Here you will find the definitive guide to ski chalet holidays. What they are, what they are not, the pro and cons of going on one, and everything in between. You will learn everything you need to know to be able to book a chalet for your next winter holiday.
A ski chalet holiday is a winter vacation in a ski resort where the chosen accommodation is a chalet. Most people who book a chalet holiday do so in order to go skiing or snowboarding, but that's not essential. For some, the ambiance, facilities and attractiveness of the chalet setting are enough in themselves. Usually, ski equipment, lessons, etc. are booked separately and are not part of the chalet holiday package.
Although this article will focus mainly on winter escapes, chalet holidays are also popular in summer. As well as being much cheaper than pool-side Mediterranean holidays, summer breaks in the Alps tend to be cheaper and more temperate, as well as offering unbeatable access to activities such as mountain biking, hiking and road cycling.
The chalet (pronounced "shall-eh") is a traditional wooden building that has its origins in the Alps of Europe. Today, most people think of chalets as villas in the mountains. In other words, as luxury holiday accommodation. But that wasn't always the case. For the nerds, here's the history and derivation...
The word "chalet" comes from the region straddling the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland known as Arpitan where the Franco-Provençal dialect is spoken. In this area, a chalet typically refers to the hut of herders or the seasonal mountain residence of farmers.
Long before the advent of the ski industry, these wooden dwellings would remain vacant all winter as the farmers had taken their stock down to the adjoining lowlands and valleys - an ancient seasonal event known as "la transhumance". As the ski industry started to grow, these vacant houses situated in prime mountain country became a sought-after commodity.
These original chalets would have been very utilitarian in nature. They were often quite difficult to access, being more like a mountain refuge than a house by the side of a road, and so were sparsely decorated and furnished with limited services (hot water would have been considered a luxury).
You will sometimes see these two words used for each other. Historically, a Mazot is a little windowless building that is used as a store for the main chalet. It is now common to see these charming (but tiny) buildings converted into delightful little holiday residences in their own right.
Traditionally, chalets were constructed almost entirely of wood with some having a ground floor constructed of stone. Distinctive details of the chalet are the pitched roof, front-facing gable and large overhanging eaves. Even with a heavily pitched roof, snow could be retained which meant the chalet had to be strong and built to last. This is why large wooden beams, joists and heavy pillars feature prominently in chalet design.
The large overhanging eaves helped keep the snow, wind, rain and sun away from the walls and also allowed for storage. Due to the inclined nature of mountain land, the ground floors are usually cut into the mountainside. Steeper inclines can lead to an interesting internal layout where every floor can be said to be a "ground floor" (this can be seen clearly in our own Chalet La Petite Pia). If you are interested in the details of chalet design, be sure to check out this article by Mountain Passions and this rather interesting old document.
Modern ski chalet design has not strayed far from its origins. The broad roofs, heavy timber construction, large eaves and compact practical design are all retained. Add in such things as a boot room, hot tubs, saunas, parking and expansive balconies, plus Wi-Fi of course, and you are pretty much there.
There is a tendency to give the name "chalet" to any type of residence which is situated within a chalet-like building. This means you could have multiple apartments located within a chalet building and each of them could be referred to individually as a "chalet". These apartments/chalets may occupy anything from half a floor to several floors of the building, depending on the layout. They would typically have their own entrance, but not always. This is also true historically, as it was not uncommon for two different families to occupy two different halves of the same chalet building.
So how did we go from shepherd's summer hut to luxurious chalet with adjoining helipad and Wi-Fi? Well, it seems it mostly had something to do with a lady by the name of Erna Low. In 1932, she placed the following advertisement in The Morning Post: "Winter Sports – Austria, fortnight, £15 only, including rail and hotel, arranged by young Viennese Graduette for young people leaving Christmas". Of course, back then there were no lifts, so you had to hike up the mountain yourself, but they stayed in chalets and they were there to ski, so it really was the birth of the chalet ski holiday.
