Aspen and Megève, a Jet Set Playground

The resorts of Aspen and Megève are winter holiday hotspots for international jetsetters, and owe their reputation to the boom in the skiing industry. We took a look at these two traditional mountain villages, respectively in Colorado and Haute-Savoie.
© Aspen Snowmass

Aspen: Snow-Capped Silver Mines

Aspen was not always an alpine village home to the upper echelons of Hollywood. The land originally belonged to the Native American Ute people, and the peaceful setting was transformed with the arrival of the first gold prospectors during the winter of 1879. Christened Aspen in reference to the multitude of aspen trees in the valley, the town was first renowned for its silver mines, which produced more than 15% of the United States’ reserves. But the drop in the price of silver plunged Aspen back into anonymity for more than 40 years, and it wasn’t until the invention of leisure skiing that the town was reborn. At the start of World War II, the town became a training camp for soldiers, and after the conflict a large number of veterans returned to Aspen and contributed to the development of skiing in the region. The very first ski lift was inaugurated in 1946, and at the time it was the largest in the world. Well aware of the beauty of its ski area, the local authorities began promoting the construction of new buildings, and the number of inhabitants has increased six-fold between 1960 and today.

Did you know? Aspen has always been associated with wealth. The world’s biggest nugget of gold was even discovered in the town in 1894, weighing in at more than 3.8 kilos! More than enough to ensure a comfortable future for the lucky miner who found it.

Megève: Pure Mountain Air at the Peak of Polite Society

Megève was once an isolated village in the heart of the French Alps. In just a few decades it became a leading holiday destination, and has the skiing world to thank for its transformation. At the start of the 20th century, Megève was only known for its pure air, and many ill people would come looking to rest and recover. A brochure published by the tourism office at the time claimed that the village was a holiday destination for “children weakened by the smog, dust and epidemics of big cities.”

Megève’s future was changed forever by the Baroness Maurice de Rothschild and her patriotic vigor. While holidaying in Saint-Moritz in the winter of 1917, she asked the hotel owner to not allow a single German tourist into the establishment while she was there. The proprietor failed to keep his promise, and inspired Madame de Rothschild to create her own version of Saint-Moritz. The Baroness decided to invest in Megève, and the village quickly opened its first hotels to welcome members of high society every winter.

Did you know? Before the first ski lift was installed in 1933, skiers were dragged to the top of the mountains on a rope pulled by a horse. Video archives still exist showing this rather unusual practice!

Aspen: A Spaghetti-Western Ambiance

Whether red-brick or wood, the chalets in the historical quarter of Aspen set themselves apart from the luxury villas built over the last 20 years. The residences in the old neighborhood are built in closely-packed lines, giving the impression of a fortress besieged by the surrounding mountains. The citadel’s crisscrossed streets are reminiscent of Manhattan, but the architecture is closer to that of a French alpine village. The wide central avenue has retained the charm of the old village, and makes visitors feel like they are starring in a western! While the saloons have since been transformed into shops, the style of the Wild West is still palpable.

Thanks to the wealth of its inhabitants and the exorbitant real estate prices, Aspen now boasts a booming cultural scene with a jazz center, an enormous art gallery, its own ballet company and an opera house. The town also offers seven French restaurants, including the Crêperie du Village, renowned for its cheese fondue… and of course its crêpes!

Megève: Typical Alpine Chalets

While Aspen beams out red lights, Megève replies with its own yellow palette. The Place de l’Eglise, for example, with its baroque-style bell tower, is one of the only places lit up at night. When the Baroness de Rothschild invested in the village, she wanted to make it into a French icon. She called on architect Henry Jacques Le Même to design her a typical Savoyard residence – brimming with luxury, of course. This style went on to influence every building in Megève, and the picturesque architecture continues to enchant tourists today. Concrete is forbidden, and new structures are generally small wooden chalets with flagstone roofs.

The Megève of the 21st century, an intimate bourgeois haven, has nevertheless seen several of its local businesses replaced by nightclubs and a casino. The resort is no longer exclusively reserved for the Paris smart set, and now attracts an international clientele. But there’s no cause for concern – whatever happens, the overall architecture of Megève promises to remain authentic.

Aspen: A Hotspot for Swaggering Champions

Open from November 24 to April 16, the 64 miles of skiable slopes mean tourists never have to do the same run twice. With no green circle runs and almost a third of the pistes reserved for experts, Aspen is not really a resort for beginners. Certain editions of the Skiing World Championships were actually held on these slopes. The ski area is far higher than the village, meaning that the view from the ski lifts is truly spectacular. The downhill run through the valley is another unique experience; Aspen Mountain has retained the majority of its forests and therefore its natural side, unlike some of its visitors…

Megève: From Beginners to Downhill Royalty

Comprised of five mountain passes, the Megève ski area is one of the largest in the world. Just like Aspen, the pistes are located at more than 3,600 ft. of altitude, and offer a breathtaking panorama over the valley and a unique view of Mont Blanc. Another shared characteristic with Aspen is the abundant vegetation, and many of the slopes run through pine forests. Boasting more than 275 miles of pistes, the resort is suited to both beginners and experienced skiers. Off-piste enthusiasts won’t be disappointed either, as the resort offers two renowned runs known as “Les Etudiantes” and “La Forêt de la Princesse.”

Aspen: A Film Star’s Paradise

Aspen is also well known in Europe as a favorite winter holiday spot for celebrities. Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker, is actually from Aspen. As you wander through the resort you might bump into David and Victoria Beckham, singer John Oates, or even a few Middle-Eastern princes. And of course that’s without forgetting the countless Hollywood stars such as Jack Nicholson, Charlie Sheen, Goldie Hawn and Michael Douglas. The town also made a name for itself thanks to the American comedy film Dumb and Dumber, starring Jim Carrey. The movie came out in 1994, and is largely set in Aspen.

Did you know? The forest of Aspen is home to four shrines dedicated to John Denver, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Jerry Garcia, the singer from the Grateful Dead.

Megève: Snow-Capped and Classy

Jean Cocteau certainly wasn’t wrong when he nicknamed Megève “the 21st arrondissement of Paris.” Megève is the preferred resort of rich Parisians and international royalty, and offers a feeding frenzy for the paparazzi during the winter. Nevertheless, the luxurious side is far more discrete than in Courchevel and Gstaad, and has earned the resort the moniker of the Beverly Hills of the French Alps. This alternative to the glitz and glamor of other destinations has attracted figures such as Nadine de Rothschild and Hubert de Givenchy, who come in search of understated sophistication.

Did you know? Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni spent the Valentine’s weekend of 2009 in Megève, causing controversy over the cost of their stay. The Elysée had rented five Nissan vehicles for the occasion, but no one knows whether the total price of 20,000 euros was paid for by the president or by the taxpayer!

Fact Sheet

Aspen, Colorado
Population: 6,000 inhabitants
Top elevation: 11,212 feet
Annual ski pass: 2,159 dollars (2,253 euros)

Megève, Haute-Savoie
Population: 4,500 inhabitants
Top elevation: 8,153 feet
Annual ski pass: 856 euros (893 dollars)

Article published in the December 2011 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.