Forget five-star. If you’re looking for the height of luxury, the prestigious Palace accolade is the one to take notice of, and Les Airelles in Courchevel is one of the best examples
There’s a category of hotel in France at which humble five-star establishments can only gaze up at in envy. Situated in one of the Alps’ most fashionable ski resorts, Hotel Les Airelles in Courchevel – also known as ‘Paris in the Snow’ or ‘the Saint-Tropez of winter sports’ – has the coveted Palace classification, of which there are only 22 others in France, marking it as the pinnacle of luxury.
‘Palace’ is a fairly recent distinction awarded by the French Tourism Ministry in order to set apart those exemplary hotels for where simple five-star recognition is deemed woefully inadequate. They must have exceptional qualities, “embodying French standards of excellence” and must contribute “to enhancing the image of France throughout the world”, the ministry states. The criteria therefore includes everything from location and room comfort, to personalised service, multilingual staff, as well as health and spa facilities.
Those with the good fortune to lay their heads at Les Airelles not only stay in a haven of seemingly limitless self-indulgence, but also have the world’s most extensive fully-linked ski area, the vast Les Trois Vallées, on their doorstep.
From the moment I arrive at Les Airelles, in the forested Jardin Alpin above the centre of Courchevel 1850, it is evident that this is a hotel revelling in self-assured style and awash with quite an extraordinary singular identity. The instant impression is one of pure theatre bordering on eccentricity.
The attentive and ultra-efficient bellboys steal the show in their shell-jackets and calf-length Austrian-style trousers, the ensemble topped off with a white beret. These are the Chasseurs des Airelles who have become the emblem of the hotel.
The look originated from the founder of Les Airelles, Raymonde Fenestraz. She wanted to dress staff in a highly recognisable style and started by giving them pine green Austrian uniforms in 1992, followed by the white parade outfits introduced in 2002 for bellboys, porters and ice-rink and ski valets. To this day they are regularly photographed by guests and have become something of a tourist attraction, as well as being copied by hotels as far afield as China and Russia.
From the outside, Les Airelles is an Alpine confection – half fairytale castle, with circular turrets and mullioned windows, and half heavily timbered outsize chalet decorated with trompe-l'œil in pastel shades.
The enchantment continues inside, where the interiors showcase a warm take on Austro-Hungarian glamour. In fact Madame Fenestraz’s original concept was inspired by the intense and ultimately tragic life of the 19th century Empress Elisabeth of Austria, captured memorably by Romy Schneider in the film Sissi (the Empress’ nickname). What we have here is a hotel that Sissi (stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist) would have been delighted to check into. Yes, there are many layers here. Be prepared for an experience, not just somewhere to stay the night.
In the welcoming lounge, I linger beside a fireplace on a velvet-clad couch and am attended to by a waiter who already knows my name and amazingly, what I might want for breakfast the next day. The staff at Les Airelles are trained, it appears, to the level of thought osmosis.
Reflecting the baroque yet intimate and cosy style is one of Les Airelles’ several restaurants, the menus for which were conceived by chef Pierre Gagnaire. “I love Courchevel, I love skiing and I wish I could be here more,” Gagnaire told me in the ski room as he booted up for a day on the slopes. “But I only manage to ski at the beginning and the end of the winter because I have to visit my other restaurants, too.”
In his absence his cuisine is masterfully executed by the in-house chefs, who conjure up culinary delights such as squash gnocchi with pine honey, mousseline of anglerfish (from Lake Geneva), carabineros shrimp perfumed with clementine, and iced dessert à la Chartreuse. I also enjoy the offerings at Cala di Volpe – the 24 kitchen and waiting staff of which decamp to Les Airelles each winter from Hotel Cala di Volpe on Sardinia – where highlights include truffle-topped pizza and ravioli stuffed with lobster.
Guests generally opt for half-board and can choose dinner at any of the hotel restaurants, or instead take lunch at a choice of three restaurants on the slopes. And what could be more marvellous than lunch on the sunny, expansive piste-side terrace of the hotel-owned Le Chalet de Pierres? Head down towards the village on the glorious sweeping red run from the top station of La Saulire and it’s on your left just past the lake – you can’t miss it. Getting back after a boozy lunch, however, might not be so easy.
To speed up the recovery process on your return, indulge in a spot of cryotherapy at the spa – a healing and anti-ageing treatment that involves entering a capsule immersed in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of between -11°C to -17°C for between 30 seconds and three minutes. A chilling process, but the results are undeniable, as any top sportsman will vouch.
Les Airelles is ski-in ski-out (a chasseur will even place your skis on the snow when you’re ready to set out so you don’t have the inconvenience of carrying them from the ski room) but if you end your day of skiing at the base area then the hotel’s gleaming horse-drawn carriage, designed by French fashion house Hermès, will clippity-clop you back to the comforts of Les Airelles in the style to which you’ve become accustomed.