As the ski industry took off the demand for accommodation grew and grew. Some resorts took to the "rack-em-and-stack-em" approach and built large high-rise accommodation blocks to put the guests in. Other resorts, like Meribel, took a more metered approach and imposed strict rules on building design and town layout. This resulted in a valley that is much more pleasing to the eye. The eye-pleasing nature is primarily due to the regulations sticking strongly to the original design aesthetics of the wooden chalets. In Meribel, this is thanks in no small part to the resort's founder: Colonel Peter Lindsay.
As time passed, the standards of the chalet holiday have improved. We have gone from "hot water - optional" to "Wi-Fi - essential". In the next section, we will take a look at exactly what makes up the modern ski chalet experience.
In order to appreciate the modern chalet holiday experience, you must first look at the big decisions you will have to make in order to experience it. These decisions are:
For some, these decisions do not need to be made as the answer is self-evident but for others, some or all of these questions need to be answered before they can proceed. Let's take a look in detail at each of these.
There are many factors that determine the price of a chalet holiday. These include the desirability and reputation of the resort, as well as the specific property's age, size and proximity to the slopes or resort centre. But for many people who are willing to pay a bit more, it's the chalet facilities that justify the price tag. Staying in a luxury chalet, here are some of the additional features you might expect to enjoy during your stay.
One of the biggest decisions to be made about your chalet holiday is whether you wish to share your chalet with other people, or whether you wish to have it all to yourself and your group. Booking an entire chalet for yourself when there is only two of you could be a bit expensive. If you are the sort of person who enjoying meeting new people and socialising then a room in a shared chalet may be just the ticket.
Booking a whole chalet for yourself and your group is typically done by people who know each other before the holiday. Because of this, the make-up of the party can be controlled by the group members themselves. Whether it's a family, a group of friends or perhaps even co-workers, they typically have met and have a relationship with each other before they arrive in resort.
Booking the whole chalet means you can tailor certain things to your group's needs. The chalet and the services can be adjusted to your group's specific requirements. There can be more of an informal atmosphere in the chalet when everyone knows each other. You can typically book exclusive use chalets as either catered or self-catered. The major downside to exclusive bookings is the cost. Unless you have a group that can fill the chalet, the cost per person can go up significantly. Our own Chalet La Petite Pia is a good example of an exclusive use chalet.
The major benefits of shared use (by the room) chalets is the cost and the built-in social scene. Because you are only paying for the room, the cost of the holiday is set per person no matter how many people book the chalet. Shared chalets are almost universally catered chalets with set meal times and a menu that is typically set by the chalet company. A group of people who have never met before meeting on the first day of the holiday so there is a slightly more formal atmosphere to the chalet especially at the beginning of the holiday when people are getting to know each other. In some shared chalets it is possible to set an age limit for the week you are there such as "no children / adults only" but this varies from company to company. Our own Chalet La Chouette is a good example of a shared chalet.
The English-language chalet market is evenly split between catered and self-catered holiday packages. A self-catered chalet holiday usually involves minimal in-person contact with the chalet company itself, with a staff member often only being around when guests arrive and depart. By contrast, catered chalet holidays usually include a chalet host who will act as the company's in-person representative for the duration of your stay. For catered guests, the chalet host is the first port of call for any questions, issues or advice they might need during their stay.
Many exclusive-use chalets and almost all apartments are offered on a self-catered basis. Self-catering is not typically offered in shared chalets. Taken in isolation, prices for self-catered properties tend to be much lower because there is no food or staff to pay for. So, if you're looking for a bargain, self-catering might be the way to go. A couple of caveats should be added here, though.
First, it should be noted that facilities in self-catered accommodation tend to be a bit more basic. It might not be easy to find a budget-friendly, self-catered chalet that still has a piste-side hot tub and a brand-new sauna. What's more, whether you save money or not ultimately comes down to what you mean by 'self-catering'. Groups who choose to eat and drink out in local bars and restaurants usually spend more than those who choose a catered package.
A catered chalet package offers accommodation as well as breakfast, afternoon tea and a two- or three-course evening meal. Note: lunch is not usually provided because most guests will be out skiing at that time. Drinks may be included, partially included (wine with dinner) or completely separate. The catering level varies from company to company, with some delivering cheap and cheerful staples and others offering a luxury catering package with the best ingredients being hand prepared in the chalet for you. More expensive catered chalets may have a dedicated chef as well as a chalet host.