Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers, and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Woman You’re on film, Peter. Do you want to count down? Little smile. One…
Peter Wow. I’m closing in on the French village of Arc 1950, 130km/h. That’s around 80mph on skis. Now, this time I’m on a zip-wire, and it’s quite literally breathtaking. There are, of course, more conventional ways of covering the 1.8km from the top of the Varet gondola, high above the ski resort of Les Arcs in the French Alps, but none so spectacular.
It takes me just sixty seconds to get down. After putting on my skis again, I make my way to the heart of Arc 1950 and join Felice in this experimental village that’s celebrating its twentieth birthday this season.
Felice How was the ride, Peter?
Peter I really don’t know why we do these things. It was scary, but I think I’ve done worse. What was yours like?
Felice It was fun, actually. I’ve done others before. And in the mountains, they’re particularly scary because of the height differences. But this one was lovely, actually. Really, really nice. Quite cold though.
Peter Last one I think we did was in in Verbier and we did it in summer, which is a bit different to when you are going over the snow.
Felice It’s the snow beneath you, it’s all white and you can’t really see the contours, whereas in summer you can see the jagged rocks and that makes it much more frightening.
Peter Yes I think when you see the rocks rushing by at such high speed, that’s a bit more dramatic effect, isn’t it?
Felice Or when you rush by the rocks!
Peter Either way, it’s certainly a lot safer than my previous experience going down that slope, which was actually beneath the zip-wire where there was the course of the flying kilometre, the Kilometre Lancée, which was built for the 1992 Olympics, and some bright spark in a newspaper somewhere, decided that I should go down it just before the Olympics and see how fast I could go.
Felice I wasn’t there, luckily.
Peter No. Well, you’re very lucky you weren’t, because it was truly, truly terrifying. You step into the track and you accelerate at a speed higher than a Formula 1 car, and you keep going in a straight line until you go uphill a bit and stop. You’re wearing incredibly long skis and a funny shaped helmet. Overall, the risk factor is high, but not desperate. I didn’t start from the very top. I started from a beginner start position, but even so, I think I hit a speed of around 90mph, which is far faster than I ever want to do on skis. But it’s just a bit too dangerous. I’m not thinking of taking up speed skiing in my old age, I can tell you.
Felice But we’re not here to talk about speed skiing. We’re actually here to talk about Arc 1950 and its 20th birthday.
Peter It all began with the ambition of Canadian resort developer Intrawest, creator of Mont-Tremblant in Quebec and makeover manager of some twenty other resorts in North America, from Whistler to Mammoth. Perhaps crucially, the company was based in Montreal and French was their first language.
Felice Let’s bring in Jean-Marc Silva. You were the first tourist director here?
Jean-Marc It was a North American dream and they had a project. Just a project at this time to create a resort in Europe, and they wanted to create a village open in winter, but also in summer. And one day in Bourg-Saint-Maurice a man arrived, a pioneer. He was a visionary. His name was Robert Jerome and he came alone by train. He arrived in the railway station in Bourg-Saint-Maurice and in his suitcase was a project to create the best village, the best mountain village in Europe, in advance of the marketing. And for us, it was incredible to work with them and to think up a new project for new customers.
Peter Jane Bolton, let’s bring you in here. You’re the managing director of Erna Low, which is Britain’s oldest ski tour operator going back to 1933, if my memory serves me right. So, Jane, we first met on the very first Eurostar going from London to Bourg-Saint-Maurice. I can’t remember when that was, but 19-something.
Jane It was a long time ago.
Peter It was a long time ago.
Jane At that time, Erna Low was the UK PR representative for Les Arcs and La Plagne, and we were doing their ski shows for them or their marketing, advertising and part of the job remit when the Eurostar direct service came, was that there would be a representative on the train each week handing out brochures to clients that were travelling to go to those resorts.
Peter So did you then stay in Les Arcs when you got there, or did you come home?
Jane No, I came home and then went out three or four weekends. We all took it in turns from the office to go and be the representative on the train each weekend.
Peter You were in on the building of 1950 from the very beginning, therefore?
Jane I can remember being in Les Arcs on 911, in 2001. We were in a creative marketing meeting which fried my brain in French at the best of times, and then we came out to this terrible news, and it was just the most surreal experience of my life.
Felice I think we came to the opening and I think there was one building then, but luckily lots of snow, so it didn’t look too bad.
Felice So who would have thought that 1950 would develop like that? I mean, it’s not huge, which is great. It has stopped at a certain level and you can walk around it, you can ski around it, and it’s not…it hasn’t turned into an enormous resort, which I’m really pleased about.
Jane But that first building, the Hameau de Glacier, which is the first one, and then they built the Refuge, on the other side of the road. It was quite hard still then, to imagine what it was going to be like when everything else was completed. It looked a bit bizarre, just the two buildings, I think, with a few commercial units, but nothing like it is now with everything more established.
Peter It was it was an extraordinary sight, really, because there were the first people moving in and it was a building site. I mean, a massive building site, wasn’t it?
Jane Cranes everywhere.
