Richard Johnson started Ski Miquel 36 years ago after a trip to Andorra when he and some friends stayed in prototype chalet-hotel. This was in the days when an ensuite bedroom was very expensive, and most reasonable accommodation meant sharing a bathroom and queuing for the loo…not a good experience.
He knew right then that he could provide a far better service himself! And more than three decades on, that’s exactly what he’s continued to do. He now has six resorts each with its own chalet-hotels offering good food and ambience.
“What kind of ski accommodation is right for us?” You’d be forgiven for asking the question: after all, it’s a bit more complicated than hotel versus villa versus apartment.
So here, to get you started, is a guide to all your options in a ski resort – from luxury chalets to youth hostels.
Feeling Sociable? Then Book a Catered Chalet
Elsewhere in Europe few people have heard of them, but catered chalets are a staple of the British skiing scene. Essentially, they’re private houses or ski apartments that come equipped with staff – at the very least someone to cook and clean – and they vary from glorified shacks to what are effectively private five-star ski hotels.
The type of staff you get largely depends on the amount of money you pay. Most chalets are run by bright, willing gap-year students and adults taking time out from their careers. But at the top end of the market you’ll be served by professionals who work in hotels, villas and private yachts when they’re not in the mountains – and there’ll be full-time chefs in the kitchens, too.
In the right company, chalets can be as memorable a part of the holiday experience as whizzing about on the slopes. But to get the best out of them you need to put in a lot of effort socially. That’s easy if you fill a chalet with family or friends, and get an instant house-party atmosphere: but it can be trickier if you take just one or two rooms and have to muck in with a bunch of complete strangers over breakfast, tea and dinner. Usually, everyone gets on: after all, you’re there because you love to ski. But not always.
Price-wise, most chalets sit somewhere between hotels and self-catering apartments, although a week in a luxury chalet can cost more than most people’s annual salary.
However, prices vary widely throughout the winter, depending on whether or not you’re targeting a school-holiday week. In early December, January, or in mid-March, when there’s a glut of unsold holidays about, you can sometimes pick up a mid-market chalet, last-minute, for less than £500pp a week, chalet board, including flights and transfers.
Best for: groups of friends or family, bargain hunters and beginners (who will be glad of the advice the staff and other more experienced skiers can give them).
Worst for: anyone who likes their privacy – especially couples in a new and exciting relationship or an old and wobbly one. Gastronomes should give them a wide berth too, unless they pick a company with a clear commitment to good food, and a reputation to match it.
Chalet Variations 1: Small Chalets and Chalet-Apartments
Most chalets have at least five bedrooms, but there are a few smaller ones about – great if you’re looking for the relaxed style of a chalet holiday, but don’t want to mix in with other people. Some are free-standing, but most are actually apartments with one or two members of staff.
The apartments lack a bit of atmosphere, but their floorplans are more regular. Small, free-standing chalets can sometimes be annoyingly quirky in their layout, so make sure you see a layout of the rooms before you book.
Chalet Variations 2: Chalets with Childcare
A small band of chalets come with their own English-speaking kids clubs and nurseries – usually with playrooms and creches pooled between several properties. These are run by UK tour operators specialising in childcare, and they’re a boon for any family that wants a little help with their holiday.
They’re especially good for families with toddlers and children who are still learning, and aren’t ready yet to ski with Mum and Dad. Bear in mind, however, they sell out for the school holidays months in advance and they tend to be more expensive than regular chalets.
One other caveat: it’s best of course if you can fill the entire chalet with a group of friends and their children. But if not, check who else is coming to stay before you book. Ideally you want families with children of roughly the same age as yours, so there’s more chance they’ll make friends.
Chalet Variations 3: The Uber-Chalet or Luxury Private Lodge
These days, the Alps are peppered with stunning luxury chalets, belonging to the super-rich, but also available for hire during the ski season. The most expensive can cost over £100,000 a week for the whole property, not including flights.
It’s been a growing market for the last 20 years: clearly, the idea of Downton Abbey on snow has a powerful appeal. But remember, luxury is an easy word to use, and a much harder concept to deliver. It’s not just the interior decor that counts.
