In the Alps

Ski the best snow with an elite outfitter

BY CINDY HIRSCHFELD — Fall 2019

artially sheltered by knotty-pine eaves, I sit in Chalet Hibou’s outdoor hot tub as snowflakes steadily fall into my glass of slightly tart French Chablis. The hot, bubbly water serves as a perfect antidote for my trans-Atlantic-flight-weary muscles. I gaze across the narrow valley at the backside of Les Arcs and the base of Sainte Foy, two of seven ski areas clustered in this region of the French Alps. A Grateful Dead song plays in the background. Usually, I’m not a fan of the band’s mellow noodling, but right now it’s just my speed. I’ve only been here a few hours and can already predict that it’s going to be hard to leave this impossibly cozy chalet early tomorrow morning, even to go skiing.

Here, atop a serpentine road in the storybook-quaint hillside village of Le Miroir, Eleven Experience opened Chalet Pelerin in 2013; now, just a snowball’s throw across the road, the new Hibou (French for “owl”) delivers similar amenities in an equally charming but larger space. Sure, catered chalets have long been popular in the Alps, but Eleven’s signature blend of first-rate lodging, custom adventures, and unpretentious, American-influenced hospitality (the company calls Colorado home) sets apart this pair.

A stay here feels like an invitation to a house party thrown by someone with exceptionally good taste who doesn’t mind you putting your feet up on the furniture. Make that a house party with a private French chef who turns out exquisitely plated dishes such as lamb fillet with Indian spices and perhaps the best French onion soup you’ll ever taste.

In the winter, the four-level chalet accommodates one group at a time. Its seven bedrooms and living spaces convey just the right amount of Alpine chic, with rustic touches such as exposed stone, neatly stacked logs, and sheepskin throws.

Off to the Slopes

The next morning, after indulging in a breakfast spread that thankfully includes fresh chocolate croissants, I do, indeed, head out to ski. After all, hot tubs and good food aside, I’m here to do just that.

Eleven employs its own guides, who help guests find the best snow, navigate the vast trail networks, and take the necessary precautions to go off piste (akin to side-country skiing at U.S. resorts). My group’s guides, Ben and Olivier, from the nearby town of Tignes, cheerfully announce the early morning’s frigid temperatures and encourage us to bundle up. Our destination for the day: Val d’Isère, where — outfitted with beacons and other avalanche safety gear — we’ll primarily ski off piste.

If it sounds adventurous, it is. Eleven caters to guests looking for a challenge — who want to turn a vacation up a notch to, say, 11. That said, no one’s going to judge if you choose to take a day off and catch up on movies in the chalet’s media room or use the sauna and steam rooms. Or sit in a hot tub with Chablis.

Adding to the exploratory vibe, the brand develops its boutique properties in off-the-beaten-path locales. Crested Butte, for example, instead of Aspen. The Bahamas over St. Barts. Le Miroir rather than Chamonix or even Val d’Isère. That said, it takes us just 20 minutes to drive to the latter, where 25,000 skiable acres sprawl across numerous peaks (including the adjacent resort of Tignes) and chic boutiques, bars, and restaurants buzz with tourists.

On the first cable car ride, I think about how 20 years have passed since I’ve skied the Alps. I remember how much I love these mountains. (Even longer ago, in college, I studied in nearby Grenoble, to improve my French, yes, but also to ski.) Unlike at most North American resorts, ski runs here sit above treeline and lifts lead to the type of high places usually frequented by only birds and mountain goats.

Chopper Skiing

We enjoy fresh powder while exploring the off-piste slopes. But as good as the skiing is here (as well as at the smaller Sainte Foy resort, which we visit one morning), the apex comes later in the trip, when the chalet shuttle drives us up numerous switchbacks to the linked ski areas of La Rosière and La Thuile, straddling the French-Italian border.

Before heli-skiing, the day’s highlight, we must ride lifts and ski over to the Italian side, as helicopters are not permitted to shuttle skiers in France. Along the way, we pass a mountaintop fort with a long history that includes World War II, a reminder of Europe’s shifting borders and overlapping cultures. When we arrive at the Col du Petit Saint Bernard — a mountain pass whose summer road is now buried in snow — we duck into a small coffee shop. As the barista serves up espressos and pastries, the chatter of Italian, mixed with French and British English, fills the small, warm space.

The heli awaits, and within moments we soar through the Alps, getting close-up views of the massive rock outcroppings and heavily glaciated terrain, and landing some 10 minutes later on Miravidi peak. We ski down 3,200 vertical feet of rolling slopes, the snow consistency ranging from baby-powder soft to lightly wind-crusted, the famous Mont Blanc an ever-present backdrop. Another flight delivers us to the Rutor Glacier, which serves up a deliciously longer descent, followed by a quick heli bump to the Italian town of La Thuile, where we touch down on the local athletic field.

After a late, decadent lunch at the Eden Hotel, we somewhat reluctantly bundle back into our gear and board a ski-area cable car from town to propel our way back to France. As we swoosh down the last run at La Rosière, the first apricot blush of alpenglow touches the peaks.

A Memorable Evening

One evening, in particular, encapsulates the Eleven ethos of delivering outdoor adventure and unexpected charm. From the chalet’s back door, we hike a half-hour to the Alpage, an old farmhouse now restored into a dreamy venue exclusively for chalet guests. With no electricity (or running water), the building glows from within thanks to scores of candles. We toast with cocktails around a lively bonfire, then head indoors for Savoyarde cheese fondue by the fireplace, followed by a hearty dinner that’s even more impressive for having been sledded in by chalet staffers and prepared over gas burners in the small kitchen.

Later, fortified by sips of house-made génépy, a local herbal liqueur, we hike back, anticipating the chalet’s warmth, and maybe even a soak in the hot tub.

Details: Chalet Hibou requires a full property buyout in winter, from $8,875 per night based on 14 guests; in summer, rooms can be reserved individually, from $1,122. The buyout comes with guided adventures such as skiing, ski touring, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, and ice climbing; the necessary adventure gear; lift tickets; breakfast, après ski, and dinner; house alcoholic beverages; and the Alpage experience. Heli-skiing costs extra. 800-903-7761; elevenexperience.com

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