by Francisca Kellett, The Telegraph, March 3, 2020
Money can’t buy you love or happiness, but it can build you a ski resort. It helps if you’re a Rothschild, of course. Noémi de Rothschild, in particular, who was a regular in St Moritz just after the First World War and decided it was high time France had its own smart ski resort. Legend has it she’d also had enough of skiing alongside Germans, but that’s another story. So off she sent her ski instructor, Try Smith, to find an alternative.
He came up with the goods: a charming little village in a beautiful French valley, with sunny slopes and views right on to Mont Blanc. De Rothschild was convinced she had found her spot, and built a home on Mont d’Arbois, and then a hotel, encouraging high-rolling friends to join her. It became a hit, and after the Second World War was France’s most fashionable resort, attracting the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Rita Hayworth and the writer and artist Jean Cocteau – who reportedly called Megève “the 21st arrondissement of Paris”.
Fast forward 40 years and another French family came up with another good idea. Megève now had its hotels and its infrastructure – its lifts and gondolas, shops and bars. What it didn’t have was somewhere properly cool to stay, somewhere offering a more relaxed take on the usual posh five-stars.
“They said we were crazy!” Jocelyne Sibuet tells me over a citrusy cocktail in the bar of Les Fermes de Marie, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “Our village feel, our cosy style... we did this before everyone else.” Back then, five-star hotels were grand affairs – tasselled curtains, stuffy velvet, ornamental furniture. Les Fermes de Marie offered something different. “It was a huge success from the beginning,” says Sibuet. “Everyone wanted to come and see it.” Her accent is brilliantly French, as is her look – thick chestnut hair, casual cashmere, chic statement jewellery. She is understated but stylish, with that effortless, thrown-together French look.
Her hotel is similarly effortless and thrown together. It’s a pretty cluster of old wooden houses, built from reclaimed Savoie farmhouses and filled with furniture found on Jocelyn’s travels: a scuffed leather sofa here, a vividly patterned set of armchairs there. Her children, Marie and Nicolas, have taken over the day-to-day running of the business, but her signature style remains everywhere. “We work in collaboration,” she explains. Lots of rough wood, cosy sheepskins, giant cowbells and ceramic pots of lush ferns, with a fragrant spa in the basement offering treatments using their own organic Pure Altitude products.
The suites are wood-clad and cosy, overlooking the gardens and the snowy peaks beyond, and there are numerous nooks to lounge around in your socks (or your furs – you’re in Megève, remember). Megève proper is a short walk from Les Fermes de Marie, and is surely just what Noémi de Rothschild was hoping for. The Rothschilds, by the way, are very much still present; the family recently opened the £90 million Four Seasons on the plot of the original family home, a 10-minute drive from town.
Town itself is a pretty, higgledy grid of cobbled streets, an upmarket mix of old and new, a sort of boutique version of St Moritz, where the main square’s 14th-century church stands opposite high-end sports shops selling Moncler children’s jackets for €450 (£382). There are furriers besides pharmacies, Hermès next to homewares. Ladies in floor-length mink sip coffees beside workmen in high-vis jackets, and picturesque horse-drawn carriages line up alongside bashed up mopeds. It’s all very French.
Les Fermes has just opened its own grocery shop in town, L’Épicerie des Fermes, tucked down a side street and probably the smartest grocery shop this side of Fortnum’s – with cheeses, charcuterie, a full wine cellar and ready meals including the most luxurious boil-in-the-bag pasta I have ever seen (with truffles).
Another new addition for this year is La Ferme de Bacré, a rustic chalet set on a hillside outside town, a 15-minute hike through a forest. Inside is like a Ralph Lauren photo shoot, with long shared tables (for hotel guests only) offering rustic off-grid lunches – we had cheese fondue, which won a prize last year as the best in Megève. It is boozy and delicious.
The Sibuets own two other hotels in town (and more further afield, including St Tropez and St Barths). Park Lodge is a larger, slicker set-up right in the centre, where we dine at Le Beef Lodge: truffle pizza and brilliant rib-eye steaks, served with fries dusted with truffle (you may spot a theme in the food here). They also own the central Hotel Mont-Blanc, a stumble away from the main cable car and once the favourite haunt of Cocteau; the bistro, named after his book, Les Enfants Terribles, is decorated with one of his murals. I’m sure it serves truffle, too.
The restaurant at Les Fermes is a huge space with an enormous crackling fire and double-storey ceilings. They’re offering a special 30th anniversary menu, with seven delicious courses including a hay-cooked potato topped with caviar, hand-cut macaroni with Mont-Charvin bacon, and free-range baby chicken with truffle, in case you haven’t had enough.
And so to the slopes, the reason most visitors come here, although almost an afterthought after all that food. There are three vast areas: Mont D’arbois, Rochebrune and Le Jaillet, served by 88 lifts and with 325km of pistes – lots of gentle blues and easy reds. It’s easy to piste bash for a day and never ski the same run twice.
There are lovely slope-side restaurants, too, such as the Chalet Forestier in a sunny corner of Rochebrune, overseen by chef Emmanuel Renaut, better known for his three-Michelin-star restaurant in town, Flocons de Sel. Sitting on the sun-washed terrace, eating warming beef stew, I am surrounded by chattering French families. No braying Brits, and no Germans. Noémi de Rothschild got it spot on.
Winter rates at Les Fermes de Marie (0033 4 50 93 03 10; fermesdemarie.com) from €389 (£330) per night for a double room B&B, including a day trip to La Ferme de Bacré.
Read the full review: Les Fermes de Marie