Savoyard, all washed down with the house red at €18 (£16). It has an inviting sun terrace, the friendliest staff, and is reached by gondola from Moriond. It goes without saying, booking is essential for all three.  
All in all, from the mountain to its menus, Courchevel is a true winner. 
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