That’s snow busi­ness

They’ve swapped Aus­tralian sun­shine for Alpine liv­ing and new ca­reers as chalet hosts, an d this Bri­tish cou­ple couldn’t be hap­pier, as Vicky Leigh finds out

French Property News - - Fpn Contents -

How swap­ping Aus­tralian sun­shine for chalet host­ing in the snow is pay­ing off

The faint trace of an Aus­tralian ac­cent sug­gests the jour­ney to France has been a long one, and yet it quickly be­comes clear that it was prob­a­bly al­ways des­tined to be the fi­nal des­ti­na­tion. Home is where the heart is, and while Aus­tralia might feel more like home than the UK, I sus­pect France has gone a long way to win­ning their hearts dur­ing the last two years.

Orig­i­nally from Maid­stone in Kent, Lor­raine Mcder­mott met her fu­ture hus­band Andy Tay­lor in Lon­don, where they worked in tech­nol­ogy for in­vest­ment bank­ing. In 2007 they both felt they were ready for a change and were drawn to the idea of go­ing trav­el­ling, when Andy was of­fered a job in Syd­ney. While Aus­tralia hadn’t fea­tured at all in their travel plans and nei­ther had a par­tic­u­lar de­sire to go there, Andy de­cided to ac­cept the job.

The cou­ple orig­i­nally thought they’d spend a year in Syd­ney and then travel for 10 months be­fore re­turn­ing to the UK, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans. One year turned into seven as Lor­raine and Andy both fell in love with Syd­ney and even­tu­ally be­came Aus­tralian cit­i­zens, but as nei­ther of them were en­joy­ing their jobs it was time for an­other change. Both were keen to repli­cate the out­door life­style they’d en­joyed in Aus­tralia and pur­sue their in­ter­est in food and cook­ing, and while they con­sid­ered var­i­ous ideas there was one in par­tic­u­lar that stood out. “We’d thought about open­ing a restau­rant as we both re­ally like meet­ing peo­ple, but then we stuck on the idea of run­ning a catered ski chalet in the Alps,” ex­plains Lor­raine. “We con­sid­ered Aus­tria and Switzer­land as pos­si­ble lo­ca­tions, but be­cause of our love of food and fresh pro­duce it re­ally had to be France. I wanted to learn French too as I didn’t speak it, and we both love ski­ing, so France was top of our list.”

Pas­tures new Lor­raine spent the next two years search­ing on­line for the right prop­erty for what they wanted to do. When two pos­si­bil­i­ties came onto the mar­ket at the same time they de­cided to book a view­ing trip.

“We saw 26 prop­er­ties in three days! With jet­lag!” says Lor­raine. “We’d go for din­ner in the evening and de­cided we couldn’t have more than three prop­er­ties on the maybe list at the end of each day. We were quite strict with our­selves be­cause we had to be – it wasn’t like we could go back the next week­end.”

When Lor­raine saw the prop­erty they now call home, she knew it was the one be­fore she’d even stepped in­side. “I had a feel­ing, just as I did when I bought my first house in Lon­don, and fol­low­ing that feel­ing is what life is all about,” she says. “As you grow up you re­alise it’s not just about what’s on pa­per, it’s about how you feel about some­thing as well.” The cou­ple bought the 200-year-old farm­house in Châ­tel the very next day.

Lor­raine and Andy weren’t in a po­si­tion to make a per­ma­nent move to France at that time, so they re­turned to Aus­tralia and de­cided to set the prop­erty up to run as a self-catered hol­i­day home. They hired some­one to get the chalet ready and it was rented out on that ba­sis for the next two years. Changes to the visa rules dur­ing that time meant that they could be­come Aus­tralian cit­i­zens, and while that wasn’t part of their orig­i­nal plan they de­cided it would pro­vide them with a safety net should their ven­ture in France fail to work out.

“If we didn’t like France or it didn’t work out, the chances of Andy get­ting back into Aus­tralia would have been quite slim as he’d have turned 40 by then,” says Lor­raine. “In a way we felt more Aus­tralian than English and couldn’t imag­ine go­ing back to the UK as we were so dis­tanced from it af­ter seven years away, so be­com­ing Aus­tralian cit­i­zens meant we had the op­tion to go back.”

