I ski in Verbier in Switzerland, where friends have a chalet, and in a small village in the French Alps called Les Carroz, where my husband’s parents have an apartment. (I’m not as grand as this makes me sound.) Both places have snow and skiing and settings of immense natural beauty but the two could not be more different, expressing very different ideas about the way we travel. Yet where they unite in what we travel for: to engage with a sense of place.
Verbier is an Alpine hot spot in the way of Ibiza or Mykonos, a place that people use to signpost their travel credentials and more: if you ski in Verbier, you are aligning yourself with a certain bracket of wealth, of glamour, of social class, of plugged in perceptivity. All of which sounds immensely off-putting. (If you ski in Les Carroz you’re merely going on a ski holiday.) But all that stuff is distraction. Verbier is one of the truly great ski resorts of Europe, with 400km of runs, including some world-beating off-piste routes, many of which are accessed by lifts including the Verbier to Montfort cable car that carries skiers up to a mighty 3300 metres. Wealth is signalled discreetly here: advertisements in Verbier promote boutique investment firms rather than McDonalds, and liveried minivans ferry people to the lifts from their luxurious chalets, including one I once visited where the swimming pool converted into a dance floor and female staff were dressed in monochrome dirndl uniform. But skiing is the thing here. You might be a billionaire, but – as one Verbier old hand told me – if you can’t ski, you’re nothing.
Set in a crown of peaks, Verbier was cow pasture until the Sixties when a crowd of ski bums showed up, many of whom stayed around to create Verbier – and its laid-back atmosphere – as it is now. It has fun in its bones. A feeling that can still be felt in Verbier’s famed après-ski scene, which, as offered at Le Rouge, Farinet and The Farm Club, is expensive but unpretentious. It is telling that this month the hospitality group Experimental Cocktail Club, encompassing hotels in London and Paris and a beach bar in Ibiza, have chosen to open their Experimental Chalet in Verbier. Mid-century-styled interiors by Fabrizio Casiraghi are refreshingly un-chalet, with velvet curtains, pink rugs and fringed cocktail chairs in bedrooms and a darkly inviting ground floor bar. Experimental Chalet will also take over the running of The Farm Club, Verbier’s most established nightclub, where the bar prices are as steep as the combined ages of its patrons.
Les Carroz, by contrast, is a small Haute Savoie village in the French Alps, occupying a wide, sunny shelf, high enough to reliably get snow from November onwards. Though in 1939 it was the site of the country’s first ever ski lift, it is not in the least famous or fashionable: Grace Kelly never skied in Les Carroz nor has Prince Harry been known to trouble its après-ski. It’s a family spot, pretty but not too pretty, and very French, a gem in its ordinary typicality. There’s a village square and a handful of decent restaurants, a few good places to get a noisette, or a pizza, or a salad heavy with lardons, but nothing remarkable. There’s a butcher a patisserie and the boulangerie where my husband and I like to get croissants, six at a time, the butter staining the paper bag and the confectionery shops where we buy chocolate bars to stuff into our ski jacket pockets to share on the lift up the mountain. In December there are Christmas trees lined up outside the supermarket next to the boxes of tangerines and walnuts and the rotisserie chickens going around in a glass oven. Once a week there’s a farmer’s market in the main car park, where country folk with thick mountain accents sell saucisson and cheese and bread. There’s a lively, ski-in, ski-out place to stay – the Milk Hotel – and apres ski is the pub: the Pointe Noir or Le Marlow, both of which are full of red-cheeked faces in ski gear shouting over the music while French teenagers smoke outside.
Les Carroz’s specialness is its unspecialness. You can’t buy Chanel or Moncler here. No one cares what you look like on the slope, there’s no social hierarchy, no shouldering to the front of the VIP queue, nothing in the way of glamour – except for the peace and the mountains themselves, of course, beneath which the village huddles on its shelf, all twinkling lights and deep snow.
My father-in-law likes to think he ‘made’ Les Carroz. He sold the virtues of the village with such enthusiasm to friends from his South Devon town that a number of them have bought up apartments in the pretty, chalet-style complexes around the skating rink. Despite his claims, the village still feels resolutely French, and specifically Savoyard – a region, fiercely protective of its cultural history that only became part of France in the 19th Century – with an understated cuisine to match. The place to try it is Les Servages d’Armelle, a beautifully outfitted rustic hotel, probably the smartest in the Grand Massif area (wood panelled bedrooms are furnished with log burners). Its restaurant – not cheap, but worth it – for fondue, raclette or tartiflette is where to go for special occasion meals, birthdays, Christmas, New Year.
One misty late October I spent a week alone in Les Carroz trying to get some writing done. Mostly, and instead of writing, I went walking up the grassy verge of the route du Flaine, to a cliff edge where I sat on a rocky outcrop, the valley spreading hazily below, the high cliffs rising up opposite, their dark couloirs seamed with ice and snow, and feeling slightly overwhelmed. The peaks – which I watched from the apartment window, also instead of writing – were bathed in sunshine most days until three in the afternoon, when the sun dipped and shadows drew across the village and if I happened to be out walking when this happened, I would turn back, hurrying up the path to the apartment as if pursued. This flightiness I attributed to the mountains themselves, which have a strange, brooding energy, (all that terrifying, horizon-hogging beauty that Edmund Burke termed the sublime), which seemed especially alive, to me at least, that week at the end of autumn when it wasn’t yet cold enough for snow, and the days were growing darker and I was completely alone.
Under snow, however, mountains find their meaning, all those raw, jagged edges are smoothed and softened; snow transforms a view of peaks into a glistening, diamond-bright spectacular. The Grand Massif’s linked ski regions comprise 267 km of piste to explore. And snow is what you’re here for: specifically, those sunny mornings when, as if by magic, the whole wide bowl of the slope empties of its usual traffic, the beginners doing ski ploughs and the crocodiles of toddlers and the snowboarders who flick sprays of ice into your face as they slice across your turn. You have the whole mountain to yourself as you swoop down through the trees, just the sound of the snow flumping to the ground from overburdened boughs, your skis leading themselves as if sliding through butter. Everything glittering in the sunshine.
Where to stay: Experimental Chalet, Route de Verbier, Station 55, Verbier, 1936; +41 27 775 40 00; ExperimentalChalet.com
Where to eat: Chez Dany, Hamlet of Clambin 10, 1936 Bagnes; +41 27 771 25 24; Chezdany.ch
Where to drink: Farinet, Place Centrale 6, 1936 Bagnes; +41 27 771 66 26; HotelFarinet.com
Where to stay: Milk Hotel, 459 Route des Servages, 74300 Arâches-la-Frasse; +33 4 50 90 06 18; MilkHotel.fr
Where to eat: Hotel Les Sauvages d’Armelle, 841 Route des Servages, 74300 Arâches-la-Frasse; +33 4 50 90 01 62; Servages.com
Where to drink: Le Marlow, 2 Route du Serveray, 74300 Arâches-la-Frasse; +33 4 50 90 05 67
La Pointe Noir, Place de la Pointe Noire, 74300 Arâches-la-Frasse; +33 4 50 90 04 97; PointeNoire.fr
Since going freelance, ex-Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar staffer Charlotte Sinclair has written for the FT, Conde Nast Traveller, Departures and How to Spend It. In between assignments she has also written two design books. You can find her posting on location at her instagram: @charlottesincs