Peter So we we’ve come to the twentieth anniversary and it’s a very different, it’s certainly all complete and it’s really one of the best places for families I think, because you can just very easily ski round the whole thing. You don’t have to be an expert to ski round the village or walk round the village.
Peter Twenty years on, are you pleased with what you see today?
Jane Oh, yes, for Erna Low it’s by far our biggest selling resort, we recommend it for people with families all the time. We were looking at our own family videos last night, and I’ve got a video of my son skiing through the village at three, three and a half. Because the Caribou Club has a special little area down at the bottom with its own magic carpet and a little tiny slope, and they’d ski a little bit in the morning and then go back into the chalet for the afternoon and do snow games and what have you in the afternoon. And so by the age of three and a half he was quite happily skiing down very slowly through the village and having a lovely time. So it is really very good for people with families as well, as well as individual skiers who like the doorstep skiing.
Peter What do you think is the best thing about it? For me, it’s very much the fact that as a child friendly resort it’s completely safe. There’s no traffic, there’s no cars at all. I mean, you can drive up the road to get there, and then it’s got this massive network of underground car parks.
Jane You’d never think of that, would you, as you were skiing. If you didn’t know the car park was there, you’d have no idea of how the village actually functions and how everything gets to where it is. And yes, we used to just let the kids go off and buy their pain au chocolate and croissants in the morning, and go to the supermarket and go to the events in the evening. You know, they have their whole animation program in the evenings. And you could let them go without worrying about them in the slightest.
Felice The thing I notice now is that everything in the apartment, all the cleaning things and washing things that were provided, are all environmentally friendly, all organic, which I think is great. And I wondered if that was just Pierre & Vacances or all over?
Jane No, I noticed as well that in other accommodations I’ve been staying in recently, that there’s been a big move towards that. There’s obviously a big push towards it, but with Pierre & Vacances, they are, I think, one step ahead in terms of environmental ways that they’re working.
Especially, my favourite bit is the fact that they’re doing food recycling at the end, because I always wondered what happens, you know, when you leave your bag of pasta or your tube of mayonnaise, it’s such a waste just leaving it in an apartment, but now they’re somehow recycling it and redistributing it. So I think that’s a really good initiative.
Peter Perhaps you can explain.
Jane Well, again, Pierre & Vacances have been one of our biggest partners over the years. And at one point we were their UK representatives as well. So when 1950, when Pierre & Vacances took over Arc 1950, it was a very logical partnership for us to continue. You know, we were very strong there as it was, and we were also one of their biggest UK partners. So we just continued to work with them very strongly.
Peter So they have most of the property there. And then of course there are private owners as well.
Jane Yes, there are private owners and then they’ve also got Maeva.com rentals as well. And Maeva.com is part of Pierre & Vacances, so it’s part of the big umbrella company.
Felice So the other thing is how easy it is to get to Arc 2000. And we went there just for dinner to a lovely restaurant, Rooftop 2134, and then back again afterwards just by gondola. It was incredibly easy.
Peter Well, it’s only 50 vertical meters, so it’s not far.
Jane And the Cabriolet lift runs until 11pm, and it’s remarkably convenient, isn’t it, just to pop up and down? It’s almost as if the resorts could be one resort – apart from this significant difference in the architecture.
Peter But the atmosphere is very different because Arc 2000 is just above the treeline, and the landscape can be quite stark, especially when the weather closes in. Whereas Arc 1950 is down in the trees.
Jane It feels a bit more cosy in 1950.
Felice And you can find your way around easily too, whereas 2000 is a bit more tricky because there are so many apartments.
Jane Yes, a labyrinth of lifts and everything looking similar.
Peter I think that’s right.
Felice And there’s nothing new planned to make Arc 1950 bigger, is there? It’s not going to be like the other Intrawest resorts?
Jane No, no. My understanding was that that was absolutely the last plots that were built on and that there isn’t anywhere else available for building in that area.
Jane Yes, the convenience is fantastic and I love the light show as well up above Arc 2000, and the zip-wire that you can do. The resort I think is absolutely fantastic.
Felice Yes, we did the zip-wire and we went to the light show, which was amazing wasn’t it?
Peter Explain the explain the light show?
Felice Well, we were hesitant about coming off our skis after lunch and not going out on the piste again for a bit, so we weren’t sure if we wanted to do it, and we were persuaded into it and into this room – it’s a converted garage for the lift station. Inside you walk through it and there’s film floor-to-ceiling….I don’t know how to describe it, really.
Peter It’s going through the whole calendar year of Les Arcs. So you see the spring, and then you get into summer and then you get winter and snow falling. It’s very dramatic and quite hard to describe, but it’s quite surreal experience, isn’t it?
Felice I should think it would be fun for children to go to as well.
Jane Yes, absolutely. And it’s accessible by pedestrians as well. You don’t need to be able to ski to get there, because you can just go up in the bubble.
Felice That’s the other thing. It’s one of the few purpose built resorts that would be suitable for non-skiers, I think.
Jane Yes, especially with the spa in 1950 as well. We recommend it to a lot for people that have mixed groups of people that ski and don’t ski.
