Imagine. You are in one of the world’s great ski resorts. It’s the last day in November but the season is about to start. It has been snowing steadily for three weeks and there is already a deep base in the resort and higher up the mountain. As you wake up and your eyes begin to focus, you can see that it is going to be a clear blue day. The snow is luminous in the early light and the tip of the highest peak is already burnished with gold as it catches the first rays of the rising sun.
There is no wind, and your breath clouds the air when you step outside the hotel after breakfast – it’s the perfect temperature to keep the snow light and the air fresh. A few steps away, you can see that the piste has been groomed to a crisp corduroy: the ridges sparkle in the raking light and squeak when you step on to them. Just to complete this picture of perfection, on either side are fields of virgin powder. There are, as yet, no other skiers. You have the first tracks.
You think I’m fantasising. Days like this happen, of course. They are the reason we come to the mountains in winter, and why skiing can be such a sublime experience. But to wake up at the top of the mountain with the piste to yourself?
This is not a fantasy, however; it is a news report. I have just come back from the opening weekend at Val d’Isère, which already has an excellent snow base and which fired up its lifts in brilliant sunshine last Saturday. And the reason I was able to cut the very first tracks of the season across uncorrupted corduroy in that brilliant morning sunshine was because, when the lifts started, I was already up there, at the top of the piste.
I was the first guest to stay in the new Refuge de Solaise, which opened last weekend. At 2,551m, it is in the heart of the Val d’Isère domain and now counts as the highest hotel in France.
I had woken to a spectacular view directly down the valley towards the village and over to the range of mountains around Mont Pourri. But the hotel has astonishing views from its picture windows to all points of the compass. It was those views and that experience of seeing the empty pistes which, 10 years ago, gave Jean-Claude Borel the idea for the hotel. He had taken on a self-service restaurant in the lift station and would be up there early each morning to prepare for the day. Then, when he heard that the cable car was going to be replaced by a new bubble lift nearby, he went to Paris and persuaded the lift company to sell him the disused station.
Together with his wife, Virginie, (both are from Val d’Isère) and his business partner, the local architect and builder Jean-Charles Covarel, he came up with a plan to demolish most of the old station and rebuild it as a luxury hotel – with a gourmet restaurant for skiers and guests and, just alongside, a self-service Italian restaurant. The cable car eventually closed in 2017 and now, after two summers of reconstruction, their project is complete, just in time (though only just) for the new season.
It has been beautifully done. Covarel specialises in timber work: huge beams and A-frames span main public areas and he designed the tables and restaurant furniture. The large but cosy bedrooms (the underfloor heating makes the difference, I think) are lined with subtly stained and textured pine boards and great expanses of glass to maximise the views. And, in case you get bored on those long winter nights, there’s a spa with a 25m indoor swimming pool, steam room and sauna and three treatment rooms. Next door is a seminar room and a good-sized playroom for children.
There is an unusual mix of accommodation. As well as 16 bedrooms there are four large self-catering apartments – including an enormous one sleeping 18 at the top of the building, which has views in three directions. One of the quirks of Le Refuge lies in its name. It is a luxury hotel but also a mountain refuge – this means that, as well as the rooms and apartments, it has a dormitory. This is a large room under the eaves with curtained bunks and even a couple of double beds discreetly tucked away on platforms.
I admit that I opted for a private room instead – and I had a great stay, although in the rush to open for the start of the season, there were a few details still to be finished. The shop wasn’t yet open, the lift wasn’t always functioning and the kitchen was operating a little unevenly. But last Saturday night the rooms were already fully booked, and Jean-Claude has recruited some excellent staff to ease the early hiccups.
There will also be some obvious practical problems about running a hotel like this in winter. The Refuge can only be reached on skis or by the Solaise Gondola from the village, and when the lift stops (as early as 4.30pm in low season) you are cut off from the world below. The lift company has agreed to run a service until 11pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays so that hotel guests can go and dine in Val d’Isère and others can go up and eat in the Refuge. But otherwise, at the end of the day, when the other skiers have headed down and the pistes are closed, you are there for the night, cocooned at the top of mountain. And best of all, you will wake up to that view, and those empty, untracked pistes.
Le Refuge de Solaise – rooms from €300 (£255) per night B&B for a standard double in low season and from €500 in high season (lerefuge-valdisere.com). The hotel can also arrange ski passes, ski hire, babysitting and airport transfers.
Read the full review: Le Refuge de Solaise