I remember the moment when the penny dropped: we really were never going to be able to do Méribel on a budget. I had naively assumed that when a menu listed a cheese fondue at 30 Euros, that this included ALL the cheese and ALL the bread. More fool I. Of course, this was the price per head. And what I thought was going to be a 50 Euro family lunch for four on the slopes ended up at three times that amount. This was a few years ago and, inflation being what it is, you can now pay as much as 85 Euros a pop in one of the resort’s swisher establishments.
I have learned since then that the knack with Méribel is to let the expense go hang. Just inhale the sheer exhilarating beauty of a winter destination that has, aesthetically and architecturally, never strayed off piste from its Alpine beginnings as a traditional high pasture hamlet of wood, slate and stone. That unsullied chalet look is still enforced by a strict building code drawn up more than 70 years ago that has kept concrete and ugliness completely at bay.
One of the older French resorts, skiing began in Méribel in 1938 when a Scottish Old Etonian pioneer called Peter Lindsay realised the valley would make a perfect winter sports destination. The name was in part chosen because “Merry Bell” would be easy for British skiers to remember and pronounce,
Remarkably Lindsay’s son David, now 68, still instructs in the resort with the Ecole de Ski Francais and there is to this day a huge British contingent — up to half the guests in high season.
Combined with its situation as the central and most accessible of the famous Trois Vallèes, still the biggest interlinked ski area on the planet, Méribel offers a package that very few other winter destinations can match.
This time I was lucky enough to be staying not in the cheap seats way down in the Doron river valley at Brides Les Bains — the closest the area offers to a budget accommodation option — as before, but in one of the glitziest five star hotels in the heart of the resort.
Le Coucou, a cluster of chalet-style buildings that tumbles down the slopes near the pulsating Rond-Pont apres ski haunt, is now well into its fifth season. The 55 room and suite hotel, at around the 1600 metre mark, is run by the family behind the Maisons Pariente group, which last year added Le Grand Mazarin in le Marais district of Paris to its collection.
With its opulent Pierre Yovanovitch designed interiors and Tata Harper spa, Le Coucou is all a very far cry from those cut price days at Brides, where the hot water ran out in our hotel at almost exactly the moment when the skiers all returned from the slopes and turned on the bath taps.
Here, almost all the hard work, that is usually a downsides of a ski holiday, is simply spirited away. The hotel has its own ski and boot hire room where staff help you in and out of your boots at the beginning and end of the day. Your skis are already placed out in the snow on a rack with your room number on it when you are set for the first run. Sheer bliss.
From the hotel it is a brisk five minute ski down to the main lift cluster of Meribel Centre. Even heading deep into the second week of January, festive decorations and lights, even trees, are up everywhere, giving Méribel the appearance of a benign Narnia where it is always winter — and always Christmas.
Méribel has the appearance of a benign Narnia where it is always winter.
There is almost too much to see, and ski across, in the Trois Vallèes expanse so there is no shame — and considerable saving on the lift pass — in staying exclusively within the Méribel domain. One unmissable treat is a trip to Le Clos Bernard chalet restaurant, tucked away deep in the forest down a snowy half mile track. There is no need to trudge from the road, you can ski there, or even better, pay the 10 Euro fare for the horse-drawn sleigh, a cost that, (rarely for Méribel), really does feel like a bargain.
The restaurant serves the full greatest hits list of Savoyard winter favourites, including our old friend cheese fondue — at what I now have to think of as a relatively modest 35 Euros a head — and a magnificent Tartiflette.
After lunch the sleigh, pulled by horses now straining at the extra weight, will drop you close to the tiny but spectacular Méribel alti-port where you can stand just beyond the end of the snow covered runway and watch planes take-off and come into land just a few metres over your head.
Not all of us have the option of flying straight into the resort, but it is easy to understand why elegant, charming Méribel retains its enduring appeal to the private plane going classes.
In its defence, Méribel wears its exclusivity perhaps more lightly than some of the other decadent winter haunts of the world’s elites — including neighbouring Courcheval. But it is never going to be a cheap date. So don’t make my mistake. Whatever you think that bill is going to be for the fondue lunch — it will be more.
Nightly rates at Le Coucou start from 460 Euros on a half board basis. lecoucoumeribel.com