Late last year, on the eve of winter, the residents of Chamonix gathered to celebrate the ski season to come. Chamonix is the most classic of resorts – where the notion of mountain tourism first evolved in the mid-18th century – and the venue they chose was the former Savoy Palace, a Belle Epoque pile, opened in 1904 and steeped in Alpine history. This, though, was not to be a traditional affair: no suits or local Savoyard dress, no accordions or alpenhorns, no fondue. Instead, the revellers came as Martians, spacemen and silver robots, their faces sparkling with glitter or hidden behind illuminated glasses and visors. They sipped cocktails and watched acrobats spin and twirl, then descended to dance in a cavernous nightclub and performance space hollowed out from the base of the hotel. They raised their glasses to the snow falling outside and to the venue – no longer the Savoy Palace but now reborn with a more fitting name: La Folie Douce, “The Sweet Madness”.
Across the Alps, the straitjacket of tradition and conservatism is being loosened. La Folie Douce, which opened last winter after an exuberant €18 million renovation, is a prime example but far from alone, as a young generation of hoteliers pioneer a new kind of hospitality. The default chalet tropes – the antlers and antique skis on the walls, the faux furs and red-checked curtains – are being reconsidered, along with the formality of jacketed maitre-d’s and food that revolves solely around melted cheese.
“We felt that, even though they were rooted in tradition, those cookie-cutter design features were leading to a sort of uniformity, a sort of globalisation,” says Pierre-Charles Cros, 37, whose Experimental Chalet opened in Verbier in December 2018. “You could be in Aspen or you could be in Courchevel, there was nothing unique.” Instead, he and his partners tried to create a hotel that was inspired by its location but more playful, with overtones of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and with service that replaces stiff formality with the egalitarianism they’d observed in Ibiza. “It’s the same for a lot of new places opening now that are trying to break the code of the traditional hotels.”
That Alpine hotels have long been so hidebound and homogenous is partly a product of history and topography. Until the ski boom of the 1960s and 70s, most Alpine resorts were remote, rural farming communities, home to villagers who were inherently conservative in their politics, dress and faith. Life was hard and outside influences few – when people in Switzerland’s Val d’Anniviers talk about the first “mixed marriage” in the 1950s, they aren’t talking about race but the first time a local married someone from another valley. When skiing arrived, it was the local farmers who built the hotels, then kept them in the family. The global chains never penetrated these deep valleys, nor did the vagaries of hotel fashions: guests came to ski and admire the mountain views, not the cutting-edge interiors.
“We wanted to show we weren’t taking ourselves too seriously – to do luxury in a different way”
Now, though, the older generations of hotel owners are passing on the reins, and outside influences finally are getting through. Cros’s colleagues in the Experimental Group are based in Paris, where they founded a hipster cocktail club in 2007 that has since spawned hotels, restaurants and bars in six countries. Artur Reversade, 27, one of the directors of La Folie Douce, grew up in the Alps but studied in the US and Shanghai. Kimberly Cohen, the 32-year-old artistic director of the Maisons Pariente group, studied fashion in Los Angeles before returning to Méribel to open a new five-star, Le Coucou, just before Christmas. Coucou means cuckoo – one wall of the hotel is covered with 20 vintage cuckoo clocks, a satire on Alpine cliche. “We wanted to show we weren’t taking ourselves too seriously – and to do luxury in a different way,” she says.
The result of this fresh blood is a growing diversity: from party spots like La Folie Douce, to design-focused hotels like Terminal Neige Totem in Flaine (a feast for fans of the Mid-Century look), to a new breed of retreat high up on the mountainside where guests can unplug. Some of these high-altitude escapes, like the new Refuge de Solaise in Val-d’Isère, have been converted from abandoned cable-car stations. Others, like the Refuge de la Traye near Les Allues, are old overnight stop-offs for hikers and climbers, where the basic dormitories with scratchy sheets have been replaced by dreamy deluxe suites. “The idea is for busy guests to be able to get close to nature,” says Sandrine Giribaldi, a spokesperson for the Refuge de la Traye, which can only be accessed on foot, ski or in a caterpillar-tracked vehicle designed for Antarctica. “Once they get there, they can be quiet and just forget everything.”
Le Coucou, Méribel
The funky five-star
What For the younger generation of well-heeled traveller, the Alps’ five-star hotels have offered little to quicken to pulse. On the one hand was the oligarch bling of Courchevel, on the other such classic Swiss resorts as St Moritz or Gstaad, where the once-glamorous crowd was now long past retirement age. Le Coucou is an attempt to update the paradigm; a 55-room slopeside property intended to “reinterpret the Alpine lifestyle in a chic but casual way”.
