St. Tropez—On an impossibly beautiful spring afternoon on the Côte d'Azur, Monsieur Sylvain Ercoli is in his office and talking snow.
"This year, it was not so good," Ercoli is saying with that dismissive wave of the wrist that the French do so well. "It came late and didn't last. Ahhh, but one always hopes next year will be better." Ercoli has to worry not only about snow but chairlifts and mountain conditions—he is, after all, general manager of the Hotel Byblos des Neiges in Courchevel in winter. In summer, as general manager of the Hotel Byblos in St. Tropez, he also has to fret over tables at Club 55, yacht moorings, even the infamous mistral. He is, to our knowledge, the only hotelier who can be closing one hotel in a blizzard while preparing to open another in a heat wave—accompanied as he moves from one Byblos to another by his wife and children as well as an entourage of concierges, receptionists, cooks, maître d's, and housekeepers.
"Which do I like best?" Ercoli repeats the question, leaning back in his chair. "They are so different," he says, looking out toward the cloudless sky and shimmering waters of the Byblos pool, where a few guests luxuriate early in the season—before the onslaught of the young and tanned who storm the Côte d'Azur come July and August. "I like them both. But could I stay year-round in one? I love to ski, and the people who come to Courchevel are some of the most wonderful in the world. But on a day like today," Ercoli pauses, then with a twinkle in his eye asks, "is there any place on earth you would rather be?"
What makes a hotel grand, of course, are many things: good location, great architecture, inviting decor, an excellent kitchen. But too often overlooked is that one individual called the hotelier who makes it all seem effortless, the experience of staying there magical. "Or at least that's what he tries to do," says Ercoli, explaining in his own modest way what he does. For example: You're skiing in Courchevel but would like to dine that evening an hour away in Megève at La Ferme de mon Père, the extraordinary three-star restaurant that should be booked six months in advance. Ercoli's response? "What time would you like to go?" Or this scenario: In St. Tropez, where during the height of summer it can take two hours to drive four miles on Route de la Côte, you want to visit a friend across the bay, up in the hills in Lorgues. "No problem. We will arrange for a helicopter from Tahiti Beach," he says, tossing out the name of the one St. Tropez beach from which private helicopters are still allowed to fly. "You'll be there in time for breakfast." So it goes. Only once during visiting the Bybloses, as I've come to call them, did Ercoli fail to make angels dance on the head of a pin. I had been booked to fly out of Geneva for Paris. Instead, he suggested it might be more pleasant to travel by train via Lyons to Paris. I agreed, especially after I tallied up the time spent getting from hotel to airport and airport to hotel and discovered I would actually be saving time. Two nights before I was to depart, Ercoli found that the trains were likely to go on strike. "I wish there were something I could do," he said. But, alas, I knew that not even Sylvain Ercoli could derail a French national railway strike. I also knew that he had probably tried.
Ercoli, who was born 43 years ago in northeastern France near the town of Nancy, hadn't originally intended to become a hotelier—in Europe a rather grand profession. In fact, he dropped out of high school, joined the army when he was 20, and became, of all things, a paratrooper stationed on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, the experience opened his eyes to the rest of the world.
After serving in the army, he returned to Nancy, a drab industrial city with a lot of social problems, looking for employment. When his mother showed him an advertisement for a job as the night auditor at a local hotel, he applied. After a year and a half there he made his way to Paris—first working at the Nova Park, then at the Ritz under legendary president Frank Klein. In Paris he would learn the posh manners of an urbane hotelier (even in St. Tropez, he dresses in three-piece suits, Hermès ties, and bench-made shoes).
Years later, on the island of Mauritius, where he ran first Le Touessrok and later Le Saint Géran from 1993 to 1999, Ercoli would learn how to run a luxury resort. That glamorous exile, six thousand miles from France, would serve him well when he took over the Byblos in St. Tropez in '99 and later its sister hotel in Courchevel.
