Chalet or shan’t I?

Whether slaloming down slopes or simply soaking up the splendour, Andy Duncan finds several reasons to buy in Haute-Savoie and Savoie

Precipitous, vertiginous and utterly stunning, the eclectic Rh�ne-Alpes region sprawls across the breathtaking, snow-capped mountains and verdant valleys of south-east France. It nuzzles up against the borders of Italy and Switzerland, as though seeking warmth during the winter season. Indeed, it is this season that has made Rh�ne-Alpes hugely popular with Brits, among many other nationalities, for so long. It has established an awesome reputation for its skiing and ski resorts, with two of its eight departments, Haute-Savoie and Savoie, home to some of the most famous, not to mention largest, ski resorts in the world.

But, there is more to the appeal of Haute-Savoie and Savoie than fresh snow and dramatic, high-speed, near-vertical descents down spectacular mountain landscapes. Such is the diversity of these departments, for so long a cultural crossroads due to their location, that they truly have year-round appeal.

Downhill all the way

But let’s start with the biggie. Skiing is big business for Haute-Savoie and Savoie and is the biggest draw for its thriving tourism industry and its property market. Haute-Savoie boasts 50 ski resorts, while Savoie has 60, with 1,400km2 of serviced slopes. The Brits have enjoyed a long association with skiing in the two departments, being instrumental in establishing many early ski resorts when the 20th century was in its infancy. It is a popularity that endures today. As Leigh Twyman, of French Alpine Property, says: “Skiing has always been a British passion and the diversity and accessibility of the French resorts make it one of the top destinations.”

Scanning through a list of ski domains in Haute-Savoie and Savoie is like reeling off a roll-call of the sport’s legendary hotspots (or should that be coldspots?). The Chamonix valley in Haute-Savoie moved Charles Dickens, no less, to say in 1846: “Mont Blanc and the valley of Chamonix, and the sea of ice, and all the wonders of the most wonderful place are above and beyond one’s wildest expectation. I cannot imagine anything in nature more stupendous or sublime.” Well over a century on, it’s hard to disagree with him.

Today the ski domain of Chamonix valley has four ski resorts – Chamonix, Argenti�re, Les Houches and Vall�e Blanche. Sometimes referred to as the Grand Old Lady’ of Alpine resorts, Chamonix is widely regarded as one of the first-ever ski resorts and it hosted the 1924 Winter Olympics.

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Nestled in the valley beneath the glowering, snow-capped splendour of Mont Blanc (which, at 4,807m/15,770ft is Europe’s highest mountain), the Chamonix valley today boasts well-equipped resorts, with lifts across the domain that can carry 51,262 people per hour up the mountains. Indeed, these lifts alone can provide breathtaking entertainment. The cable car at Aiguille du Midi, for example, gives a truly awe-inspiring view of Mont Blanc at 12,605ft.

But, while you’d be hard-pushed to find better views anywhere in Europe, we Brits don’t just come for those. The Chamonix valley offers a fantastic skiing experience for everyone. The snow conditions are usually good and there is a wide variety of slopes across the ski area to suit all skill levels. Some 49% of these are suitable for beginners. There are gentle nursery slopes in Les Planards and the Savoy area at the foot of the Le Brevent area, all within easy reach of Chamonix itself. Meanwhile, 39% of the slopes are perfect for intermediates, with a glorious selection of demanding high-altitude blue and red runs (with superb snow on the Grands-Montets glacier).

For the more daredevil experienced skiers, 12% of the trails are rated as advanced. With moguls, rock cliffs and powder, as well as spectacular off-piste routes, there is plenty to enthral those who thrive off the adrenalin rush of hurtling down mountainsides at eye-watering speeds with the swish of skis roaring in your ears. In fact, many people view the Chamonix valley as the off-piste capital of Europe, with highlights including the Vall�e Blanche descent and the Mont Blanc Massif (where a local guide is essential).

Snowboarders are well catered for, with a funpark and half-pipe on the Grands-Montets, and extensive freeriding for those who prefer more natural terrain.

There is also night skiing at the Bossons Massif on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays as well as cross-country skiing. Chamonix was the location for the first-ever Olympic cross-country races in 1924 and there are miles of cross-country terrain providing a great opportunity for soaking up the spectacle of the landscape.

