THE PERFECT ESCAPE: RENTING A SKI CHALET OR APARTMENT IN THE ALPS
When my wife Gayle and I contemplated taking our then six-month old daughter Emma to Villars, Switzerland a few winters ago, I wasn’t thinking of Alpine pistes and lazy slope side lunches. I was dreading the thought of the three of us crammed into a standard-size European hotel room. I could imagine our otherwise angelic daughter screaming her lungs out, a baby baffled by jetlag and a new routine. I could see us heating bottles in a bathroom sink at 3 AM and dragging our sleep-less selves to the dining room for breakfast, where we’d get icy stares from the guests we’d kept up all night. And what would we do for dinner? Take the baby to a chalet for fondue every night?
Fortunately, we were imaginative enough to rent an apartment instead, which we found by scouring the rental agencies on Villars’ website. Apartments are ranked with the same one-to-five star system used for hotels, with proximity to the town and lifts crucial factors. For sun-starved Europeans, a south-facing view also contributes to desirability. Two and three stars are fairly basic, while four or five stars have pools, spas, nicer furnishings and a higher price. After several emails, we nailed a one-bedroom for two weeks from Interhome during the busiest ski weeks of the year.
The apartment was better than even the web pictures had suggested. Though it only had a two-star rating, it was light-filled, with a bedroom, an eat-in kitchen, a living/dining room with a fireplace, and a balcony with a spectacular view of the neighboring French Alps and the Dents du Midi. We could walk to the lifts and stroll to the village to buy wine and cheese. And at $108 a night during high season, a fraction of what such a place would cost in Vail or Whistler, it redefined the term "bargain."
Renting an apartment in a European ski village can make enormous sense for a family or a groups of friends. You get space, privacy and a kitchen, which add up to huge convenience and cost savings over a hotel room. And maybe best of all, you become something of a local. The folks who run the cheese shop and the boulangerie get to know you. If you have a kid, the daycare center (in this case a 19th century chalet that Heidi would have been proud to call home) is a window onto a different culture. You become something of a regular at a particular cafe or bar, and you’ll learn to tell the difference between a glass of Ollons and a glass of Yvorne. On the mountain or in the village, you settle into the local winter vacation rhythm. In the case of Villars, that meant blending in with lots of British families who return every year for the same week or two.
But you should know that most apartments in Villars or Meribel or anywhere else in Europe bear little resemblance to their counterparts in Vail or Park City. Unless you’re paying for a five star place, the units tend to be much smaller, the Ikea-like furnishings are purely utilitarian, and you typically pay extra for linens and cleaning. And unless you’re at the four-star level, you probably won’t find a hot tub, a radio or a TV, though you can often rent the latter.
European ski apartments are rented on an unvarying, week-long, Saturday-to-Saturday schedule, and rates depend upon the week. European school vacation weeks, which extend from mid-February to early March, are the most expensive, while January rates are usually value priced. Interhome is the big player, but many European resorts list other rental companies on their tourist office web sites.
A step up from apartment rentals are chalet rentals. A chalet rental makes sense with a large family or a group of friends and it’s a vacation that the British have perfected and virtually own. But it’s not like renting a house in Telluride or Stowe or anywhere else in the US. When you say "chalet" in Europe, it means a seven-night rental of a multi-bedroom house or apartment. That "chalet" comes with a staff and includes breakfast, afternoon tea and a multi-course dinner with wine for six nights. On the seventh night, typically a Wednesday, the chalet staff has the night off and you’re expected to eat out. Not exactly a hardship in a European ski town.
The majority of rental chalets are found in the French resorts of Val d’Isere, Courchevel and Meribel, in the Swiss resort of Verbier and in St. Anton, Austria. Again, the rental period is strictly Saturday-to-Saturday and they’re priced on a star system.
Most rental chalets can only be booked through British tour operators, who’ve taken them on long-term rentals. One of the best is the London-based Ski Solutions, an independent English broker. On their website, they list dozens of ski chalets all over Europe, ranked from two to five stars.
Take a look, for example, at Chalet Klosters, a four-star chalet that sleeps eight people in Val D’Isere, France. The chalet is part of a small private hamlet called Chalets Suisses on the secluded, sun-drenched knoll of Le Cret, one of the earliest and most charismatic enclaves of Val d’Isere. Klosters is one of four stone and slate chalets found here. In terms of design, they seek to fuse the ambiance of an old stone village and traditional Alpine decor with contemporary cutting edge design and absolute comfort. To the weathered oak floors and seasoned timbers, they have added a veneer of cool contemporary styling including designer bathrooms and discreet state-of-the-art lighting. Each chalet has antique furniture, the finest fabrics, hand made sofas, goose down duvets and original art. Klosters has an open fireplace, discreet mezzanine cinema area and an office with wireless internet access. If you’re too weary to walk, a chauffeur service is available exclusively for Chalets Suisses residents to transport you to and from the village centre and pistes throughout the day. The per person price (based on eight people renting) ranges from 759 pounds to 1,389 pounds (about $1,494 to $2,734) per week. But it includes round trip flights from London Gatwick to Geneva, coach transfers to the resort, seven nights accommodation, daily breakfast, and afternoon tea, and a four-course dinner including wine on six nights of the week.
When to book? Now. There’s still availability, but the best weeks are often taken long in advance.