RECENTLY, I had an unprecedented experience while travelling through France. As a rule, I have learnt to keep my expectations to a bare minimum while staying at a hotel in Europe or even dining in one of their finer establishments. I know what not to take for granted in Europe: extensive room service menus, anything resembling customer service or walking into a restaurant dangerously close to the last order.
But we have all, at some point, been at the receiving end of this brutal, brusque, business-like attitude towards hospitality that is prevalent through most of Europe, where hospitality is treated like a 9-to-5 job like any other. People perform their assigned set of tasks and duties and no more. They see no need to go out of one’s way to create any sense of satisfaction for the guest. The only service that is legit and affordable is the one that can be meted out without too much trouble for the hospitality service provider.
That is pretty much what I have known about European hospitality: strict, measured and efficient, but never warm and definitely lacking soul.
And then I came to Val Thorens. I checked into Altapura, a relatively new property, as quirky as it is classic and luxurious—tradi-trendy-chique se-ems to be the term in parlance. In spite of the absolutely stunning interiors, what amazed me most was the brand of hospitality that ran like blood through the entire team. Not there for any review, but for the joy of skiing, I wasn’t even planning to test it, but as it happened, I was the one with a small technical problem in the room, the one who unknowingly turned up late for dinner and the one who needed last-minute assistance here and there. Every time, the hotel came through like I could have never expected. They were attentive and thorough. None of the people wear badges, as they feel it creates a divide between a guest and a server. Praveen Ramessur, the general manager, is the man behind this new wave of warmth. But then, he is from Mauritius and hospitality comes naturally to anybody from the tropics—especially from an island, as we all like to believe. Also, this hotel happened to be part of the Sibuet group and I had coincidentally stayed at another of their properties, the Cours des Loges, in Old Lyon earlier. That, too, was a place that reflected this warmth and tradition of guest service. I will definitely look out for more of their properties the next time I travel.
But that wasn’t all, for I also went to some local restaurants in Val Thorens (the Michelin-starred Jean Soulpice, the very affable Le Montana and the tradi-trendy-chic farm of Pepe Nicholas), which again showed that you can be French (well, European) and still be capable of doling out the highest level of hospitality, and not just one that is ordained by procedures and standards, but one that is more intuitive and generous, and one that keeps the human element ahead of everything. Le Motana is also a great way to understand the local wines of Savoie.
For the longest time, Indians (well, Asians) have prized themselves on being the best in hospitality, but now, I sense a change coming. Call it the aftermath of the recession or the waking up of some dormant recessive gene, but Europe is gradually waking up to hospitality, the kind that made it the mothership of the trade in the first place. Val Thorens has been adjudged the best ski resort in the world two years in a row and I, for one, am fortunate to have been able to see some lovely glimpses of it. I mean, who would have thought that the warmest stop on my trip would be in a ski resort 2,000 metres above sea level?
By Magandeep Singh
The writer is a sommelier