Haute Travel: Spring in France at the Savoy Alps & Cote d’Azure

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The road takes another turn, with imposing altitude measurements passing by; 1300, 1550, 1650, and 1850 up ahead. I have reached my destination, and the end of the road. I have arrived at one of the ritziest resorts in the world, where oysters will play an integral part of this epopee. What better way to commemorate the closing of the winter season and welcome spring than in Courchevel in the French Alps.

Not even after conferring with my fellow bon-vivants could I name any other place in the world with such a high concentration of luxury five star hotels. But choosing among the twelve luxury hotels in Courchevel (where in some places they stand just meters from each other) was not difficult at all. They are all so different, each representing a style and philosophy. We decided not go for the obvious, but looked into one of the best kept secrets of boutique charm and quiet propriety. This meant disturbing their peace with a ring of their doorbell, talking to the concierge through a microphone. As the doors unlocked we found a discreet welcome note: “Mr. Colja, you are 24 minutes earlier than expected!” After this greeting, I was embraced by an affable assemblage of hotel employees, from the general manager to the waiters. A heaven-sent appreciation of my long drive here! I was finally standing firmly on these linen carpets as a guest at Le Melezin.

The quiet yet very effective service at Le Melezin included their serving us breakfast while our personal belongings were discreetly transported from the car to one of the 31 rooms and suites. I chose a Chambre Ski piste – 45 square meters of red-cedar planks and moldings, a king bed and a south facing balcony overlooking the town’s world famous ski slopes. Floor-to-ceiling windows offered unobstructed views of the Bellecôte piste, which passes by the French château in which the hotel is posted.

Finding myself in the midst of the largest coming-together of ski pistes and lifts, I waste no time and head out to cover as much of the 600 kilometers of slopes of “les Trois Vallées” as possible. Again the level of service is unparalleled, with the staff personally assisting with my ski boots while my Elan Amphibio skis were neatly assembled at the slope in front of the hotel. My newfound friends, Steven and his 14 year old daughter, are waiting outside with the ski instructor Mimi. This father and daughter have been observing this tradition for the past 14 years – same hotel, same Mimi. These are the kind of people staying at Melezin; people who know the staff like family and unfailingly book their accommodations a year in advance.

It is so important to be cautious of the sun at this high altitude. A high-factor sunscreen is ‘obligatoire’, as is being in good shape if you intend to ski the Three Valleys in the great Spring snow conditions. For apres ski there are plenty of bars all over the village, but I stick to the ski in–ski out of Le Melezin so I can end my day with a massage. It starts with a congenial conversation with the masseuse and her recommendation for what would be a personally-designed massage.

One hour and a cup of tea later, I am ready to explore the gastronomy of Couchevel, which boasts seven Michelin-starred restaurants. I meet up with Fabrice Albini at 8:00pm – an engagement I planned well ahead, as he is a busy man, especially after the opening of K2, a sister hotel of Kilimandjaro (his luxury chalet hotel). Our night’s conversation and later the tasting menu were all about La Table, their renowned one Michelin-starred restaurant. Nicolas Sale is the chef cuisinier, and in his hands food captures the taste of the Mediterranean, where he came into his own as a chef. Of course the gourmet is complimented by an exquisite sommelier and wait service.

The Altiport is the only high-altitude airport in Europe, and it is kept clean of snow throughout the winter. Its unique inclined landing strip for light planes and helicopters make the Altiport a logistical masterpiece for anyone who is need of quick transfer. As the next leg of my trip, I was one of the sun seekers headed for the Cote d’Azure, but a designated stop at Perini meant we decided instead to take the car and drive through the mountains. In Biot, a mere 20 minutes from the coast is where the legend Robert Perini bestowed his atelier. He is one of the most famous glass artists in France, and he was the one who brought this classical artisanship back into fashion in the 80s. It is incredible to see and admire the colors and shapes of glass that the artist (and now his son Antoine) literally blow into life. Yet these works do not belong on a shelf in a workshop; these captivating forms will only feel alive in homes and places where people and life meet.

To experience precisely one such special place, I voyaged almost to the tip of Cap d’Antibes, to a very modern and luxurious manor; the famous Beach Hotel. Evolved from the Michelin-starred restaurant Les Pecheurs, this property is a great example of a boutique hotel, with 23 rooms and 4 suites. Sybille de Margerie has played with the interior and made a sublime dedication to the ocean and its inhabitants. From the paintings to the materials, the forms all resembles the ‘Grand Bleu.’ In the elevated terrace of the restaurant, several famous Perini glass sculptures are displayed, where hotel guests frequently inquire about these incredible creations.

Les Pecheurs is home to Philippe Jégo, the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France”. In a fitting tie-in, Chef Jégo succeeded the chef from La Table in Courchevel. With experience from Alsace to Tokyo, Jégo displays in his palette blends and fusions of tastes so original that every visit to the restaurant is an experience in itself. Nonetheless, that gourmet menu is just the icing on the cake – this restaurant itself is a big draw thanks to its prominent history as a playground for the rich and famous. Today, with the addition of the hotel, this estate forms one of the rare gems in terms of access, design and quality. An acquired Relais & Chateaux membership in 2010 has been the prancing horse of Franck Farneti, the hotel manager, who aims high with this luxe destination. A heated infinity pool and a private sand beach cocooned by the beach restaurant Le Cap make this place an ideal retreat after skiing while taking a bow to spring.

From the slopes to the restaurants and hotels – as the French say, “Vive Les printemps!”