Buying High in the Alps

A recent report by the Ski Club of Great Britain suggests that 1.3 million Britons take to the ski slopes each year. Of these, the vast majority 42% choose to ski in France, with Austria and Italy each attracting 17% of skiers, followed by the USA and Canada (8%), Andorra (8%), and Switzerland which, surprisingly, attracts only 4% of ski-mad Brits each year. For most skiers, a self-catering apartment or chalet is preferred, although, as yet, only a tiny minority of Britons own a home in the snow a situation which looks set to change, as tourist authorities and developers join forces in a bid to expand foreign ownership of property in some of Europe’s most exclusive Alpine resorts.

Most serious British skiers tend to head for Chamonix, the French capital of Alpine skiing in the shadow of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak, an hour by road from Geneva airport. French developer MGM, based in Chamonix, has been building chalets and apartments in the Alps for more than 40 years, and has a number of exclusive, small-scale projects in the Chamonix valley.

The firm recently completed the conversion of La Ferme d’Angelina, a former chalet at the foot of the Aiguille du Midi ski-lift in Chamonix, into four luxury apartments, of which two remain for sale, including a huge, 200sq m, three-bedroom penthouse on offer at ?2.3 million (£1.6m) through MGM’s London office (020?7494 0706).

The popularity of similar small-scale developments among French and British buyers in Méribel, at the heart of Les Trois Vallées, the world’s largest ski area, has prompted MGM to embark on its eighth project in 20 years in this chic Alpine resort, founded by Briton Peter Lindsay in 1938. This is the conversion of the former Chalet de la Combe, close to the popular Chez Kiki restaurant in the heart of the old town, into four freehold apartments due for completion at the end of 2007. Prices range from ?815,000 for a 95sq m, three-bedroom apartment,

to ?888,000 for a larger, 114sq m, apart-ment with two bedrooms.

With its grand hotels, chic boutiques, trendy bars and multi-starred gastronomic eateries, picturesque Megève vies with Courchevel for the title of France’s smartest resort. It was founded in 1914 by Baroness de Rothschild who, in the years after the First World War, turned it into her own winter salon for the Euro-pean aristocracy.

France’s most influential families the Citroëns, the Taittingers, the Rothschilds and the Givenchys continue to patronise the resort, where lesser mortals can now breathe the same rarefied air from their apartment at the exclusive Balcons de Megève Swiss developer Alpine Homes’ new five-star, ‘ski in-ski out’ development on the edge of town. Launched in Country Life this week through Savills International (020?7016 3740), and due for completion in late 2008/ early 2009, the scheme comprises a mix of three-and four-bedroom apartments and duplexes, from £1.1m to £1.6m.

For more than 600 years, Switzerland’s 26 fiercely independent cantons have pursued a policy of splendid isolation, whereby only a handful of non-resident foreigners were permitted to own a Swiss property. Now a slowdown in the Swiss economy has prompted the authorities to double the number of authorisations allowing foreigners to buy a home in the country each year notably in the French-speaking cantons of Vaud and Valais around Lake Geneva, the areas most popular with British snow-sports enthusiasts.

As the Swiss half of Yorkshire-based agents Hartmann Singleton (01845 597795), former banker Beat Hartmann maintains that ‘nowadays, it is a myth that only the rich and famous can afford to buy a property in Switzerland’. As an alternative to the most expensive Swiss resorts such as Verbier, where a four-bedroom chalet can cost upwards of £2m, Mr Hartmann suggests that discerning British families should consider the pretty, car-free resort of Saas-Fee which he describes as ‘one of the greatest places for families, where children as young as six or seven can go skiing with their friends without their parents’. Furthermore, property prices in Saas-Fee, ‘the pearl of the Alps’, are currently half those in Verbier.

Hartmann Singleton are handling sales of a number of ‘one-off’ conversion and restoration projects undertaken by German-born Sibylle and Ludolf von Usslar, who moved to Saas-Fee some 15 years ago. Their current pièce de résistance is the Casa Sibylle a traditional ‘Walser house’ built in 1888 and painstakingly restored and enlarged to Frau von Usslar’s design, to create a stylish mountain retreat with four or more bedrooms, a huge open-plan living area, a large modern kitchen, plus a ‘wellness area’ with a Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room to take the strain out of a long day’s skiing. A large terrace and two further balconies give dramatic views of the Allalin glacier and the Mittaghorn. The Casa Sybille is for sale at SFr3.2m (£1.4m).

As the ski station closest to Lake Geneva and the location for two of Switzerland’s most famous international schools, Aiglon College and Beau Soleil, Villars is a discreetly upmarket, year-round resort, much favoured by international sporting celebrities. London-based PURE International (020?7331 4500) are asking £3.9m for Shangri-La at Villars an 850sq m, eight-bedroom chalet on a 4,000sq m site overlooking the Monthey valley, with spectacular views of the Alps.

The vast chalet, built in 1986, has a cinema, a billiard room, a library, a Turkish hammam, an indoor swimming pool and a helipad, all a mere five minutes’ drive from the village centre and ski-lifts. In fact, the only problem facing a prospective foreign purchaser, is that the size and configuration of Shangri-La far exceeds the limits imposed by the Swiss authorities, so that the sale would require more than one buyer’s name on the property deeds.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on December 7, 2006