A ski-phobic writer is enchanted by the menu, wines and scent of luxury at Europe’s ultimate ski lodge.
I should explain my relationship with skiing. I did it for many years to keep my wife—a woman who could shimmy down moguls before she could ride a bike—company. I loathed it. I move with the grace of a spavined elk, I look ridiculous in the clothes, I’m nervous at heights and I have an aversion to physical exercise that borders on the phobic. But I kept quiet until, Deo gratias, my daughter became as good a skier as her mother, and I could quit. Three years ago, I swore an oath before my loved ones never to strap on another ski.
That’s not to say that I pass up skiing vacations. I loaf around the hotels and lodges, linger at the bars, rest my mind, and, inspired by the alpine scenery, I write. I’ve become so good at not skiing, I could become an instructor.
Which explains why I am sitting alone at a table dressed in blinding white napery. An incredibly handsome young man in a leather apron has just served me what I realize are the best eggs I’ve ever eaten. Somewhere, well-tended chickens laid these eggs, which were then rushed to the kitchen, possibly by couriers. Scrambling is too coarse a word for the process they’ve gone through—the chef has lovingly stirred them with rich mountain butter until just set, then added wild mushrooms and alpine herbs. On the immaculately manicured piste outside, beautiful people ski skillfully so I don’t have to—I just want these eggs. My shrink would say I’m in my happy place, but I’ll say I’m at L’Apogée, a ski lodge in the fashionable altitudes of Courchevel in the French Alps.
Part of the Oetker Family collection, a tiny group of luxe hotels that includes the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes and the Château Saint-Martin in Vence, L’Apogée is rumored to be one of the most expensive resorts in Europe. Each year, when the collection’s Riviera hotels close for the winter, their best staff, finest wines and expertise at pleasing the superrich move up the mountains to this astonishing, purpose-built temple of indulgence, open only from December through early April.
L’Apogée is vaguely familiar as a relaxed, family-oriented ski lodge, only with infinite care lavished over every detail—like each room’s “odorscape.” My suite has a comforting, spicy, warm smell with top notes of resinous needles and a subtext of smoldering birch. The corridors are redolent of polished walnut, Connolly hide, the cedar wrapper from a costly cigar, the clutch plate of a hot Alfa Romeo and the deck of a Riva yacht. If you were crass you’d say it was the odor of wealth.
Like the eggs at breakfast, the food at Le Comptoir de L’Apogée (now overseen by Parisian chef Jean-Luc Lefrançois) is comforting but executed with incredible care. The fish soup is so flavorful that only someone born and bred on just bouillabaisse could hope to emulate it. A waiter grates fresh truffle over toasted bread—the drift of expensive flakes is as close as I will get to snow. At my behest, another waiter compiles a classic steak tartare tableside with the full armory of trimmings and all the rigor and aplomb of a Parisian maître d’—but accompanied by the demeanor of a friendly barista.
Sommelier Géraud Tournier walks me through the staggeringly valuable collection. Wines of unimaginable importance are displayed in glass cases, and he tells me of a customer dropping 8,000 euros on a bottle of brandy the previous evening. Naturally, I hope to down several glasses of this ridiculously expensive liquid, but demanding them seems inappropriate. Instead I ask him to recommend something unusual. The bottle we open is the perfect choice, a 2011 Clos Liebenberg Monopole Riesling from Alsace producer Valentin Zusslin that costs less than most of Tournier’s customers would tip the valet. We drink it happily.
Just below the wine cellar is the basement spa, with an odorscape unlike any exercise facility I have encountered, being devoid of sweat and smelling instead like the back of Grace Kelly’s knee just after a bath. There are a bewildering number of pools and tables, and a range of treatments that leave me, frankly, frightened. I elect a massage, which involves a slim Frenchwoman beating seven shades of hell out of me with sharp elbows—an experience for which I usually require a rush-hour ticket on the Paris Metro. It is superb. I imagine that the staff is used to anointing and manipulating the svelte and smooth bodies of the ultrarich, so I can only thank them from the bottom of my heart for not laughing at seeing their first stout and ursine hack.
That night, as I sit in my gorgeous suite, a fur rug around my shoulders and the windows thrown open to let in the purifying mountain air, three uniformed young people silently enter my room. The bed is made with an economy of movement, implying that they were trained either by the Kirov or Russian special forces. A young woman, who in a past life would have modeled for Botticelli, soundlessly polishes the fruit in my bowl while another changes the slippers by the side of the bed that I hadn’t used the previous night. I see all this reflected in the window; I know that if I turn around, they’ll be gone. Someone has thoughtfully placed a box of chocolates at my right hand. I have never felt this well looked after. I could weep.
I return to the Geneva airport in a powerful German four-wheel drive. The driver asks if everything is to my liking—the iced spring water, the volume of the soft jazz from the speakers—but I am busy looking over my shoulder at L’Apogée receding in the distance, half expecting it to vanish entirely in a shimmer of glitter.
Tim Hayward is the Cambridge, UK-based author of Food DIY and a columnist for the Financial Times.