I had a feel­ing, just as I did when I bought my first house in Lon­don, and fol­low­ing that feel­ing is what life is all about

No cold feet

With this safety net in place (still unused by the way), Lor­raine and Andy re­signed from their jobs in Aus­tralia in Jan­uary 2013 and, af­ter a bit more trav­el­ling, ar­rived in France in April.

“We let our­selves in with a key we’d never used be­fore and saw the chalet fin­ished in the flesh for the first time, as be­fore then we’d only seen pho­tos that some­one had taken for us, so it was all a bit sur­real,” re­mem­bers Lor­raine. “We found our­selves on our own for the very first time in a home we’d had for two years, and we stayed up un­til 3am look­ing around it, talk­ing about what we were go­ing to do and the fact we needed to learn how to run a busi­ness. It was quite over­whelm­ing.”

The prop­erty was struc­turally sound so no ma­jor work was re­quired, leav­ing Lor­raine and Andy to change the dated in­te­rior and “glam things up”. They de­cided to open on 1 July, so af­ter al­low­ing them­selves some time to en­joy the slopes they worked al­most non-stop to get Chalet Can­nelle – named af­ter their favourite spice, cin­na­mon – ready for guests. And the hard work cer­tainly shows. The farm­house man­ages to be both cosy and con­tem­po­rary, of­fer­ing all the tra­di­tional charm you’d ex­pect to find in an Alpine chalet com­bined with the mod cons of a lux­ury ho­tel, from the rain show­ers and com­pli­men­tary toi­letries in the en suites to the de­li­cious meals made from lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents. Ski­ing lessons, trans­port to the ski lifts and pretty much every­thing else you can think of can be ar­ranged by Lor­raine.

“I think it’s re­ally nice to just turn up at the air­port,” says Lor­raine. “The only thing you have to do is book your flights and ring me to book every­thing else. It’s es­pe­cially good for fam­i­lies – so many moth­ers have said that it’s so com­pli­cated to pack for a ski hol­i­day and that it’s nice to have the lessons and every­thing else sorted for them, which isn’t some­thing I would have thought of prior to do­ing this.”

Part of the vast Portes du Soleil ski area, Châ­tel has just as much to of­fer in the sum­mer months as it does in the win­ter, which means the chalet has year-round ap­peal and al­lows Lor­raine and Andy to cover dif­fer­ent mar­kets.

“Guests tend to stay on a bed and break­fast ba­sis in the sum­mer so we cook on re­quest, which works out at about twice a week,” says Lor­raine. “Andy still gets to use the pro­duce we grow in the gar­den but doesn’t have the pres­sure of cook­ing ev­ery night, which he does dur­ing the win­ter when peo­ple tend to stay for a week and opt for the full catered ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The cou­ple had de­cided to give it a year to see if it worked out, and planned to re­view things at that point to make sure they were both happy to carry on. How­ever, Lor­raine was too busy tak­ing a re­peat book­ing for the fol­low­ing year to no­tice that the year was up, so they didn’t re­ally even need to dis­cuss it at all. They do say that ac­tions speak louder than words. They’re al­ready 80% full for next win­ter, and 60% of that is re­peat busi­ness. “I didn’t re­ally ex­pect that be­cause I thought peo­ple would want to go some­where dif­fer­ent, so it’s lovely that they keep com­ing back. I think it’s be­cause they feel like friends now.”

Work and play Lor­raine and Andy have a small apart­ment within the chalet so are on-site at all times, but I won­der if that means they’re al­ways at work? “We work very long days for 17 weeks of the year but then we get two months off, and then we work for the sum­mer and get an­other two and a half months off, and if we’re lucky the snow will come early so we can go ski­ing when no­body is here,” says Lor­raine. “That’s the bal­ance. Guests ask us how we man­age but we’re just con­dens­ing our work. It’s just a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at it.”

They’ve hired an ex­tra pair of hands for next year, which means Lor­raine will have more time to help Andy with the cook­ing. They’re also keep­ing their fin­gers crossed that they’ll have a bit more time for ski­ing too.