Felice Most purpose-built resorts are bleak places. When everyone’s gone out skiing, you’re left there with not a lot to do.
Peter I think the spa is really important. And of course, getting there…tell us about getting there. Because one of the great advantages of Les Arcs in general is that it is accessible by train.
Jane Well, we travelled together, didn’t we, on the train and we arrived in Bourg-Saint-Maurice. And then you walk along the platform, along the bridge, and then you can get on the funicular up to Arc 1600, from where there are feeder buses up to the different resorts. So yes, it is convenient.
Felice So if people want to book with you to go to Arc 1950, how would they do that?
Jane Well, they can book online on our website at Ernalow.co.uk, or they can give us a call and we’d be happy to speak to them. We’ve got people that have been to Arc 1950 many, many times in our sales team. So they are very experienced and know it, know it really, really well.
Felice So why do you think 1950 is so different?
Peter Well, I think you have to go back a lot more than twenty years to the rather romantic origins of the whole of Les Arcs, a local shepherd called Robert Blanc, who came from one of the tiny hamlets just above Bourg-Saint-Maurice, dreamt the whole thing up. He and his four brothers, they were all shepherds in summer, and ski instructors in winter, used to spend the summer months in the 1950s on the mountainside here.
Teenage Robert and his flock usually roamed the high pastures that surround a cluster of seasonal refuges that now houses Chalets de l’Arc mountain restaurant. It’s just above the ski village of Arc 2000.
Felice It’s actually a really nice restaurant and we went there for coffee this time.
Peter Now, Robert knew every twist and turn of the terrain, and when the weather was bad, he’d bring the sheep down to the treeline for shelter and to drink from the streams here. Now, further along the valley, the post-war ski resort building boom was already underway in places like Courchevel, but Robert believed that his was an even better location.
He went on to become a much respected international mountain guide, travelling the world and making extreme descents in other mountain ranges. But he was always thinking about what needed to happen at home.
By chance he met up with a local entrepreneur called Roger Godino and together, rather astonishingly, they managed to create Les Arcs. And of course, Les Arcs quickly developed a reputation for innovation right from the beginning, didn’t it?
Felice The first time I went there, which was in the ’80s, they had ski evolutiv, which was the short type of ski that you learnt on – very, very short. And then every day you went up an extra length until you were finally on long skis, normal length skis.
Peter It’s what Americans call the graduated length method. And it had its advantages and disadvantages, didn’t it? You learn quite quickly, but…
Felice You couldn’t Schuss on them. You could do lots of very quick turns.
Peter Never learning the snowplough, that was the problem. And as we all know in life, there are moments when you really need it to stop on a steep slope and all sorts of other occasions.
Felice So Les Arcs was at the forefront of that. And speed skiing that we’ve mentioned.
Peter It was one of the homes of snowboarding, early snowboarding in Europe, snowboarding having been developed in America, and it was also one of the original homes of monoskiing.
Arc 1600, the first village, opened in 1968 and 1800 followed in 1974. I met Robert in 1979 at the opening of the Village of Arc 2000. This, I think, was planned as the last village at the time, and this, like the others, was somewhat utilitarian in concept.
A Club Med was later to be surrounded by basic shoebox apartments. Not much creature comfort here, but they gave immediate access to what was becoming a major ski area. I think Robert sensed that we thought then that there could be still more to Les Arcs than this.
That afternoon, we skied down from there, into the trees, and we paused in the glade which was to become the 55,000 acre site of Arc 1950. And Robert told me, ‘This would be a great sheltered spot for a luxury apartment complex and maybe a hotel. One day I’ll build another village here.’
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Shortly after our meeting, Robert was killed in an avalanche while searching the same stretch of mountainside for two Belgian girls who had been reported missing. In fact, they turned up alive and well in Arc 1600.
It’s interesting to note that the majority of the original apartment buyers were British, attracted no doubt by the Canadian marketing ploy that made them so affordable. The developers fitted carpets and curtains and other basic furnishings as soon as they were built. The owners didn’t buy the apartments outright for the first eleven years, but leased them back to Les Arcs when they were not occupied. Therefore, they weren’t subject to VAT, and as a result, the new resort had few ‘cold beds’ at any time of year, winter or summer, which greatly added to the attraction of 1950. The restaurants, shops and other services all benefited hugely.
Jean-Marc, you must be very pleased to have created such an amazing resort?
Jean-Marc Yes, it was very exciting and interesting, because we were working with a Canadian team. They are very, very advanced on the marketing. For us it was new, for us in France and in Europe.
Peter One final question. If Robert Blanc was alive today, if he hadn’t tragically been killed in that avalanche, would he be very pleased with what you’ve done? I think he would.
Jean-Marc I hope so. His brother, Ivan Blanc, knows the village, and I was very pleased to work with Ivan Blanc. I think the most important was the pleasure of the guests. And when we saw the smile on the face of our guests in the village, it’s a real gratification. Twenty years after, we can tell it’s a real success and we can say thank you to the English people who believed in this project.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. By the way, we’re no 7 in the Top 20 Midlife Travel Podcasts.
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