WORDS CHRIS MADIGAN
With the Easter school holidays approaching, you may decide that a family ski holiday you were denying yourself is a possibility after all (as long as the Hester-bashers didn’t get at your bonus). So you may wish to consider a week at the newly opened Club Med village in the ski resort of Valmorel in the Tarentaise.
Your reaction to that suggestion will, no doubt, be dependent on where – and when – you have experienced (or heard about) vacances with the French company before. In the Sixties and Seventies, Club Med was the byword for hedonism on holiday in exotic places (before Hedonism with a capital H took that definition somewhat further). Couples and singles sunbathed, joined games of volleyball and got roped into song-and-dance routines at night. And all the time the drinks were free – all very Club Tropicana.
In the Nineties, the run-down old resorts of the Sixties limped on without improvements, taking a battering from marauding children; there was an emphasis on budget resorts; and a programme of acquisition branched out into gyms and a tour operator. The company suffered a serious decline in fortunes. However, in 2004, the new CEO Henri Giscard d’Estaing (son of former French president, Valéry) reversed the strategy and essentially decided to take things in the direction he knows best: upmarket.
That year, 75 per cent of Club Med beds were in what they call ‘two- and three-trident villages’. By the end of 2012, 67 per cent will be in 4T and 5T properties. The company has opened only luxury villages recently (including in new market China, the country that has also provided a group of new investors); upgraded properties with potential; and pulled down the shutters on the grottiest properties, such as those in ski resorts Flaine, and Sestrière (Les Menuires is next).
Of course, the superior accommodation and service at these higher price-point villages means increased revenue per bed and, with it, margin, but the higher the holiday value, the higher the client satisfaction as well, it would appear – 39 per cent of households who booked a 3T holiday in 2010 returned in 2011; but 49 per cent of those at a 4T village rebooked. As a result, a holiday company whose resorts have consistently run at an operating loss for as long as anyone can remember achieved an operating pre-tax profit of €4.5m.
The latest village in Valmorel is projected to increase that figure for 2012. The original resort of Valmorel – the first ski station you come to as you drive down the N90 from Albertville towards Val d’Isère – was built in the Seventies and architect Pierre Diener’s brief was to reflect traditional Savoyard building styles. Thirty years on the same architect has applied that ethos to the Club Med village perched above the existing resort. It is designed to look like a mediaeval walled village, a higgledy-piggledy collection of ancient buildings, even though it is actually all one structure.
A spacious lobby with a ‘hip hotel’ feel leads to the main lounge, which is the heart of the village and has the high ceilings of an American ski lodge (which are useful for the evening’s entertainment – giving the trapeze artists room to work) but the long bar and red day-bed chic of a Balinese nightclub.
On the floor below are the swimming pool, the spa centre and the sports equipment centre – where you can rent impressively high-quality ski and snowboard gear, as well as sleds and ice skates. All of these activities are doable from the door – Club Med built a new piste and chair lift on this part of the mountain to allow ski-in-ski- out convenience, as well as putting in its own nursery slope. Valmorel’s skiing is largely gentle and open – ideal for a week with the family, not for a boys’ or girls’ hardcore weekend.
For most, it is the way Club Med facilitates a family holiday that is the big attraction. From as young as four months, babies can be left with Baby Club Med while you grab a couple of hours’ skiing; there is a toddlers’ gym and different age-range clubs for kids up to 17 (the older teens have a room with a snack bar, mixing decks and video games – but check on the availability of this before you book). And there is a separate dining room where babies and toddlers can be given supper.
For adults the Club Med model for dining has always been the buffet. If this conjurs up fearful images of motorway service station food courts, it shouldn’t because the various stations are staffed by real chefs and the dishes would pass muster if you ordered them à la carte. True, you can go mad – only embarrassment will stop you making multiple visits to create a seven-course tasting menu that feature sushi followed by raclette – but choose wisely and you can have a fine meal of, for example, langoustine salad, followed by beef wellington and rounded off with Ladurée-style macaroons.
What has been done at Valmorel for the first time is to have four dining rooms instead of one big one. Each is themed for a season – the autumn one, for example has as its centrepiece two rutting deer with candelabra antlers. It gives you more of a sense of moving from restaurant to restaurant as the days go by, rather than turning up to a refectory every evening.
Taking that one step further is the à la carte restaurant, La Laiterie, on a different floor. It’s a particularly good option for breakfast if you’re not a people person first thing. Alternatively, you can have breakfast in bed if you book into Club Med’s five-trident accommodation (the resort as a whole is 4T). This is not the same as five-star but it does represent a hike in levels of luxury and exclusivity. Located in its own key card-segregated wing of the village, the 5T accommodation is all suites, with extra space, ramped up tech and décor with all the luxury bedroom pulse-points (leather; locally sourced wood; Egyptian cotton etc). The rooms in the rest of the resort are well appointed, not tiny (the bathrooms are particularly fine) and are (helpfully for families) connectable, but the 5T section has a proper luxury hotel feel.
In addition, there is an oasis of calm, The Lodge, a private lounge where you can enjoy a complimentary malt whisky (although, as the old Wham song almost went, at Club Méditerranée drinks are free, in the main bar this does not apply to premium spirits) while reading or quietly chatting with friends.
You can take the all-inclusive but exclusive model a step further by staying at (or indeed purchasing) one of the new Club Med chalet-apartments just above the village. These lovely two- or four-bedroom maisonettes have classy touches such as balconies with a view on Mont Blanc and a TV screen that rises up from the log fireplace and is a mirror when switched off; they are linked to the resort facilities thanks to shuttle MPVs; and you enjoy the services of a butler and a full concierge service.
In a way, these chalet-apartments give you more of a traditional ski holiday, because you’re less likely to join in with the group festivities in the evening. And you may be more inclined to visit the original Valmorel resort village. Anyway it’s worth tearing yourself away from the all-inclusive grind for one evening at least. A single pedestrianised main street in the village is host to a number of cosy bars and restaurants where you can get a vin chaud and a tartiflette, as well as shops selling Savoyard specialities including sheep’s milk cheese and genepy. And there is often some festivity going on – it’s a lively atmosphere and different to the homogeneity of Club Med.
So how upmarket has Club Med really gone? Well, it isn’t Badrutt’s Palace, but as a family holiday, it will keep the kids happy (unless they’re extremely spoilt) and there are enough luxurious touches to please you too. As the architect Pierre Diener said, ‘I have a friend who is a billionaire. He goes to the finest hotels around the world but once a year he likes to bring all his relatives together for a family holiday. But he doesn’t want to be responsible for making sure they’re all entertained, so he hosts everyone at a Club Med resort, where they do it for him. He has refined tastes but is not extremely fussy, so he’s happy.’
One week at Club Med Valmorel, all-inclusive (with flights, transfers, ski school and lift passes, as well as all meals and most drinks) costs from £1,453 per adult and £1,257 per child in four-trident rooms; or from £3,023 per adult and £2,528 per child in the five-trident luxury space. A week in a two-bedroom chalet-apartment costs from £13,400 for four people. 08453 67 67 67; clubmed.co.uk