Le Byblos des Neiges is not a particularly remarkable piece of architecture but a perfectly acceptable example of the European ski resort built in the sixties style. It reminds me of the resort where Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn met in Charade. Just like Grant and Hepburn, everyone here wears great ski sweaters, super-cool sunglasses, and looks absolutely fabulous. In season, which is mid-December to mid-April, the population swells to 32,000. After that 1,800 full-time residents do whatever full-time residents do when the chic shops and restaurants close and all the billionaires go home.
Located in the Savoie, Courchevel isn't known to many Americans, but Europeans consider it among the best skiing anywhere. For those who do not ski, there's shopping, snowshoeing, sleigh rides, helicoptering, alpine hiking, and après-everything, including two Michelin two-starred restaurants. The village is built up, down, and on the side of the mountains; the main road winds up some 6,200 feet past multimillion-dollar chalets and fantastic jewelry shops like Doux, where I fell in love with those big, chunky Panerai diving watches. But it's the skiing that this good-looking crowd comes for, and because of Courchevel's elevation, there's always the guarantee of snow. That's why the likes of the Aga Khan and Ted Kennedy Jr. showed up this year at the Byblos. The 66 smaller rooms here are typically ski-resort simple—comfortable, immaculate, and not very stylish. My suggestion would be to go with one of the 11 suites or a Prestige double, like number 410, with its enormous bathroom and wraparound windows. The only drawback: The view isn't as ravishing as the Olympic Suite's (whose shower, however, is inexplicably small)—snow-covered mountains, alpine forests, and right outside your window towering pines so artfully decorated in Christmas lights they could be out of a Balanchine set for The Nutcracker.
But as beautiful as it is," Ercoli is saying two months later, "it's always nice to come here." "Here" is St. Tropez, the one-time sleepy little fishing village that was put on the map by Brigitte Bardot (who still lives here) when she and Roger Vadim made And God Created Woman 45 years ago. Ercoli has assembled much the same cast of characters I first met in Courchevel. Only the resort wear is different. Jérôme Foucaud, the 33-year-old assistant general manager, was bundled up in parka, boots, and ski cap when last sighted. "Bonsoir," he now greets us in short sleeves, loafers, and pencil-legged linen slacks. Also familiar is head concierge Jean-Christophe Vocanson, the ever-cheerful concierge Guiseppe Pochintesta, maître d' Jacques Bouillet, and chef Georges Pélissier. The list goes on.
"Obviously, moving back and forth requires an adjustment," says Ercoli, "and it doesn't suit everyone. If one is looking for something routine, this isn't for them." His wife, Sylvie, took a job this past season at a jewelry store in Courchevel. "It seemed a long winter to do nothing," she jokes. Here, in St. Tropez, she doesn't have that problem. The couple admit they worried that the transition might be hard for the children, switching schools, parting from friends. So far it all seems to be working. "But then I suppose time will tell, won't it?" says Ercoli.
The Byblos in St. Tropez is built to resemble a Mediterranean village, the façades painted in vivid shades of orange and yellow, accented with powder-blue and pine-green shutters. Just beyond the craziness of St. Tropez proper, the Byblos is its own cloistered universe whose rooms overlook gardens, a pool, and an outdoor café as well as the town's rooftops and harbor. Many were recently redecorated as part of the hotel's five-year, $14 million renovation.
Ercoli admits it's important that the hotel keep itself au courant. He's proud that crowds still jam the streets in the middle of the night to get into the Byblos' Caves du Roy. Competition is, after all, keen. Luxury properties are opening up everywhere these days: on the beach, in the hills, right next door. And St. Tropez is all about style: who has it, who doesn't, how to get it.
"Yes, it's true," says Ercoli, who confesses, however, that May, late August, and September remain his favorite months. "That, you see, is when the rest of the world goes home and St. Tropez returns to doing what it does best: being the most beautiful and unpretentious place in the world."
St. Tropez: $350-$2,000; 33-4-94-56-68-00; Courchevel: $655-$1,660; 33-4-79-00-98-00.
