Top Ten eXcellence Ski Resorts
The world’s best places to mix and meet with the highest profile glitterati are the most fashionable European and North American ski resorts. The skiing experience aboard is a rather different experience in any one of the very top resorts. Any person you talk to on a ski lift could well be featured in a magazine you read whether it is on business, fashion or simply gossip.
Lying on a beach in even the best of celebrity haunts such as any of the famously elitist Nikki beach Clubs is usually a very private experience. On the ski lifts and to a lesser extent on the slopes, people share their thoughts and ideas of fun.
There are numerous different interpretations of how to enjoy the skiing experience. Just staying and visiting the ‘in-places’ in an elitist ski resort is enough. Forget the skiing, the social whirl can be everything as there can be no time even to think about skiing, however the slopes can also be a fashion parade. There are so many coffee houses, nightclubs, jewellery shops and other global brands to support, the list goes on. Nevertheless, some of the most important are the bars and restaurants on the ski slopes where you will soak up the sun and atmosphere on their terraces with their fur covered loungers, whilst you indulge in superb food and wines. Does life get better than this?
The top of any lists of the ultimate resorts would surely include; Aspen in the US, Gstaad, St. Moritz, Klosters and Zermatt in Switzerland, Courchevel 1850 in France, but the largest and most expensive ski chalet is in Austria’s discreet resort of Lech. Of course, you could add Verbier, Whistler and Val d’Isere amongst others, but skiing is an essential ingredient to enjoy those resorts best. Chinese are the joint largest group of foreigners buying ski chalets and apartments, so the trend to go skiing abroad is growing rapidly.
By now, you will gather that actually skiing may be incidental to enjoyment. However, skiing can be one of most exciting and liberating experiences, along with sailing yachts, that you can enjoy. On the one hand, you can seemingly float along smooth runs that pass through quite stunning scenery, on the other hand, some of us seek out challenging terrain where your heart is in your mouth. Skiing in Canada’s Kicking Horse is such a challenge; some cliffs have snow on them, others do not. The best balanced resorts can cater for most tastes in skiing and our choices of resorts here generally offer something of interest for most people.
A couple of top resorts where skiing is largely second to the social aspects are Gstaad and St. Moritz. The former has more film celebrity guests than the credits at the end of films. The James Bond actor of an earlier era is Roger Moore who may still be seen around the resort these days. The focus is either in grand chalets or the Palace Hotel, the exterior is enchantingly romantic in a stunning landscape. Their ‘Greengo’ nightclub is the celebrity ‘in-place’, however, the hotel interior could be in any city and is rather too formal an hotel for most fun loving people.
The classic hotels of St. Moritz will doubtless still be fashionable in centuries to come, the atmosphere is great and people watching can be all consuming. The Cartier Polo tournament on the ice covered lake is an essential social event to attend. However, there is the unique Cresta run which over the decades has attracted the British aristocracy through long winters on the hair-raising toboggan run where speed of over 110 kph are the norm. Today, it is still as challenging with a wider group of people taking up this daredevil ride. A very early start is needed as the ice is obviously best before the sun softens the surface. When we returned for breakfast at 10.30am in the fairy tale 5* Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains, it was a surprise to find the breakfast room still buzzing with activity.
Late nights around the small elitist resort of St. Moritz take their toll on sleep; the days are frequently spent lounging on the bar/restaurant terraces and visiting the shops that include over a dozen high end jewellers. The ski slopes have great facilities but few guests take full advantage of these quiet slopes.
The iconic Matterhorn mountain is a very spectacular backdrop to car free Zermatt, a world class summer and winter resort. The skiing area is interesting and extensive even crossing the border into Italy. For both skiers and walkers, there are sublime mountain restaurants; they are noted to be amongst the very best anywhere. A real thrill is to take a helicopter ride with Air Zermatt, the pilots have some of the highest qualifications, our pilot emulated the antics that appear in James Bond films as we flew all around the Matterhorn area.
This is a resort where high profile guests frequently ski and mostly remain anonymous. A strong contender for the hotel suite with the best view is the 5* Mont Cevin Palace; its major suite has a double height window which looks directly out onto the Matterhorn. If you seek a traditional Swiss atmosphere, the Alex hotel certainly will appeal, it also has a wider range of facilities than any other including an indoor tennis court. Staffed mega-chalets are now equally fashionable, they offer groups 5* service and facilities for groups that wish to have a private experience. One of this new generation with a very modern interpretation is the Zermatt chalet Peak.
Courchevel 1850 epitomises the highlife of the world’s wealthiest so often featured in gossip columns. Nothing is mundane here; the miniature airport is perched on the edge of the mountain next to the village (6,000 private aircraft movements each winter). Here most of the hotels are boutique 5*, they have the biggest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants, and they have the highest rental prices per person in a chalet. The 100 shops have the world’s most elitist brands, even a ski lift is sponsored by Chanel. Naturally the biggest spenders come in large numbers; lead by the Russians. To top it all, the ski area across three valleys is the world’s largest (600 kms. of beautifully prepared and normally uncrowded runs) and there are 1,000 ski instructors (there are several villages within the ski area).
