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
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.