Families will find the domain very accommodating too, with lots of reasonably priced ski schools and daycare centres with English-speaking schools.

The Haute-Savoie domain of Le Grand Massif comprises the resorts of Les Carroz, Flaine, Morillon, Samo�ns and Sixt. There is reliable snow cover here, with the bowl above Flaine often having a sensational covering of fresh snow. There is also a lack of queues, which enhances the skiing experience. There is a huge choice of blue and red runs for intermediates, while beginners are served well with nursery slopes and, while only Morillon has a long, easy green run, there is a good selection of easy blues.

There are some seriously exacting black runs too, including T�te Pelouse near the main bowl at Flaine, and T�te des Saix, with north-facing runs that plunge down mogul-peppered slopes towards Samo�ns. There are also many miles of off-piste to savour too, and again a guide is vital on the deceptively precarious terrain.

While Flaine is sometimes frowned upon as one of the concrete-built eyesores that sprung up between the 1950s and 1970s, it is undergoing something of a makeover, with more traditional chalet-styles and apartments springing up.

Further south in Savoie, lies the epic Trois Vall�es ski domain. With 600km of linked pistes and 1,400km2 of terrain on which to ski, this is the largest ski domain in the world that is accessible with a single pass. The scale of the place sometimes defies comprehension. The 182 lifts can carry a whopping 260,000 people an hour. What’s more, the 3,000m peaks and glaciers that loom over Val-Thorens mean that this domain has one of the longest winter seasons in Europe, spanning November to May.

It is an intermediate’s paradise, with over two-thirds of the pistes classified as blue or red. There are also lots of nursery slopes and easy greens too. While only 12% of the runs are graded black, there are some truly stomach-lurching propositions here, such as Grand Couloir and the La Masse area in Les Menuires, which has some profoundly vertigo-inducing slopes. Again, there are lots of off-piste trails to explore with a guide.

As well as snowparks and half-pipes for snowboarders, you can also enjoy the increasingly popular sport of snowshoeing here. This can give you the chance to discover the valleys from a different perspective and enjoy the sweeping vistas, wildlife and flora. Similarly the cross-country skiing here is a wonderful way to enjoy the scenery. There are also areas reserved for sledging and dedicated sledge runs for a thrilling, close-to-the-ground downhill experience. A dog-sledge tour and snowmobiles are available too.

Named after the French skiing hero, Jean-Claude Killy, who bagged three golds at the Grenoble Winter Olympics in 1968, L’Espace Killy boasts 300km of slopes. It has a longer season than many other ski areas in France – Val d’Is�re and Tignes scale 1,850km and 2,100km respectively, with two glaciers rising

up to 3,455km.

There is light powdery snow here and a good lift system that means queuing is rare. Gentle skiing areas abound on the pistes of the Verte, in the Bellevarde area, and the Madeleine in the Solaise area.

It is also a domain well suited to intermediates, with lots of easy runs, for example Le Fornet and Solaise in Val d’Is�re. There are some satisfyingly long red and blue runs from Grande Motte to Tignes-Val-Claret, and L’Aiguille Perc�e to Tignes-les-Brevieres. The more demanding among you will be well served by the off-piste opportunities and some seriously heavy-duty black trails, like the imposing Face run from the top of Bellevarde to Val d’Is�re.

These are just some of the domains and resorts that are situated in Haute-Savoie and Savoie but there is so much choice throughout the two departments. Snowboarding is popular at Avioraz in Les Portes du Soleil while Les Gets, in the same domain, offers a run that is exclusively for the kids. Disabled facilities are included at many resorts, including La Plagne, Meg�ve, Pralognan-la-Vanoise and St Sorlin-d’Arves. Portes du Soleil also offers under-ice diving and a nighttime luge descent, while there is a bobsleigh run at La Plagne in Paradiski.

For all seasons

Wendy Bull, of Wendy’s Houses, says that “mostly now, clients are buying to use their properties both in winter and summer”. Indeed, such is the year-round appeal of Haute-Savoie that it draws almost as many tourists during the summer as it does in the winter. Of its annual

37.9 million tourists, 49% visit in winter, compared with 40% in summer and 13% over the rest of the year. The 2007 figures for Savoie show that 21 million visited the department in winter, with nine million in the summer.