To prove they are still in the real world, there are some lifts on the nursery slopes that are free of charge, so people can have their first ski experiences without having to buy an expensive lift pass. Of course, they have every amenity on and off the slopes for all levels of skill and tastes. There is even an excellent Chinese restaurant: Le Grande Café and Kintessence offers an Asian Fusion menu.
My stay was in the family owned and managed Annapurna Hotel, 5* of course, they had an in-house ski rental shop which made life easy added to their ‘ski in, ski out’ location. The facilities were comprehensive despite only having to serve 64 rooms and suites (most hotels here are boutique), the service was always personable; nothing was too much trouble. A stylish touch was the glass sided hotel lift; it offered fabulous views over the valley.
An hotel that has re-invented itself is the 5* Les Grandes Alpes with apartments, suites and rooms, traditionally built but with a very modern, individual style interior; great fun. The 5* Le Lana hotel is also spectacular.
Trophy facilities alone do not necessarily translate into a welcoming resort, not to worry; there is a great and very positive buzz here.
Another new generation chalet is the Eidelweiss, still less expensive than yacht charter despite being sublimely presented. The standards can be judged by the art works which including a Picasso painting and a sculpture by Salvador Dali amongst other superb artefacts.
A much more discreet but nevertheless very elitist resort is Lech where the most comfortable, traditionally styled chalet ‘N’ has been built in a fabulous, commanding position in Oberlech overlooking the whole valley. Twenty four staff including a hairdresser, celebrity (published) chef, world champion ski instructor and a masseur are part of the team. The 4,800 sq. m. chalet is purely for the guests; the staff members are housed nearby. The very generous spaciousness lacks for nothing, the spa area has to be explored it is so comprehensive with too many options to cover here. The large swimming pool has a lustrous silver leaf ceiling on which the movement of the water is stunning reflected.
Aspen has a film star reputation; starlets mix with the wealthiest in the land which adds to the charming and intimate atmosphere of the resort. Staying in one of the two trophy hotels establishes your credentials; The Jerome for traditional style in the centre, the Little Nell, adjacent to the Ajax ski lift and the St. Regis for modernity. Many of the biggest stars of film and finance stay in their splendid chalets, some on substantial ranches. I am sure that many a dinner party conversation has included complaining their private ‘plane had to drop them off and leave as it was too crowded to park in Aspen’s small airport.
The shopping is epic; the streets are beautifully and decoratively illuminated. There are some really stunning pictures for sale in the galleries including such stars as Chagall and Picasso, whilst you can indulge in choosing from the most prestigious brands.
The appropriately named Buttermilk Mountain has some truly beautiful, gentle cruising skiing for novices through wide, long and unchallenging runs. Highlands complements with more novice runs whilst Snowmass has the largest ski area with some runs for intermediate skiers. The fourth mountain; Ajax, immediately behind the Resort offers some real challenges.
Our other North American choice is Whistler in Canada, the scale and range of skiing and other activities is arguably unmatched in the continent. They have two inter-connected mountains that includes the unique peak-to-peak cable car.
There is so much to do for all tastes and ages; great fun is ‘Fresh Tracks’ –breakfast before dawn on top of the mountain, when the bell rings and you have a vast expanse of snow to ski; heaven on earth. The very comprehensive ‘Scandinave Spa’ is ultimately relaxing; the children have the tube park and several other dedicated areas in which to play. Not forgetting tackling the trails on the very fast snowmobiles, it is all too easy to get into trouble, but what a thrill. The food and Canadian wine is consistently very good indeed in their choice restaurants; it is difficult to better the Araxi Restaurant for both. This restaurant is the best feature in the otherwise bland village centre.
There are plenty of good self-catering chalets; the hotels of choice are the characterful, traditionally styled Nita Lake Lodge with their suites and the modern Four Seasons. The latter has exceptional standards everywhere but do not reflect the character of their locations which is a shame.
Aspen: Tourist Office: www.aspenchamber.org/
Courchevel 1850: Tourist Office: www.courchevel.com/
Gstaad: Tourist Office: www.gstaad.ch/en/
Lech: Tourist Office: www.lechzuers.comchalet: www.chalet-n.com
St. Moritz: Tourist Office: www.stmoritz.ch/en
Whistler: Tourist Office: www.whistler.com/
Zermatt: Tourist Office: www.zermatt.ch/en
Hotels: www.hotelalexzermatt.com/enwww.montcervinpalace.ch/home_8.htmlchalet: www.chaletzermattpeak.com