Snowboarders Helen Shaw and Adam Lloyd are no strangers to taking risks, but moving to the French Alps has been the biggest leap they’ve ever taken, as Catriona Burns discovers
Find out why Montriond was the perfect place for one ambitous expat to put down roots
In the picturesque village of Montriond in the heart of Portes du Soleil, snowcapped mountain peaks tower over the hubbub of ski resort life below, majestically surveying a busy winter scene of skiers, snowboarders and wrapped-up locals enjoying Alpine life.
An ever-popular spot with winter sports enthusiasts, the town is also home to British expats for whom seasonal stints on the slopes was simply not enough. It certainly wasn’t sufficient for Helen Shaw and Adam Lloyd, who settled for a life on the slopes at the start of 2016 to enjoy the area on a year-round basis.
“We had holidayed in the area before and had always enjoyed the food, the language and the lifestyle,” Helen explains.
Getaways to Montriond and to other places in France gave the couple a taste of the life that they were craving. Before the move, Adam was working in Zurich while Helen continued to live in Oxford and it wasn’t long before the distance began to take its toll, as Helen explains. “We met every other weekend and that was it. It wasn’t really the life we wanted so we thought the time was right for a lifestyle change.”
Although their search for a new home was initially Europe-wide, it didn’t take the couple long to realise that only France could offer them the lifestyle that they longed for.
“France was always the most appealing to us in terms of language, food and proximity to home. Plus, we wanted to be in the mountains,” says Helen.
“All the time we were going back and forth to Zurich, we drove quite a lot through France and we always tried to stop off in places. We thought Montriond was the sort of place we could really feel at home,” Helen says before adding, “It really felt like a second home to us.”
As well as accommodating the couple’s active lifestyle, Montriond also fitted with their ambitions for Sheepskin, the business they had successfully built up in the UK, renting out luxury holiday accommodation. “We wanted to continue running Sheepskin but we also wanted to live where we wanted to live,” says Helen. Luckily for them, their first choice was very much in the interests of the business. “It was a good business opportunity for Sheepskin,” says Helen who, together with Adam, has expanded the company to the French Alps with Sheepskin Alps, offering holiday accommodation in the area, including a separate apartment within the couple’s own chalet.
“There are lots of ski resorts that are just ski resorts but we were looking for somewhere we could live as well,” Helen says. “We wanted somewhere that had a nice community.”
Once the couple had set their sights on the area, they started to look for a property. “We wanted to buy a ‘project’ building,” explains Helen. “We didn’t want a new build. Each time we have moved, we’ve bought a project and put our mark on it, and we wanted to do that here.”
The pair contacted local estate agents, specifying what they were looking for and were shown a tumbledown barn in need of repair. Even though the estate agent had reservations
about the scale of the project, it was love at first sight for Helen and Adam. “We stood outside – we didn’t even go inside – and we just said, ‘That’s the one’. It ticked all the boxes in terms of proportions and location and we knew that, somehow or other, we had to make it work.”
They applied their sunny, can-do attitude to all elements of the renovation process, even when it came to the infamous French red tape when they applied for planning permission.
“People moan about the French bureaucracy but we thought it was great,” enthuses Helen. “They were so fast at getting everything done.”
But getting the go-ahead from the local authorities was just the beginning, as the property was in need of serious work. “It was quite a big job,” Helen says with a chuckle. “The place hadn’t been lived in for five years and so everything had been ripped out and there was no electricity, heating or running water.”
The couple rented at first so as not to disturb the builders but by June they were able to move in, although Helen says it was still far from homely, and so they set about making their own mark on the place.
“We wanted to give a nod to the original traditional wooden barn but at the same time we didn’t want to have the traditional chalet with deer heads on the walls and things – none of that,” laughs Helen. “We’ve kept as much of the original frame as we could, so it has a rustic look, with all the modern comforts and in a contemporary style.”
Whenever the couple had no choice but to leave the work to the builders, Helen and Adam had no trouble in finding other things to occupy them. “It was hard, but we did have to go snowboarding a lot,” sighs Helen with a smile. “It was for the business really – we had to be able to tell our customers where they should go!”
But it’s not all skiing and snowboarding. Montriond has plenty more attractions that
appealed to Helen and Adam, namely the famed French cuisine.
“For us, France has always been the place to go for great food and wine,” says Helen. “There’s a couple of fromageries in town and they make their own reblochon cheese and things like that. We go to the market every week and it’s so nice to see all the locals there buying their chunks of cheese and their bags of sausages and all their fresh vegetables. Nobody even asks about the price – it’s not expensive to be honest, but it’s more about the quality and that they know the person they’re buying from. It’s so refreshing to see the appreciation of food here,” she enthuses.
The local market is an ideal place for the pair to practise speaking French, something Helen says has been a gradual process. “We’re slowly learning the language, although we know more building terms and things like that,” she says. But besides the useful practicalities of learning the lingo, the couple have found that speaking French has helped them to integrate into the community. “We’ve found that when you speak in French, the locals really appreciate it. It makes such a difference in the way they perceive you.”
As a result of their efforts to learn the language, the couple have now got both English and French friends. What’s more, they feel able to spend more quality time with their family and friends back in the UK, despite the miles between them.
“I think it’s been really positive for both of our families,” says Helen. “I think they thought that they’d never see us. When Adam was working in Zurich, we were always backwards and forwards and it felt like we never had time to visit family; we were always squeezing them in. Whereas now we make a definite effort – we set time aside to see family and friends and so we probably see them more now than ever before. They love to come here as well.”
In addition to hosting Helen’s sister and brother-in-law for a post-wedding ‘mini-moon’, the couple have also enjoyed having both sets of parents to stay. “They come over for a week at a time so we really get to spend quality time together,” says Helen. “Both of our families love food and wine, so we always have great meals out and enjoy exploring the area together.”
Having visitors to Portes du Soleil is not just limited to the skiers or indeed during the popular snow seasons. Each season is different and with every seasonal change comes different activities to enjoy. Having snowboarded since their mid-20s, Helen and Adam consider the world-class facilities a major draw, but they have since discovered much more, as Helen explains. “May is a lovely quiet time when a lot of the tourists disappear and the locals come out of their hidey-holes. Then it all starts again in the summer for walkers and mountain bikers and everything’s open until the middle of September. September and October are lovely again.”
Just as she can’t quite commit to her favourite time of year, Helen seems somewhat undecided when it comes to her favourite part of her new life in the French Alps. “People say to me, ‘What do you miss about the UK?’ And I say, ‘Nothing’. Here, there’s all that great food and wine and we just love all that,” she beams. “Also, we both comment a lot about how fresh everything feels and smells. We’re in this hubbub of this ski resort, yet there’s nature all around,” she says, before preparing to go out again in the falling snow; on her very own cloud nine.
This page: Helen and Adam (centre) enjoy a day’s snowboarding with a visitor
Facing page: In the warmer months, the pair swap their skis for hiking boots; the couple converted the tumbledown barn into a luxurious chalet
Clockwise from main: The chalet still has a rustic look but has been furnished in a contemporary style; Helen loves how fresh everything feels in the mountains; one of the Sheepskin properties in Montriond; a logburner keeps guests warm in one of their rented properties