Skialot at Chalet Chataigne

Chalet Chataigne is a traditional alpine chalet, dating from 1789, nestled high in the Alpes on the French–Swiss border

It is located in the massive Portes du Soleil which encompasses thirteen ski resorts between Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva with 650km of pistes to enjoy.

Stuart Robinson

Would you give up everything for the mountains ?

I did, eventually, and after 20 years spending most of my annual leave skiing, in December 2000 I found and bought Chalet Chataigne and started Skialot. That all sounds very easy, but it was actually quite an adventure and took, and is still taking, an incredible amount of time and effort.

My first skiing holiday was at school. I was always known for making up numbers, so when the annual ski trip to Abetone in Italy was short of people, I was happy to oblige. I never looked back, it was skiing for me every year from then on.

By my late 20s I had really caught the bug, and was quite happy to work right through the summer months in anticipation for the next winter season. I would always try out different ski resorts, staying in basic hotels until I discovered an independent, owner run chalet in Les Deux Alpes called Chalet Freestyle run by Mark (an ex-British Freestyle Team member) and Lucy (cordon bleu chef). They first showed me how much fun an independent chalet holiday could be and from then on I regularly went back to stay with them.

My career up to this point was completely different, I was a software engineer working in research and development and my life revolved around very long hours either working or commuting and paying out most of my earnings on bills, skiing and a mortgage. Still single, I decided to take a long over-due ‘years sabbatical’ and work a season at Chalet Freestyle to see if my enthusiasm for skiing could withstand 18 continuous weeks !

I rented out my home in London and turned up in Les 2 Alpes with all the other seasonaires. I was a little daunted by the age difference and when the chatter switched to how old you were, I smiled and quietly reminded myself I was old enough to be their father ! I survived the season and although I had discovered how much hard work running a chalet could be, I had never been happier, and realised that this is what I wanted to do.

With a very clear idea of what I thought the ideal chalet should be, finding a suitable place to rent would be difficult, and I wanted to be able to modify it as I wanted, so buying a chalet might take a little longer but would be much better in the long run. I had 3 ways of raising the money: sell my home, get a French mortgage, sell as much as I could to raise money and save, save, save.

My current job was not going to give me the finance I needed to buy my own chalet, so I was fortunate enough to get a contracting job in Hamburg, Germany where for three years I was able to save some money and visit various ski locations around the world to look for a suitable location.

To help my seach for my ideal chalet, I restricted myself to the 3 following requirements:

1) Eight or more bedrooms with south facing windows and preferably with balconies. 2) Easy walking distance to the skiing, bars and restaurants. 3) The transfer time from the nearest airport to be under 2 hours.

Not too much to ask I thought, but after three years looking and no chalet in sight, I wondered if I was ever going to find my dream. As in life, if you had money to burn there were plenty of places out there, but the cost was way out of my reach !

I was on the verge of quitting completely when an old ski chum of mine asked if I would be interested in buying a share in a chalet. I had already decided that France was my first choice for location and this would be a way of finding out the processes and pitfalls of buying property there. After a year of searching and various offers falling through, the consortium of 8 families finally found a chalet in Chatel France and in August 2000 I went to stay in our new purchase.

I had visited most of the major ski resorts in France but hadn’t been to Chatel before. A small traditional farming village right on the Portes du Soliel and only 90 minutes from Geneva airport. As with most of the other resorts I visited I was surprised how little property was available, but one day on a casual stroll around town, in the window of one of the local estate agents I spotted an old chalet for sale, ‘Chalet Chataigne’.

It had everything I was looking for and was still being used as a chalet business. Ian & Jane McGarry had been running their Ski System courses from the chalet for several years and were looking for pastures new. My budget wasn’t large enough for the asking price, but after 3 months of negotiations and stretching myself to the limit financially, I finally exchanged on 15 Dec 2000.

On 22 Dec 2000 my first guests arrived, we had 24 sleeping in the chalet and had to feed 30 for an evening meal (we had some guests staying outside the chalet). Luckily my chef and chalet staff, as always, were great. It was a steep learning curve and I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but we survived.

Since then the work needed on the chalet, including that specified by the French safety commission, has taken considerable time, money and effort and has far exceeded all estimations. During the first few years (inspite of reading many books and talking to many people who also run chalets in France) it was a very steep learning curve and the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ really did play its part.

The costs and hard work involved do tend to keep going up, but the fact that almost everyone who stays at the Chalet comes back and stays again is a great testimonial. Nearly 90% of guests last year have already stayed with us or have found us through recommendations.

Owners of independently run chalets, who live in the chalet like me, want you (the guest) to have the best holiday possible and I will do everything I can to make sure your holiday runs smoothly. It takes a lot of time and money to find good clients and I don’t want to loose you. All of my guests have been astounded by the amount of organising we do before they even arrive from pre-booking lessons and equipment to special menus and activities. Whether you are an experienced skier or a complete beginner, getting on the slopes with passes, equipment and lessons can take a lot of effort, but don’t worry, I’ll make sure everything is organised for you, we take you to the hire shops, drop you at the lifts, ski or snowboard with you, pick you up from the bar in the evening, give you tea and cakes, drive you to the spa or brewery, drive you back to the chalet and feed you a fantastic dinner with excellent wine.

My aim is to provide you with a warm, comfortable and homely chalet with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, where you can escape to quiet areas of the chalet or join in the fun and where the food, wine and service is exceptional. One guest described the chalet as being ‘more home, than home’. It’s my job to make sure you get the most out of your holiday, from when you consider booking until the moment you return home. Its not just the skiing that makes a good holiday but the way you’re looked after from start to finish and independent owner run chalets can give you that level of personal service.

Make no mistake, running a chalet is hard work, but at the end of the week when people tell you they have had one of their best holidays ever, it makes it all worthwhile.

As a chalet owner, the rewards aren’t monetary but the quality of life is impressive, as well as being able to enjoy all the fresh air, mountain sports and French cuisine, you make many new friends and contacts and new opportunities to live life to the full do come your way regularly.

No regrets.

Stuey July 2004

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