These days, a top-end luxury chalet should offer an all-day driver service, a high staff-to-guest ratio, a proper chef in the kitchen, a swimming pool in the basement, champagne on tap (not just before dinner) and lots of space throughout the building, not just in the master-bedroom.
Chalet-Hotels are Bigger and Even More Relaxed
As the name suggests, chalet-hotels are chalets which have taken over an entire hotel. Most are merely rented from their (local) owners, but the best are owned by the tour operators which offer the holidays in them. This gives them more freedom (and a bigger incentive) to invest in furniture and fittings and keep on top of repairs.
For example, we offer the same beds (from the Royal Manufacture in Rotherham), the same bedroom furniture from Leeds, bedding from Bury, oak dining tables and sofas from Oldham in all our owned chalet-hotels.
Probably the best thing about the chalet-hotel is the way you can dip in and out of the social scene. They all have their own (reasonably-priced) bars, and most offer a “social dining” service. This means you can eat on your own if all you want to do is wind down after a tiring day, or you can mix in with other families and groups at shared tables. It’s a big advantage over smaller shared chalets where everyone sits down together as a matter of course.
The quality of food tends to be more consistent than in a regular, mid-market chalet, too. That’s because no tour-operator will put a group of gap-year students into a kitchen that has to produce 60-odd three or four-course meals each evening. Staff need real experience and proper training to handle the pressure. Dinner is usually best described as good quality bistro-style, as you would expect from a gastro pub with a good reputation.
Keeping on top of the perpetual hubbub requires a good manager – and he/she will know it’s all going well by the noise level of the conversation. It also helps if there’s a big, comfortable sitting area, a friendly bar person, and the right kind of dining room. When it’s going well it’s like a party you are pleased to have been invited to.
One final thing: social skiing (what used to be known as “ski hosting”) really helps build the atmosphere in a chalet hotel over the course of a week. Recently, some tour operators have phased it out altogether, but we offer it in all six of our chalet-hotels.
Best for: couples, groups and bargain hunters (who can bag a late-booking discount) – anyone in fact, who values a buzzy atmosphere over top-of-the-range service or decor.
Worst for: romantics, and anyone who’s in the market for a luxury hotel.
Taking the Kids? Club Hotels and Chalet-Hotels Work Well
These are much favoured by the family-skiing specialists. As with with chalet hotels, the tour operator takes over the running of a hotel from a local owner for one or more winters, and staffs its with its own people.
Childcare is usually provided in-house, and the nurseries and playrooms are often larger and sunnier than you’ll find in smaller chalets (though this isn’t always the case).
If you’re not travelling with a larger group, they’re brilliant. Your kids get a pool of instant friends, and love being part of a gang: especially at the end of the day when there’s often a movie to be watched while the grown-ups are upstairs, eating. Meanwhile parents can dip in and out of the social scene as they wish. The other parents can be very supportive, and it’s great to swap notes, but sometimes all you want to do is catch up with your other half over dinner.
Best for: families travelling on their own, single parents, Dad-and-son/daughter teams who are holiday while Mum looks after a new baby.
Worst for: bigger, self-sufficient family groups might want to take over a chalet on their own.
Hotels Come in All Shapes and Sizes
In the Alps, most ski hotels are small, family-run businesses. In North America, they’re usually members of the big chains, or are owned by the ski resort. You can either book your hotel direct, or through a tour operator, as part of a travel and ski accommodation package.
Don’t expect state-of-the-art furniture, fittings or decor, except in the most expensive: because the season’s so short, budgets for that kind of thing are usually tight. There is a growing number of smaller, boutiquey hotels about, but they tend to be focused in resorts with strong summer as well as winter seasons – such as Chamonix.
As a rule of thumb, Austrians are the best hotel-keepers, closely followed by the ex-Austrians in the South Tyrol, and then the Swiss. Even the cheaper properties are usually clean and scrupulously well kept.
Most five-star luxury ski hotels are comfortable, reliable and run with extraordinary attention to detail. And no wonder: they serve some of the most demanding clients on the planet. If you’re in the market for big rooms, attentive service on demand, fabulous spas, swanky lounges, gastronomic dinners, and a mouthwatering wine list (with an experienced sommelier to guide you through it), this is your most reliable option.
Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in this kind of hotel is more buttoned-down and ‘correct’ than you’ll find in other forms of ski accommodation, but in the good ones, the sense of hospitality more than makes up for this.
Best for: couples looking for a romantic holiday – provided they’ve got the budget for some luxury. Small groups of skiers who don’t want to share a chalet. Anyone looking for local flavour will find more of it than a hotel of any standard than in a chalet – especially if they book in Austria, Italy or Switzerland.
Worst for: big groups, party animals, and those on a tight budget. Unless your children have impeccable manners, they’re a bit of a strain for families too. You don’t want to spend the whole trip worrying if they’re going to knock over the furniture.
Self-Catering Apartments are Getting Bigger and Better
Self-catering ski holidays used to have a dreadful reputation – thanks mainly to the rabbit-hutch apartments built by the French in the 1960s and 70s. But the image has changed, thanks to new, more upmarket developments. And in Austria, North America and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland they’ve always been of a good standard.
More and more skiers are discovering them – and realising they can save themselves a packet on their ski accommodation in the process.
These days, the best are very comfortable (though they can’t match luxury chalets or hotels for proper swank). Facilities include pools, gyms, spas and restaurants, and there are ski-hire shops and mini-markets in the developments too, so you don’t need to stray far – except when you ski.
But there are still plenty of cheap rabbit hutches about if you know where to look. Actually, we’re all in favour of them – if it means the difference between skiing and not skiing.
Sometimes, they mean you can stay in an A-list ski resort for little more than £100pp a week (not including travel, lift pass and food, of course) – and so what if they’re cramped? You’re only going to sleep and eat there, and provided the shower’s hot and the cooker works, who cares about the lack of plasma TVs? You’re there to ski – not sit about on a sofa all week.
These days, there are all sorts of way to source your self-catering pad. In many resorts, individually-owned apartments are often rented out through the local tourist office. Check out the accommodation section of the official tourist office websites, and keep an eye out for come-hither deals.
Best for: smaller groups; independent, self-sufficient families with older children who can already ski; anyone on a tight budget with the self-discipline to cook for themselves in the evening; anyone who likes their privacy.
Worst for: people who can’t or won’t cook. Parents who need a week off from the chores. Anyone on a budget who’s likely to be freaked out by smell of other people’s socks (in the small, cheaper apartments there’s a distinct lack of storage space).
Bed and Breakfasts Are Often Great Value
Bed and breakfasts are a big deal in North American ski resorts. Most hotels there are big, corporate affairs, and while that usually means plenty of room and lots of facilities, they tend to lack character and flair.
If you’re looking for somewhere with a more personality, and a warmer atmosphere, then you need to start checking out the B&Bs. The best offer the kind of decor and hospitality you’d expect from a five-star hotel, at a fraction of the cost. Try Airbnb too – it’s available in many ski resorts around the Alps and the Rockies, with some surprisingly good deals.
In the German-speaking Alps B&Bs are popular too – although they’re usually called hotel-garnis, guesthouses, or pensions. The best have a lovely homey feel, with bags of local character.
Best for: smaller groups, and anyone who wants to feel in touch with local culture. Gastronomes will like the fact they’re not tied to one restaurant for the entire trip, too.
Worst for: families (who wants to drag the kids out for dinner every night?), party animals and big groups.
Hostels are Right if Your Budget is Tight
The idea of a dorm-based ski holiday may fill you with dread. But if the budget’s tight, it may be exactly what you need.
If you’re part of young, energetic group, then all you’re really looking for is a place to wash, sleep, eat and store your gear (in lockers). The rest of the time you’ll probably be in a bar, on the mountain. So lay aside your dreams of luxury, and treat the humble hostel – warm, cheap, convenient – as the answer to your prayers.
A few exceptions exist, such as Riders Palace in Laax, which is as luxurious a hostel as you’ll ever find. It has four price scales, from backpacker kitsch to boutique bedrooms.
Best for: hard-skiing groups of teens and 20-somethings.
Worst for: families, sybarites, and anyone looking for privacy.