Tell me more It’s the design work of Pierre Yovanovitch, a Paris- and New York-based interiors ace who makes abundant use of colour – pink walls, jade carpets and slippers in a jewel-like green, alongside rich grey marbles and vintage armchairs and lamps.
Refuge de la Traye, Les Allues
The off-grid escape
What Just opened, Refuge de la Traye offers cosseting bedrooms, a fine restaurant and a spa where guests can sleep in hay and bathe in milk.
Tell me more The real draw, though, is not the host of facilities but the location: a remote forest clearing, high on the mountainside. Converted from a former refuge for hikers, the hotel is one of a growing number that offer the chance to swap the bustle of a busy ski resort for total seclusion. Guests leave their cars in the village of Les Allues, then are driven to the hotel in a Venturi Antarctica. Awaiting them are a cluster of small wooden chalets that together cater for a maximum of 19 guests, beside a tiny, stone chapel. Peace and space are guaranteed, but so too is exceptional skiing – on the doorstep are the 600km of pistes that comprise the Trois Vallées, the world’s largest linked ski area.
Experimental Chalet, Verbier
The hip hangout
What Fresh out of fashion college, Pierre-Charles Cros, Romée de Goriainoff and Olivier Bon opened the Experimental Cocktail Club in 2007. Then, in 2015, a first hotel, in Paris, followed by another in 2018, this time in Verbier, hiring designer Fabrizio Casiraghi to overhaul what had been the Nevaï hotel. Vintage cues and modern aesthetics create a laid-back, clubby style and a highly Instagrammable look.
Tell me more The bright red exterior shutters are classically Swiss, while the interiors have lacquered wood panels, deep carpets and velvet curtains in rich, warm shades of green and burgundy, accented with brass Art Deco light fittings. The first-floor bar serves irresistible cocktails – order a “Chalet” (made with peach liqueur, vodka and champagne) then step out onto a terrace to take in uninterrupted views across the valley.
Terminal Neige Totem, Flaine
The mid-century Mecca
What For fans of architecture and design, Flaine is a living museum and open-air gallery as much as a ski resort. It was designed from scratch by Marcel Breuer, a teacher at Germany’s Bauhaus school and the architect of a string of high-profile 1950s buildings including UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. Given total creative freedom, he rejected the local vernacular completely, swapping wood and stone for pre-cast concrete to create a Brutalist masterpiece.
Tell me more Everything – down to the streetlights, furniture and even the font for the signs – was designed by Breuer himself, while artists like Picasso, Dubuffet and Vasarely were commissioned to create sculptures to sit in the snow. The following decades, though, were unkind. As concrete became increasingly associated with car parks or utilitarian Soviet blocks, Flaine fell from fashion. Its hotels all closed down, converted into bargain basement self-catering apartments or hostels, until Mad Men ushered in a new era of appreciation for Mid-Century design and the resort’s fortunes reversed again. The Totem opened for the 2016 ski season: a retro feast combining original Breuer furniture and fireplaces with arcade games and colourful Navajo fabrics. It was created by Maisons et Hotels Sibuet, a family-run group known for lavish, traditional properties. “For 30 years we’ve been doing very luxurious hotels,” said Jocelyne Sibuet at the launch. “But there’s a new generation asking for something else.”
La Folie Douce, Chamonix
The party spot
What The Savoy Palace had fallen on hard times when Guillaume Multrier, a new-media entrepreneur from Paris who had recently sold his business, decided he would turn it into a hotel unlike any other in the Alps. He formed a partnership with the existing Folie Douce chain of après-ski bars and, in April 2018, set about a major renovation inspired by the Great Gatsby-style balls that took place here in the 1920s.
Tell me more False ceilings and partition walls were stripped out to create spacious public areas, with big windows looking up to Mont Blanc. Walls and ceilings in rough brick and concrete, complete with exposed metal trusses and even pieces of wiring, contrast with indulgent fabrics and luxe touches: a velvet chaise longue, and antique Murano mirror, a pair of golden palm trees. In places it feels slightly deranged – a stuffed hedgehog scurries up one wall, while a peacock stands beside the lifts – but the buzz is undeniable. For all their wilder flourishes, the designers’ real achievement has been to zone the building, so people can be dancing on tables in the downstairs club while others sip cocktails in the smart lounge upstairs.
Tom Robbins travelled with the support of Savoie Mont Blanc Tourisme. Visit their website for news about hotels, spas and other information on travel to the region.