The ski domain of L’Espace Killy offers skiing all year but the Alps offer plenty of non-skiing attractions in every season. In the spring, the rivers swell with meltwater, providing the perfect spot for angling, trout fishing and white-water rafting. Savoie and Haute-Savoie boast huge, mirror-surfaced lakes too, such as Lac du Bourget, Lac Annecy and Lac L�man (also known as Lake Geneva) where you can enjoy boating and a host of watersports, such as waterskiing and windsurfing. The magnificent mountains offer up a wealth of possibilities too, including paragliding (which, it is claimed, was invented in the Alps), mountain biking and climbing. Chamonix is the point of departure for hiking in and around Mont Blanc itself.

Tignes, meanwhile, boasts the highest (manmade) beach in Europe, and Meg�ve, in the Evasion Mont-Blanc ski domain, has an open-air heated Olympic swimming pool that is surrounded by mountain views. Throughout the two d�partements you can enjoy caving, bungee jumping, a wide selection of golf courses, or, for a more sedate experience, a horse safari.

A visit to the Alps at any time of the year can be a balm for the soul, with all the natural majesty there is to see. As Elise Pidolot-Raybaud, of Rh�ne-Alpes Property Services, says: “You have a feeling of space as you discover the mountains and all the colours... what a life!” Richard Deans, of MGM Immobilier, expands on this, saying: “Naturally, the Alps is a quite stunning place to be any time of the year with breathtaking scenery. It also has the health benefits with very clean air and a wealth of activities.”

A further boost to well-being can be found in the plethora of world-class spa facilities, such as those at Aix-les Bains – an elegant spa town on the eastern shores of Lac du Bourget. Savoie is particulary famed for its spring water and thermal baths and it is for these, rather than skiing, that the department first developed a reputation as a top holiday destination, when it was a magnet for the wealthy during the Belle �poque.

Meanwhile, the town of Annecy is well worth visiting for its historical buildings, such as the Palais de l’Isle, Ch�teau d’Annecy (home of the counts of Geneva) and the Cathedral of St-Pierre. It is also bidding to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. Chamonix is an attractive town, with cobbled, car-free streets framed by beautiful buildings and a lively apr�s-ski culture. And Samo�ns is the only wintersports resort to be classified as a Monument Historique, with its attractive square, medieval fountain and church.

It was once home to a thriving stonemason community and evidence of their beautiful craftsmanship is visible throughout.

The location of the two departments has also made them something of a cultural crossroads and further evidence of their rich history can be found in the Castle of the Dukes of Savoy, in Chamb�ry, and the watchtower in St Gervais.

Food, glorious food

Food lovers will adore the riches that are on offer around Savoie and Haute-Savoie, and further afield in the rest of the Rh�ne-Alpes region. There are famous cheeses, such as Reblochon, Gruy�re, Vacherin, Beaufort, Tamie and Tomme de Savoie – made with the milk of cows that graze in the mountain pastures. From these cheeses come many of the region’s signature dishes, such as fondue, gratin dauphinois, tartiflette and raclette. The lush valleys that cut through the region’s vertiginous heights are home to many orchards as well as vineyards of the Beaujolais and Rh�ne Valley grapes. There is also the Savoy wine, made from rare grape varieties that are well suited to high altitudes, while for a non-alcoholic tipple, you can visit �vian, from where the eponymously titled mineral water originates.

Accessibility

Despite being on the eastern flank of France, Savoie and Haute-Savoie and their ski resorts are surprisingly easy to get to. As Gordon Roughan, of Maison Individuelle, points out: “Access to the Alps has become easier over the last 10 years with the advent of easyJet and with other budget airlines going to Geneva, Grenoble and Chamb�ry, flights are more available than previously.” Various airlines, including Air France, easyJet, Flybe, British Airways, Ryanair and Let2 now fly to the nearby airports, which also include Lyon, with flights taking just over an hour from London airports. British Airways subsidiary, BACityFlyer, has recently announced

a new winter service between London

City airport and Chamb�ry from December until March.

Lyon is just two hours from Paris by TGV, while Eurostar’s weekly direct ski train service, which will start running in December, will whisk you away from St Pancras International and Ashford International and call at Mo�tiers, Aime-la-Plagne and Bourg-St-Maurice. And the resorts are about an eight-hour drive from Calais, with a good route along the motorway via Reims and Dijon, bypassing Paris, though in the peak season traffic can be a problem as you near the resorts.

