15 December 2007: This piece was featured in The Telegraph and on Telegraph.co.uk.

The High Life

Today's high-end ski bum wants modern comfort and rustic charm - and go easy on the pine, please. Caroline McGhie documents the swift rise of the über-chalet

Owning a ski chalet just got posher. No longer do the very rich want to be in a resort surrounded by squawking families and garish nightlife. What members of the growing global millionaires' club want these days is their own James Bond mountain hideaway. There must be a roaring log fire and hi-tech kitchen inside, and a vertiginous balcony outside on which to sip your Champagne as you observe travellers making their way up the valley from several miles below.

Gone are the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s functional blocks of flats, and the chalets of thin, yellow pine close to the ski lifts.

In have come high-altitude, expensively- restored farmhouses, or new chalets built to look centuries old, with beams the size of felled oaks. They combine the dignified wood and stone of the Tuscan farmhouse with all the fabulous excesses of the Florida beach house.

Englishman Chris Harrop, a ski nut- turned-developer, has made it his business to fill this new niche. It has to be said that he gets his greatest kick from hurtling down near-vertical surfaces - on skis in winter and by bike in summer. At three in the morning in the thickest of white-outs, he is likely to be out in the pitch dark on a mountain rescue mission.

He is the guy who climbs up the mountain with skis strapped to his back rather than take a drippy chairlift. In winter he runs the British/American ski school in Val d'Isère, but in summer his love affair is with houses. He buys stone and timber buildings, once used by farmers, who kept animals on the ground floor, slept above them and stored hay in the loft, and restores them with the same passion he devotes to extreme sport. Wood is reclaimed, furniture is bespoke, beams are hand-carved: every room a film set.

"For years," he says, "chalets have been seen by many as a place to rest weary limbs and store skis. But we are now seeing a new generation of buyers who want their mountain homes to reflect their lifestyle. Some are thinking of the retreating snow in years to come and want to have a stylish place to relax and enjoy the no-snow activities, too. That's why we are creating a new line of super-chalets."

Chris runs French Mountain Property, a firm dedicated to restoring the tumbledown farmhouses of the Haute Savoie. He started selling in 2002 and has so far created 10 luxury eyries, some of which are reachable only on foot. This is a life-in-the-raw meets winter palace experience. You must leave the car and skate up iced-over pathways, through the village maze of alleys and barns, to find your log maison at the top of a silent precipice.

"These buyers have their top-of-the- range car, their London penthouse, a place in the country, a Rolex - and now they want a chalet," he says. And with it must come the indoor swimming pool, the sauna, hot tub, Wi-Fi and state-of-the-art wiring.

Changing taste means that buyers with fat pockets are turning away from the purpose-built resorts full of self-catering flats where alpine style has been homogenised. "It is about seeking out the pretty, unspoilt villages," says French Mountain Property's agent Dom Flint, who is based in England. "Some of these big resorts turn to dustbowls in the summer, but the small villages thrive."

Peisey Nancroix, clustered around a baroque church on south-facing slopes, exudes mountain village charm. But the19th-century Parisians who holidayed here brought a certain elegance. Perched 1,600 metres above sea level, with views of Mont Blanc, the village is the perfect setting for an über-chalet, secluded from busy Les Arcs yet connected by open-air cable car and shuttle bus to other villages. It has a few bars, restaurants and a cinema, and has just seen a new four-star Club Med village hotel open up.

Below the church, a once semi-derelict bourgeois village house with ornate balconies has been converted into the newest super-chalet in the village, full of old-world manners and new-world must-haves. You can party in six grand reception rooms, sleep fistfuls of friends in the seven bedrooms with en-suite baths and showers, spend days in the huge pool house, have friends to stay in the guest chalet and ski off to La Plagne or take the lift to Les Arcs.

Sainte Foy is another unspoilt gem of a village, hanging by a thread on the mountainside, hard to reach when the snow is fresh but close to Val d'Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs and La Rosière. You get right away from the anoraks and queues for ski lifts here, and swish silently down sweeping ski runs through the trees, stopping at restaurants where slabs of beef are lightly grilled over huge open fires and sliced, bleeding, on to your plate, and whole raclette cheeses are toasted and melted over boiled potatoes with cold meat and gherkins.

French Mountain Property is building four new chalets, made to look like antiques, just outside the village, to be finished in the summer of 2009 and priced at £860,000 to £1million. They will be in the Chris Harrop signature style: an orgy of wood, just like the nearby Chalet Merlo, which now commands £16,000 a week for 10 to 12 people in high season for its owner. Merlo comes Champagne-stocked, with designer linen, dressing gowns, slippers, hairdryers, plasma screen, 300 movies, a large book collection, gym, hot tub, sauna, private massage room and home-made cakes for tea. One local mayor recently described it as "the best in the valleys".

"In the old days," says Dom Flint, "people came on packages. They were bussed in, wherever they stayed had to be ski-in ski-out, but now things have changed. They are happy to hire a car, and with snow tyres or chains they aren't afraid of the snow. They want real character, and they want their children to have a taste of old Europe." By searching the out-of-the-way villages you also avoid the premium paid in the resorts (double or treble the price), though it has to be said that values are rising rapidly - by as much as 25 per cent a year - as French farmers realise what their run-down properties are worth.

It is only in the past year or two that the very top fairytale chalets have gained added tinsel. Ironically, according to Caroline Chenal, Knight Frank's associate in Courchevel, this is just as the cold wind of recession has swept through parts of the European market and ordinary boxy flats and chalets have become difficult to sell. "It means that people have the money but the supply is tiny. We can't extend the mountain to create new sites, so the top tier becomes more expensive every year."