While Lor­raine ad­mits to be­ing some­what daunted in those early days by the chal­lenge they’d taken on, a new ca­reer as chalet hosts seems to be suit­ing both of them down to the ground. Andy is en­joy­ing spend­ing plenty of time in the kitchen, turn­ing their home-grown in­gre­di­ents into dishes that look so pretty it’s al­most a shame to eat them. For Lor­raine, the op­por­tu­nity it has given her to fo­cus on dif­fer­ent projects, such as mak­ing a lot of the fur­nish­ings for the house, is some­thing she par­tic­u­larly ap­pre­ci­ates, along with the chance to meet new peo­ple from all walks of life.

“You meet peo­ple who do all sorts of jobs, in­clud­ing ones you’ve never even heard of, and that’s what I find re­ally in­ter­est­ing,” says Lor­raine. “We’ve had nov­el­ists, film stars, stunt dou­bles and even an in­ven­tor stay here, and find­ing out how they got there is fas­ci­nat­ing. Th­ese are all peo­ple I wouldn’t have had the priv­i­lege of meet­ing be­fore do­ing this.”

Lor­raine and Andy may well have taken a leap into the un­known when they left Aus­tralia be­hind back in April 2013, but the French Alps seems to have been the per­fect place to land. Lor­raine said they felt a pull to­wards France when they were nar­row­ing down their list of pos­si­ble des­ti­na­tions, and once again her be­lief in trust­ing a feel­ing has been proved right.

“There are four dis­tinct sea­sons here; you know when they’re com­ing and you know when they’re here. The weather changes so much be­tween those four sea­sons and I love all of them for dif­fer­ent rea­sons,” ex­plains Lor­raine. “In some re­spects France isn’t what I ex­pected, but I like that it hasn’t lived up to all the clichés. You of­ten hear peo­ple say­ing that the French don’t like the English if they don’t make an ef­fort to speak the lan­guage, and that the French are rude, but none of that has been true. I was a bit wor­ried that the lo­cals might not like a non-french cou­ple run­ning a busi­ness here but it hasn’t been like that at all. They’ve all been very wel­com­ing and pa­tient.”

No half mea­sures While it is al­ways sen­si­ble to have a back-up plan in life, Lor­raine and Andy are a very long way from need­ing to put theirs into ac­tion. In fact they’ve re­cently made an even big­ger com­mit­ment to life in France by buy­ing the other half of the farm­house, and are gear­ing up for their next chal­lenge – a ren­o­va­tion project. A very lit­eral ex­am­ple of not do­ing things by halves if ever there was one.

Their lat­est prop­erty pur­chase is cur­rently still a cow­shed, and they’re us­ing the same ar­chi­tect who was in­volved in the ren­o­va­tion of the chalet side to give it a sim­i­lar style and feel. While it will have a slightly dif­fer­ent de­sign, it will re­main sym­pa­thetic to the ar­chi­tec­tural style that is unique to this area.

They plan to make it struc­turally sound this year, hir­ing pro­fes­sion­als to in­stall new floors and a new roof, and then to grad­u­ally ren­o­vate it over the next few years as they’re keen to do as much work as pos­si­ble them­selves. While it’s prob­a­bly only a year in ac­tual work terms, Lor­raine thinks it’ll take them five to fin­ish it as they can’t do much in the win­ter and sum­mer when they’re busy, and they also don’t want to spend ev­ery minute of their four months off do­ing DIY. Who would when there’s so much ski­ing to do and so lit­tle time.

“The down­side of do­ing the ma­jor­ity of the work our­selves is that it takes more time but you do re­ally feel it’s worth it in the end,” says Lor­raine. “A lot of what we do is up­cy­cling, find­ing vin­tage pieces and re­vamp­ing them. It takes time to find them and then res­ur­rect them, but when you’ve done it and you look around you know it was worth it. And we’ve run out of things to do on this side, so this project has come at a nice time!” she laughs.

They can’t add rooms to the cur­rent chalet as they’d be­come a ho­tel, and they both very much value the small per­sonal busi­ness they have, so they’re con­sid­er­ing rent­ing it as an­other self-catered chalet.

“We might go back to Aus­tralia in the long term but at the mo­ment I see us be­ing here for quite some time,” says Lor­raine. “Un­til the next ad­ven­ture.” Never say never, but with her and Andy clearly so set­tled and happy, some­thing tells me that the Alps will be home for some time yet. And you know what they say about trust­ing a feel­ing.

chalet­can­nelle.co.uk

Snow busi­ness: run­ning a catered chalet in Châ­tel

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