I was late to the party. Drive up from the train station in the valley, hairpin turns high into the Alps to where the snow lay in thick duvets over the eaves of ski chalets. Courchevel was originally built as local regional council effort, a socialist answer to privately developed resorts, but now it is a monied enclave beloved of the same class of international millionaires and celebrities that bounce, according to the season, between the south of France, Belgravia, Miami and Basel art fair. Courchevel 1850 is the highest and most elite village, home to six star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. The chalets are haute Heidi style, cute wooden balconies carved with hearts and Christmas trees that belie swimming pools in the basements.
At the highest end of the road is the coolest restaurant bar on the slopes, Le Cap Horn. I was late to a party that had begun at lunch time under the azure blue skies of a perfect Alpine day and descended into silly excess. A group of American bankers had ordered a dozen jeroboams of Cristal; Jacques had apparently felt the need to retaliate on behalf of French pride. By the time I arrived it was 6pm and a row of empty Champagne bottles were lined up on the piano. The DJ was spinning Rolling Stones, Guillaume was banking a roaring fire with an empty wine crate, Jacques had moved onto milk, which he swore would keep him upright, and which was poured into a decanter for him by a blonde ski bunny. Emmanuelle, an ageing Eliza Dolittle Courchevel habitué, who moved between parties selling roses from her basket, wound a pair of fingerless elbow length gloves embroidered with diamante skulls around his neck. This was crazy. This was the 1 per cent gone mad. The staff all joined in, dancing drinking happy with the enormous tip the American bankers had left.
We went back for lunch the next day. Cheap it was not: the menu was international megabucks comfort food, no matter we were sitting at the top of a mountain: nine kinds of oysters, giant platters of fruit de mer, wagyu beef, lobster ravioli, caviar. I hesitated over my choice. The waiter suggested, “or you can have the spaghetti aux truffes if you prefer something lighter.”
Absurd and over the top—but it was delicious. Appetizers of barely cooked shrimp carpaccio, cream-mozzarella burrata and truffle crème fraiche pizza arrived on the table. There were three different kinds of salt: black from Hawaii, spiced from Cyprus or pure white Canadian sea flakes. The table was full with excess and people: “Marina from Slovakia have you met Robert from Beirut?” Robert from Beirut scrolled through his recent holiday snaps on his iPhone for me: a Four Seasons interior, Dubai skyline, he and his family swimming in a jade coloured Nepalese lake.
Le Cap Horn is the most personal of the several establishments—bars, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels—owned by the Tournier family, one of the first to develop Courchevel in the early days. It is designed as a yacht club, the interior glimmers with polished brass and ships’ lanterns; stuffed sharks hang from the ceiling and the bartender wears captain’s whites. Eric Tournier, who has done the most to turn Courchevel into a fashionable destination for the rich, is handsome, tanned and bearded, exuding the quiet manly confidence of a skipper or an off-piste ski guide. He does not like to analyse his special mix of fun and luxury.
These days a large portion of the visitors to Courchevel are Russian. “Oh the French don’t have money any more,” Eric told me. “And one day it will be the Chinese who come. What can we do? We will welcome them!” Wealth is a category apart from nationality. No matter their passport, Eric told me, his clientele demands a certain kind of service.
At night we went dancing at Eric’s club, L’Aventure, where every order for Champagne (and there were many) was greeted with a triumphal Star Wars chorus accompanied by showers of flaming sparklers. The girls danced on the tables, the men nodded their approval, the lights flashed and the music swelled. It was hedonist and hideous. But hey, it was fun as hell.
A magician appeared to entertain us. Shuffled cards and made them disappear and reappear again to our delighted gasps of wonder. One of his tricks was to turn a €20 note into a €500 note with a flick of his wrist. “C’est pratique ça!” said Jacques.