Ski chalets are a strange hybrid of
hotel and private ski lodge. They were invented in the sixties to provide a safe
haven for the English where they could relax without having to speak a foreign
language, and where their appetites would be satisfied by a boiled egg and a
bowl of porridge for breakfast, rather than 'some awful foreign muck'.
Initially, a few enterprising Englishmen rented some private chalets for a
season (one bath to 10 people). They installed breathless young 'gels', who said
they could cook but couldn't, gave them a housekeeping budget up front which the
girls spent on themselves, and told them get on with it.
The Brits lapped it up. Strapping young men came out in their droves to sample
first the chalet girls, then the skiing, and finally what there was in the way
of food. There was none to speak of as the chalet girls were too busy skiing
with the young men, and had already blown the food budget. To calm them down
when they came back from skiing 'absolutely starving', the gels would bake the
young men a cake for tea. Then they let them loose on loads of paint stripper,
known in smart circles as vanrouge, before, during and after an awful dinner.
But it didn't matter - everybody loved it. The bachelors went home in love, and
the enterprising Englishmen were coining it in. The gels, who were paid next to
nothing, could supplement their meagre incomes by sending a telegram home to
Daddy, who was frightfully important in the City.
By this time, and I'm talking fifteen to twenty years in now, things were
beginning to look a bit tawdry. The catered ski chalet ethos was well and truly
established but starting to get a bad name; the punters wanted something better.
They had a lot more to spend as Mrs Thatcher was in charge. Changes were afoot.
Unreliable chalet girls were replaced by girls who could cook, or couples of a
more responsible nature, who would share chalet duties with ski guiding.
There was enough money sloshing around in the eighties for keen independent
skiers to buy properties in the Alps and set up small operations of their own.
There were, and of course still are, large tour operators with dozens of
chalets, but I believe the very nature of a catered chalet holiday is the
personal service that a group of friends can get from like minded people, whose
livelihood depends on making them feel welcome and relaxed.
Yesterday's rough and ready has been replaced by today's sophisticated.
Competition is strong, mainly because so many people have upped sticks from the
UK, and set up in the mountains where they see an easier way of life and a more
relaxed way to run a business. Competition has come too from the US and Canada
where cheap flights and a weak dollar have introduced skiers to the delights of
fluffy powder snow and sunshine in the Rockies.
The service offered by our own independent chalet owners is almost
unrecognisable compared to that of the sixties. Bedrooms mostly come with their
own bathroom, the food can be first class (many a quality chef is plying his
trade in the relative peace of the Alps) and the wine is of a superior quality
nowadays but still usually unlimited.
Higher disposable incomes, busier work schedules and cheap flights encourage
skiers to get the best ski deals available. They can now book into a privately
run ski chalet offering last minute skiing holidays and ski weekends the day
before they arrive!
The chalets themselves are often designed and furnished to remarkable standards,
complete with saunas, satellite phones and broadband connections. Skiing with
the guests is often offered as a complementary service, as is a minibus, which
doubles as a taxi service from the airport ... and it's all there for the best
skiing in the world!
Strangely though, there is still cake for tea ...
Simon Dewhurst - August 2005