The Best of Both Worlds
No one knows St. Tropez and Courchevel better than Sylvain Ercoli. What follows are a few of his favorite things.
ST. TROPEZ AND VICINITY
• For a fine view of the Mediterranean and the region's best bouillabaisse, CHEZ CAMILLE (33-4-94-79-80-38). Request the house specialty when booking.
• The chicest tables for lunch are at the beachside CLUB 55 (33-4-94-55-55-55).
• Truffles infuse nearly every dish at LE BISTROT DE BRUNO on the harbor (33-4-94-97-00-56). Well worth the hour drive is RESTAURANT BRUNO in Lorgues (33-4-94-85-93-93).
• For first-rate foie gras and free-range chicken in a traditional farm setting, LA FERME DU MAGNAN, just a 20-minute drive from town (33-4-94-49-57-54).
• For local fish specialties and joie de vivre, LE GIRELIER, a family-owned restaurant in St. Tropez's harbor (33-4-94-97-03-87).
• Le Tout-St. Tropez shops at LOLITA LEMPICKA, the town's boutique of the moment (6 Rue Sibilli; 33-4-94-97-08-39).
• For elegant men's swimwear, VILEBREQUIN (three locations; 33-4-94-97-01-95).
• For bikinis, ARIANIE (on Place de la Garonne; 33-4-94-97-81-84).
• Shimmery nightlife takes over at LES CAVES DU ROY in the Byblos, where D.J. Jack E. mixes music for a jet-set crowd. For a quieter evening, SENEQUIER TEAROOM overlooking the harbor on Quai Jean Jaurès (33-4-94-97-00-90).
COURCHEVEL AND VICINITY
• Perfect your skiing or snowshoeing with instructor YANNICK GUERRA (33-4-79-08-07-72; fax 33-4-79-08-14-59).
• For sunglasses and skiwear, try BERNARD ORCEL (33-4-79-08-23-51) and SHAMROCK (33-4-79-08-23-47) on Rue du Rocher.
• For tagliatelle with truffles, plus fantastic views of the Alps, the terrace at LE CAP HORN (33-4-79-08-33-10).
• For two-star Michelin dining, LE BATEAU IVRE on the top floor of Hôtel Pomme de Pin in the center of Courchevel (33-4-79-08-36-88).
• For three stars, LA FERME DE MON PERE. Chef Marc Veyrat bases his acclaimed cuisine on the natural flavors of plants and wild herbs. An hour's drive from Courchevel (367 Route du Crêt, 74120 Megève; 33-4-50-21-01-01).
• For Savoyard fondue in Courchevel, LA SAULIRE (33-4-79-08-07-52).
• For Alsatian specialties like foie gras—served cold with the merest hint of salt and local country bread, L'ASMEDEE (33-4-79-08-02-10).
HOW TO GET TO COURCHEVEL The nearest airports are Lyon-St. Exupéry and Geneva International. The Byblos will send a limousine for the two-hour drive to Courchevel.
Delta's daily 5:45 p.m. flight from New York's JFK arrives in Lyon-St. Exupéry at 7:25 a.m. the next day. Delta also partners with Air France, which flies New York to Paris, then connects on several flights to Lyons.
Swissair has three flights daily from JFK to Zurich, one from Newark, and one from Washington D.C. From JFK to Geneva, Swissair 139 leaves at 7:45 p.m. and arrives at 9:30 a.m.
Swissair flies four times daily from Zurich to Lyons and has recently introduced first-class cabins with 79-inch sleeper chairs inspired by Charles Eames.
HOW TO GET TO ST. TROPEZ The closest airport is Nice-Côte d'Azur. Through November 30, Delta's daily 8:15 p.m. flight from JFK arrives in Nice at 10:10 a.m. the next day. Air France, in partnership with Delta, offers several connections through Paris daily.
Swissair has five daily flights from Zurich to Nice. From there, take the hotel's limousine for the hour and a half ride to St. Tropez.