An Alpine Revolution: What makes Courchevel so special?
Since the first foundations were dug into a picturesque nook of the Tarentaise Valley, Courchevel has transcended the status of ski-resort, and has now become something of its own little universe. The commune boasts 15 Michelin stars, more than 20 five-star hotels, and a vast array of designer outlets. One cannot look around at the sheer density of these luxury offerings, and be at all surprised that this tiny corner of the Alps has developed its own unique gravitational pull. Courchevel, drenched in winter sun, blessed by alpine storm-paths, operates in its own orbit, drawing in the well-heeled season after season – a Mecca for opulence.
None of this happened overnight. For the vast majority of its history, Courchevel was little more than a scattered collection of pastures. If you could travel back to the 1920s, you’d find no sign of the grand, palatial houses that were destined to line the hills – nor any sign of any real commune, save for the far off echoes of a few intrepid shepherds. The idea for what Courchevel would become would take another 20 years to take hold – in a prisoner of war camp, of all places. Plans for the Tarentaise Valley were dreamed up by two captured French soldiers in Nazi controlled Austria, Laurent Chappis and Maurice Michaud. These were, in turn, taken up by the Vichy regime, who began to develop the idea of a purpose built ski-resort.
Ski-touring had started to take off in the 1930s, and Courchevel saw its first two hostels built before the war. Those developments, however, would pale in comparison to the longer term plans put in place for Courchevel. The French government wanted a second generation of ski resorts to build upon the earlier successes of Chamonix and Megeve, and Courchevel was part of that next phase. What Courchevel became, however, was not just another Chamonix; it was to be a complete revolution for the development of winter sports.
The French government enlisted the help of Chappis and Michaud, now back in France, to design Courchevel. The goal of the project was to create purpose-built skiing villages, where residents were able to ski in and out of their houses. A new village was to be built – from scratch – at the top of the resort, at 1800m, with a road linking it to the lower villages. Chappis’ dream was to create a resort that sat in harmony with a nature – with minimal felling of trees, and a ban on high-rise buildings. Chappis’ obsession with aesthetics, and the prioritisation of beauty over profit often landed him in hot water with developers – and led to his nickname ‘The Anarchitecte’. Nevertheless, Chappis’ vision was realised – and Courchevel was opened in 1946 to great acclaim. The post-war period saw an explosion in tourism – particularly in Courchevel, due to its innovative design. The introduction of Méribel and Val Thorens to the ski area proved pivotal too, creating Les Trois Vallées – the largest ski area in the world.
The spirit of innovation that led to Courchevel’s initial success continued into the 1960s – as Michael Ziegler lobbied for the introduction of Courchevel’s altiport. At the time of opening, it was the world’s first international mountain airport – unsurprising, considering how unfavourable mountain conditions are for landing aircraft. The geography of the valley would not allow a long runway – meaning that the altiport runway had to be angled at 18 degrees, in order to give planes the chance to slow down. Even today, the airport is still seen as a monumental feat of engineering (and listed as the 7th most dangerous airport in the world).
Beyond the resort itself – the team behind Courchevel were also thinking about new ways to improve the quality of the skiing it offered to its guests. Emile Allais – founder of the French Ski School – was brought in to cultivate a world-beating ski experience. Amongst other new additions, Allais brought Sno-Cats over from the U.S – giving skiers access to well-groomed pistes. Allais also introduced trained professionals to monitor the slopes, to groom the pistes in the evenings, and ensure the safety of guests. Whilst Chappis and Michaud focused on cultivating the resort’s culture- Allais made great strides developing the sport of skiing itself.
The bold vision of Chappis, Michaud and Allais was unlike anything seen in ski-resorts anywhere else in the world – inspiring many would-be developers to adopt their methods whilst building new resorts. Courchevel had built an unassailable popularity – and as skiing, as a trend, began to take off in the late 60’s and 70’s, Courchevel saw its first real step towards commercialisation. It was around this point that the resort’s famous boutiques began to move in – and Courchevel’s reputation for luxury began to really emerge. The end of the century saw high-end businesses compete with each other for prime space in Courchevel. Hotels kept springing up as the new millennium approached, and as Courchevel expanded. Town planning, however, stayed incredibly consistent. Developing ski-in, ski-out properties was always the focus – and so as new properties spread across the hillsides, so did the skiing. The expansion of the ski area alongside the town meant that Courchevel, despite its popularity, could manage the crowds – and more importantly, ensure the quality of the skiing. It would not be lost on the successors of Chappis, Michaud and Allais, that the core reason behind Courchevel’s popularity was its access to good skiing.
Courchevel has long been synonymous with luxury – something that can put some skiers off the idea of the resort. Whilst there is certainly a precedent for the reputation, it’s too much of a generalisation for a resort of its size – especially when you consider the options for great value accommodation in the lower villages. Courchevel attracts the level of scrutiny it receives due to its immense popularity, and the almost cult-like status it seems to have gathered amongst its wealthier clientele. Courchevel’s popularity, however, is certainly not unwarranted. When you consider the history of the resort – how it changed the face of skiing, revolutionising what a ski-resort could be – it’s easy to see how it gained such a formidable reputation amongst its alpine neighbours. What’s more, is that the radical approach adopted by its early developers can still be found in how the resort looks today – and how it looks to the future. The success of the resort lies in its continual innovation, and is not to be scoffed at. Most crucially, Courchevel, as it always has been, is wholly committed to crafting incredible ski experiences.