By Rory Winston
Apex, summit, zenith… it’s difficult to avoid allusions to altitude when referring to outstanding events. Whether it’s the ‘highpoint’ of a journey or the ‘peak’ of one’s career, excellence is something that hangs perpetually overhead. We scale grand heights, live with our heads in the clouds, and – after a lifetime of climbing our way up from one kind of gutter or another – find solace in having a few dear friends gushing over our, supposed, ‘towering achievements’. It should come as little surprise then that we get such a high from ascending mountains. Likewise, is it any wonder that we’ve found a way to complement this nature-induced euphoria by skiing down them? After all, when going up takes no exertion and coming down is so exhilarating… well, it’s hard to imagine anything better. That is of course, unless we are experiencing the aforementioned epiphany from within the apogee of comfort, the pinnacle of sophistication …okay, I’ll give the jutting superlatives a rest and just come out and say it: Club Med's Valmorel ski resort is up there with the best.
Although it may sound hackneyed, “getting there is half the fun” when ‘getting there’ is by way of Paris, while the means of getting there is Club Med’s City Stop program – a new customized package that lives up to the brand’s all-inclusive vacationing ideology. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be part of a royal coterie cosseted in a world of fine food and luxury, this excursion is for you.
Upon our arrival in Paris, a personal chauffeur drives us from the airport to Hotel Banke, a centrally located high end boutique property whose name is not only indicative of its former function but representative of its present sensibility.
From vault to vaulted ceilings, the Belle Époque masterpiece stores treasures from Egypt, Africa, Ancient Rome and the Far East. With an impressive glass cupola, the lobby is a reminder of a time when all the riches of the colonies flowed freely into this great city. Eclectic furniture, large marble fireplaces, lavish suites with the breath of Haussmann’s vision and the conviviality of contemporary design, Hotel Banke is a panoply of impressions and influences harmonized under one roof. Posh...? Unique...? You can banke (sic) on it.
Though I’m usually keen on visiting historical sites, the words ‘itinerary’ and ‘group’ often provoke a wave of ennui that drowns my zeal in summer camp imagery. Luckily, Club Med’s tours are anything but generic. With knowledge and irreverence in equal measure, our guide for Palais Garnier gives us the dirt on which architect wasn’t invited to his own opening and which unpaid artist had the ‘last laugh’ by painting his visage into an icon. Was the Phantom of the Opera still hiding somewhere between the walls? Leave that to B-movie goers. We are here for the making-of.
After the Opera, we do what Maurice Ravel had likely done in 1912 after being revived from watching Wagner’s Die Walküre. We go to Benoit – one of Paris’s oldest restaurants, one presently owned by none other than the Chef extraordinaire, Alain Ducasse.
Once inside the gastronomic bistro, we ascend a flight of stairs, and find ourselves in an ornate lounge overlooking the street. Among terracotta tiles, decorative panels, fireplace, oil paintings, chandelier, and one large oak wood table, we partake in a sacred Parisian rite – a traditional meal where nouveau-inspired moments give way to decadent Cuisine Classique asides. Veal tongue, snails in shells with garlic butter and herbs, Pâte en croûte, artichoke salad with truffles… Given the choices, my motto becomes: ‘starters to the finish’.
History is a living art form in Paris - our Discover Walks tour reinforces this notion the following day. Our Talk Show Host of a guide does comic riffs on the sociopolitical importance of macaroons and the overestimation of certain historical events. Veering from astute commentary to fancifully poetic allusions, he makes us aware that we are bidding farewell to a city that has witnessed centuries of interesting personalities who - like us – had simply been passing through.
Before boarding a high-speed TGV train to the Alps, we take a brief detour to the year 1900. Alongside the now unseen landscape of the great French Centennial Expo – where the largest Ferris wheel was built, the first diesel engine introduced, the most powerful telescope unveiled, and the first talking movie debuted - stands Le Train Bleu, the bustling brasserie at the Gare de Lyon train station.
Like Hotel Banke, Le train Bleu is replete with historical associations - the ambition of the Belle Époque being etched indelibly into her space. There is naked optimism in the sprawling diner with golden-wood panels, boundless hope in ceilings so high they seem pinioned to the sky. Uniformed waiters rush to and fro, generously conferring their bountiful culinary tradition. They are friendly, cosmopolitan, and eager to speak; but time - in this heavily ornamented world - is short. Theirs is a vision of the future that could not have dreamed of the Great Depression and the two world wars that followed. The brasserie remains a place where the twentieth century is forever about to arrive.
The Heights of Luxury
White slopes elbow their way through white clouds. At an altitude of 5000 feet, the two become indistinguishable; and we are lost between them. Because of the muscular frame and wide hips of each summit, we had not noticed the ascent. It is as if a mountain range had sprouted beneath our car, imperceptibly lifting us onto a new more silent plane – one where blue-tinted snow is all that is visible. Soon, we are weaving our way through an Alpine trail. The 4 and 5 Trident flagship resort, Valmorel, now stands before us.
