October 2008: This piece was featured in Homes & Property section of The Evening Standard.

Chalets with attitude

Bespoke chalets in Alpine villages are the latest thing for keen skiers, says Cathy Hawker (original press clipping below transcript).

Times are a-changing in the Alps and, for once, climate change isn’t to blame. Despite the credit crunch, skiers are trading in purpose-built modern apartments in search of traditional chalets with Alpine charm.

Without compromising on good ski access, buyers can find authentic villages with quiet slopes, picture-perfect wooden chalets and a range of prices showing that it really is possible to have luxury for less - and not a plank of nasty orange pine in sight.

'Our buyers understand the attraction of being part of the heartbeat of a real Alpine village'

Deep in France’s Tarentaise region, Chris Harrop’s work is typical of what can be created if you build with passion. He fell in love with the mountains in 1981, leaving England to work as a carpenter and ski guide.

Twenty years on, he still skies or mountain bikes most days but also creates exquisite chalets, either renovations of old barns or cunningly disguised new-builds using reclaimed wood and local stone.

With a back catalogue of 16 completed properties, Harrop’s company, French Mountain Property (FMP), is selling apartments from £246,700 to a seven-bedroom chalet for £1.93 million, all within striking distance of the skiing hotspot of Val d’Isère.

Extensive use of wood, Italian tiles and wraparound balconies make for comfortable homes, helped by Harrop’s enviable eye for detail and strong environmental concerns.

“Many affluent Londoners aspire to owning a chalet but there are very few who have the time to source the plot and co-ordinate restoration,” says Paul McCulloch, director of FMP and one of the two City financiers behind the company.

“Our aim is to create something very personal. There is nothing mass-produced about our chalets yet our prices per square foot are the same as other well-known large developers who add no individuality.”

FMP is selling three chalets in the village of La Côte d’Aime in the Peisey Valley. The three- and four-bedroom chalets, priced from £558,600, are 15 minutes’ drive from Montchavin, which links directly into La Plagne and Les Arcs. Or in sought-after Sainte Foy, FMP is selling three- to five-bedroom chalets from £894,000.

Its most expensive chalet, La Licorne, is a seven-bedroom restoration of a lovely Savoyard house dating from 1850 in the heart of Peisey. This village is 10 minutes from busy Bourg-St-Maurice, with its elegant 19th century town houses, which lies directly underneath the Vanoise Express.

This double-decker cable car holds 200 passengers and links La Plagne with Les Arcs. Closed for most of last season after safety concerns, it is scheduled to re-open on 20 December, giving access to the vast Paradiski ski area.

Smaller FMP projects include two- and three-bedroom duplex apartments in the tiny farming village of Montorlin, five minutes downhill from Montchavin. Prices start at £246,700.

“All our projects, whatever the size, are built to the same quality,” says Harrop. “Our buyers generally want a mountain lifestyle, just as I did when I came here 20 years ago. They are concerned about the environment and like to see new life breathed into old properties.”

Elsewhere in the French Alps, Quintessentially Estates is selling a two-bedroom apartment in the centre of Chamonix for £468,000, up to seven-bedroom super chalets for £5 million-plus to buyers who seem undeterred by troubled financial markets.

“The demand for unique properties is ever increasing,” says Lucy Russell of Quintessentially Estates. “While we have Russian clients who want everything on show and are attracted to the bling factor, we also have more discreet clients who want their house to look rustic on the outside yet have all the latest gadgets on the inside.”

Harrop is clear about why his business is thriving. “You would pay up to three times more for chalets like ours in Val d’Isère itself,” he says. “But it’s not just about money. Our buyers understand the attraction of being part of the heartbeat of a real Alpine village.”

Upmarket rentals in the French Alps
Last winter saw some upmarket new arrivals in the Alps. In the Swiss resort of Verbier, Richard Branson unveiled his latest project. The Lodge is a nine-bedroom über-chalet with indoor pool, mini ice-rink and a top weekly rental of £43,500.

Close by, Coco is a new clubhouse aimed at City slickers, where last year the top-priced cocktails cost £5,000 for eight people and came with an ice sculpture of a chalet.

If you are looking for a traditional chalet to rent this season, how about Chalet Merlo, now entering its second year. Built by French Mountain Property in Le Miroir, close to pretty Sainte Foy and the popular slopes of Val d’Isère, this six-bedroom, fully staffed chalet is available to rent weekly from £14,000.

With rooms clad in reclaimed wood and cosy dens stuffed with comfy sofas, Chalet Merlo fits the bill for a perfect winter holiday.

And if skiing seems too much like hard work, there’s a gymnasium, hot tub with idyllic views of the glaciers of Tignes and a well-stocked library with a roaring fire.

Eurostar to the Alps
Eco-minded travellers looking for ways to cut their carbon footprint know that train travel is one way forward. With London’s new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras in its second winter of full operation, getting to the Alps is now a great deal more attractive.

The train may be more expensive than a bargain-basement flight but as well as the eco savings, travellers need only 30-minute check-in time before departure and snowboards and skis are accepted without question.

The two main gateway stations to the French Alps are Moutiers, serving the Trois Vallées resorts of Mèribel, Courchevel and Val Thorens, and Bourg-Saint-Maurice for all resorts around Val d’Isère and Tignes.

Eurostar’s snow train runs from 20 December until 18 April. The Friday-evening service departs from St Pancras at 8.30pm, arriving in Bourg-Saint-Maurice at 6.30am the next day, while Saturday’s train leaves London at 10am, arriving in Bourg at 6.20pm.

Evening Standard