Property

There is a range of property styles available in Haute-Savoie and Savoie. As Richard Deans points out: “Resorts vary in style, from the higher-altitude purpose-built resorts where the architecture can be ugly and predominantly concrete, dating back to the seventies, to the attractive lower-lying villages, such as Samo�ns, where you will find traditional Savoyard architecture in the forms of chalets with stone and wood fa�ades.” He goes on to say that this is now changing, and that MGM is “transforming ugly old buildings into attractive Alpine chalets. This can be seen in several regeneration developments we have done in Tignes and Les Menuires for example.”

On the other hand, Gordon Roughan points out that these more functional-looking developments made “skiing more available to a wider cross-section, rather than just the privileged few, which was a real bonus”.

Many of the properties in the two departments are chalets, such as the wooden-roofed Grand Bornand chalets and the three-storey Val d’Abondance chalets. There are also many apartments, which are usually modern, come with great facilities and represent great buy-to-let investments. For something a little different, there are pis� houses, which are made from earth, and there are some well-preserved farmhouses in the valleys of Savoie.

The Brits have long been attracted to the area. As Richard Deans says: “Several resorts were founded by the British so I would say the fondness has been there since the beginning of ski resorts.” Gordon Roughan backs this up, saying: “Back in the early 1900s, there were many resorts in Europe that had pioneering skiers from Britain.” Miles Jefferson, of Chalet Doctors, colourfully adds that: “Brit fondness here began with the grand tours, Victorian skirts and hobnailed boots.”

And the property attractions vary. Leigh Twyman says that chalet-style apartments are very popular with Brits as they represent “the best of both worlds in that you have a safe and secure apartment that you can leave for long periods, knowing that nothing will happen to it but you also have the look and feel of a traditional Alpine chalet. In addition, the costs of the upkeep are shared”. In Gordon Roughan’s experience, though, many Brits are still going for the more traditional properties while Elise Pidolot-Raybaud has spotted another trend: “A recent demand from the British has been for a property in the outlying villages, not necessarily in the resorts, so that they can mix with the locals and not just ski.”

As for the reasons for buying, John Squires, of French Property Online, says that “98% of Brits are buying for a secondary holiday residence, but a growing number are seeking to move and make France their home. Many buyers are of course interested in rental prospects for their second homes to offset overheads and make a modest profit”. Elise Pidolot-Raybaud notes that many Brits bought a holiday home initially but that some have settled and some plan to do so in the coming years.

Unsurprisingly, Haute-Savoie is pricier than the other departments in the region (which is also home to Ain, Ard�che, Dr�me, Is�re, Loire and Rh�ne). The average price of a resale home here comes in at €386,200, far ahead of second-placed Rh�ne at €298,900 with Savoie trailing in at fourth place (€254,600). Savoie and Haute-Savoie are the two most expensive departments when it comes to resale apartments, at €3,470m2 and €3,430m2 respectively.

While there were drops in prices in recent years, the general feeling is that Rh�ne-Alpes as a region was largely immune from la crise. Citing the enduring appeal of the region among the French, Brits and other nations, Richard Deans says: “Prices stayed pretty static on our developments over the past 18 months... in the past few months we have seen prices increase again, which is very promising and shows the popularity of the French Alps. Prices in general in France are back to pre-2007 levels.” Indeed, MGM recently announced that, over the summer, enquiries on properties leapt by 70% on the same three-month period in 2009 and Wendy Bull adds that, since last summer, she has “never seen so many buyers”.

Gordon Roughan saw prices drop by between 10% and 20%, though he too notes that prices have since stabilised and even risen in the more popular resorts. John Squires also puts the drop in value at around 20% but says that the Alps were less affected than other areas of France. He points out that this is also due to the huge rental potential of properties out here. According to www.clameur.fr, average rents in Savoie are €10.2/m2 while those in Haute-Savoie are €11.7/m2. Miles Jefferson cites the natural caution of French banks when it comes to lending as a major factor in France as a whole being relatively unaffected. He adds that there are, nonetheless some “great bargains to be had”, with John Squires adding that now is an excellent time for buyers. A bit of studious digging can certainly unearth some good buys. Wendy Bull says: “Budget-wise, apartments are extremely popular – prices from €55,000 for a small ski studio in Haute-Savoie.”