Coiled around the pale midriff of a mountain, Club Med appears like the rural estate of an exiled monarch - a realm of stone and wood from which to plan a campaign. But what exists inside is more than mere refuge. Rife with idiosyncratic design, the property is a fully developed playground for the discerning, a place where abundance with abandon has become the norm. Understated interiors, heavy in oak, are jolted alive with capricious bursts of pinks and reds; retro-60’s and 70’s motifs drift in and out of contemporary sets; a rustic table perches on a dais where an enormous chandelier made of antlers hovers overhead. There are four dining halls – one to match each season; but since all are simultaneously in use… who knows the reason. As marvelously irrational as Alice’s Wonderland, and as lavish as a palace that provokes an uprising, Club Med is in a permanent state of celebration.
One need only be aware that ‘everything is free of charge once you buy in’ to realize the level of freedom in self-indulging. Each day, a regiment of French chefs serve up the much lauded buffet. With culinary delights ranging from oysters to crabs, lobsters, prawn, sea bass, truffles, premium steaks, lamb, chicken from Bresse, game, foie gras, and regional specialties, it is virtually impossible to get bored of the ambitious and ever-changing menu. As for the pastries, deserts, fruits and Crème glacée – well, it is France, after all; the very same country where you can count on the finest wines, champagnes, aperitifs and digestifs.
Clubs, spas, state-of-the-art gym, skiing lessons, swimming pools, Turkish bath, a camp for kids… Since everything is on the house, it really doesn’t take long to feel at ease with excess. The splendid silliness of it all is designed to make even the most self-conscious person let go. With a fleet of waiters, butlers, valets, caretakers and ski instructors at your beck and call, there’s an addictive level of decadence that guarantees to have one suffering from withdrawal once the trip is over.
Since Mohammed never did go to the Tarentaise Mountains, Club Med makes sure to have the mountains come to their guests. The ski-in hotel literally means just that: you exit the elevator, pass through the fitting room or your private locker and – as fate or Allah would decree - find yourself on the slopes. Beginners slopes, intermediate, ‘black’ - the pistes are as varied as they are numerous.
Designed by Pierre Diener, the property exudes confidence. It is not (as architects like to say) 'in dialogue with its environment'; rather, it is having a torrid affair with it. Mont Blanc stares down at you through panoramic windows while you’re taking a bath. The five star suites - with their massive beds, double bathrooms – boast a VIP lounge with a self-service bar that includes fine cheeses and charcuterie. Standing on your very own balcony with a glass of champagne and taking in the enormity of the Savoie region is as empowering as it is humbling. With each sip, clean crisp air rushes down your throat as though it was the mountain itself breathing with your lungs.
85 runs, 45 ski lifts; no wait when going up, no difficulty in finding secluded pistes from which to come down. The warm leathery glow of sun dipping across an unblemished ivory horizon is absolutely heady. One can sense the season-less elation as summer and winter unite in an extravagant dance whose vortex pulls you in. Valmorel’s restaurants had it right after all. Seasons do exist simultaneously. They are defined on a whim.
Like many who are drawn to climbing mountains, Club Med is no stranger to the ‘because it’s there’ brand of reasoning. Pushing ever onward and up, Club Med has scaled the highest ski resort in all of Europe, Val Thorens. They are building there - on the site of what has been awarded as the best ski resort on the planet.
At the altitude of over 7500 feet, the season here is longer than anywhere in the French Alps. With slopes reaching up to 10,564 feet, nearly 400 miles of pistes, and the most spacious cable cars - each fitting up to 150 passengers - Val Thorens is a skier’s Valhalla. Since the average age is younger than at Valmorel, it is brimming with nightlife. While the age of the crowd being drawn to Val Thorens is forcing Club Med to redefine certain priorities associated with its brand, there will be no compromise in the level of services or amenities on offer. Going by the altitude and the prospective clients... well, in short: hipster heaven awaits.
Returning to Valmorel for the last evening of my stay, I dash to the lockers alone. Yes, tonight there’ll be that desperate farewell party. I fasten my skis, and firmly hold my poles. We’ll hug distractedly, smile uncomfortably, exchanging emails like tokens of hope. I need to escape to the heights before we go. Tinted by my goggles, the snow rises like camphor igniting the air, it glows. ’Future plans?’ they’ll ask. I make my way through the Styrofoam sounding snow. From the ski lift, air appears heavier than the softly swirling slopes. Distances and heights become as vague as fast or slow. Those who hardly spoke get a sudden urge to exchange phone numbers before they go. From here it’s Hard to tell if that’s a vulture I see or an Alpine Chough. At the party they’ll be asking if I tweet. Looking sideways, I see the mountain that locals say resembles Jesus making a speech. I guess everything looks like Jesus when you fall and need to look up. Tonight we’ll distribute Facebook links and posts like absolution. I shuffle over to a pristine piste filled with fresh powder. ‘You ran out of business cards?’ I cling to the clarity of flight - Maybe I just ran out of reasons to do business. The vacuous mountains drown out everything but desire.
Down, up - I was wrong. Skiing was neither. It wasn’t the euphoria of reaching a summit nor was it the exhilaration of speeding down one. After some time on the slopes, the notion of up and down dissipates. There is only white and motion; lucid disorientation, timelessness and a feeling as whimsical and soulful as Club Med itself. Apex, summit, zenith… the words mean nothing when the wind on your face becomes indistinguishable from your skin. Tomorrow we will be leaving Valmorel. But today I have learnt how to live with my head emptied of all the city's sound and my feet planted firmly on a cloud.