Not long ago at a reliably expensive Swiss resort, a ski instructor explained how the mountains were changing. “Last year this place was all schnitzel and tablecloths,” he said, referencing its former menu and decor. Now, street art blazed confidently across the walls and American hip-hop boomed on the stereo. I glanced down at my burger. Never before had I wanted a schnitzel so badly.
Heeding Joni Mitchell’s warning – you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone – this year I searched for a resort that wore its heritage proudly on its sleeve. Classy, cosmopolitan and conservative; consider Megève if you like a little old-school charm.
Beloved by its well-heeled clientele and – at just over an hour from Geneva – perfect for a short break, the French resort lays claim to a fair chunk of ski history. Firstly, pants. Namely the tapered leg that became a feature of the classic salopette. Baggy golfing tweeds were de rigueur for skiers until 1930, when local tailor Armand Allard created a more streamlined silhouette at the request of Emile Allais – the Frenchman who went on to become Alpine world champion. His fuseau pant quickly caught on with the fast set and Allard’s store, now in its third generation of family ownership, occupies a prominent corner of Megève’s beautiful central square.
Horse-drawn carriages clop over its car-free cobbled streets and Allard’s neighbours provide a roll-call of luxury brands: Hermes, Moncler, Bogner, Longchamp... there is no Ralph Lauren, but at least one store sells polo gear should you need any.
It wasn’t ever thus. Megève dates back to the 13th century and its history is writ large by the pretty onion-domed church that towers over its centre. The village only really became a resort with the arrival of the Rothschilds in the 1920s. Baroness Noemi had been convalescing at St Moritz and envisioned a French rival, with commanding views of Mont Blanc.
But who to build it? Step forward, Henry Jacques Le Meme. Barely known today outside of architecture circles, Le Meme could be considered the father of the ski resort vernacular. The wood and stone chalet with the wide balcony and simple pitched roof? That’s Le Meme. Arguably, he stole the idea from countless uncredited farmers, but it caught on, and Megève hasn’t looked back.
Today, the jet-set stay in their own private homes a short drive from the village – nowhere here is truly ski-in/ski-out. For the rest of us, there are some very smart choices, including the large Four Seasons (a more recent Rothschild venture), or boutique affairs such as Les Fermes de Marie or L’Alpaga.
The latter is delightful. Its 22 rooms and suites are spread across 10 standalone chalets, with a small spa and a very welcoming bar designed around an open fire. Refurbished during the pandemic, it has the feel of a luxurious commune, if communes came with Michelin-starred restaurants and Diptyque toiletries. Notable in their absence are any gimmicks, cutting-edge concepts or new-age woo woo. It’s as though they have anticipated their target market will be (quite well off) grown ups, and catered accordingly. Seating is on chairs, not bean bags. Service is friendly, but discrete. Ping pong? No. Chess? Yes. There is a swish hybrid SUV to take you to the slopes – but it’s a Land Rover, not a Lexus.
Once on the mountain, three separate faces are covered by the Evasion-Mont Blanc lift pass, which also includes the villages of Saint-Gervais, La Giettaz, Combloux and Cordon. What Megève lacks in pure altitude – the village sits at just 1,100m, topping out around 2,400m – it makes up for in flattering pistes and well-groomed snow. On a mid-December visit, it was clear that the piste bashers are well-practised at making the best of whatever has fallen – reassuring in the current climate.
By pure chance I skied for a morning with Pierre de Monvallier, owner of the independent ski school Oxygene, who was in town to check on the latest branch of his business. He explained how his young daughter preferred skiing here to their home in all-singing-all-dancing Val d’Isère. Megève’s quieter, tree-lined slopes are certainly less intimidating than the high-altitude pistes of the Vanoise, and the clear view over Mont Blanc offers a constant horizon. A reassuring reference point, perhaps, for novice skiers. If derring-do demands, consider the Unlimited version of the lift pass. This includes access to the drama of Chamonix, 30 minutes’ drive away.
Naturally, there are many sunny terraces from which to appreciate Megève’s commanding views, none of which seemed to specialise in hamburgers or hip-hop, thankfully. I imagine this suited the locals as much as it did me, but the resort isn’t entirely immune to the march of progress. The Folie Douce waves its flamboyant jazz hands over the Mont Joux piste, and the new Tigrr Princesse, a short ski down to Mont d’Arbois, goes even further. This one really was a surprise to my traditional taste: it’s a pricey, pan-Asian affair, where a besuited man with a gong announces your entry and, once inside, the red, black and neon decor recalls certain clubs in Soho.
Combloux and La Giettaz are generally more affordable (the two-course plat du jour, for example, at the cosy Auberge Bonjournal, is just £15). And for millennials who get triggered by the sort of cultural appropriation that Tigrr Princesse is possibly guilty of, there is Le River back down in the village. Sitting pretty on the babbling river Planay, this offers a youthful vibe and an Instagram-friendly brunch-type menu. I might have paused to take a picture of my croque monsieur were it not so tasty.
All things considered, Megève is a delightful place to ski if you have the budget for it. As a luxurious short break for those who appreciate good food and wine and fashionable shops, it is perfect. Conservative? In some respects. But I prefer another C word: chic. Long may it remain so.
Return flights from Gatwick to Geneva are from £65 per person with British Airways; ba.com. Return transfers to Megève are from £80 per person with Megève Cab; megevecab.com.
Two nights’ B&B at the five-star Alpaga Hotel is from £521 per person; beaumier.com.
More information at megeve-tourisme.fr