Faced with a choice between buying a mountain retreat in the Alps or a holiday home in the Med, more and more people are taking to the hills, Savills say. The most successful Alpine resorts are no longer simply winter-sports destinations, and the development of a summer tourism infrastructure in exclusive resorts such as Chamonix, Megève and Méribel in France, or Villars and Nendaz in Switzerland, allows Alpine property owners not only to enjoy the magic of the mountains in summer and winter, but also to tap into a year-round source of rental income when they’re not using the property themselves.
At the top end of the Alpine market, France and Switzerland have always been the destinations of choice for UK buyers. Extreme and expert skiers tend to head for Chamonix, first discovered in 1741 by the young English aristocrats William Windham and Richard Pocock.
Following the conquest, in 1786, of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak, mountaineers and skiers flocked to the area, but it was the arrival of the railways in the early 1900s that made Chamonix a Mecca for winter sports, and the venue for the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
Despite the advent of mass tourism and residential development, the largely unspoilt towns and villages of the Chamonix Valley have retained their unique Belle Epoque charm, thanks to strict local planning and conservation laws. Well established as year round destinations, they mix winter sports with summer activities such as mountain biking, trekking and climbing. In terms of property prices, the traditional ‘take it or leave it’ attitude of French vendors has softened considerably since the Eurozone crisis began, and even in Chamonix, buyers no longer expect to pay full asking prices. There is also a far wider choice of chalets and apartments for sale compared to the height of the market in 2007. Alpine Homes in association with Savills (020-7016 3740) are handling the sale of landmark The Lodge in the village of Le Lavancher, a haven of peace and tranquillity five minutes’ drive from Chamonix.
Built in the 1830s as a hotel, and the last outpost on the old road to the Mont Blanc, it was owned at one time by the Cartier family, which still retains a small chalet and some land next door. Although renovated and extended a number of times over the years, The Lodge is now destined for a major makeover that will transform it into a grand, six-bedroom Alpine ‘manor’ with every modern comfort. A €3 million guide price is quoted for the finished project, which is expected to start next spring and be completed by December 2012, allowing a new owner to have a say in the final design and specification.
The chic resort of Méribel is one of three neighbouring glacial valleys (Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens) in the Tarentaise region of Savoie that together make up the famous Trois Vallées, the largest and busiest ski resort in the world, with more than 370 miles of marked runs. Méribel was founded in 1936 by the Scotsman Col Peter Lindsay, and developed slowly after the war into a resort of chalets and small hotels built in a distinctive Savoyard style pioneered by French architects Paul Grillo, André Detour and Christian Durupt. It sits within the famous Vanoise National Park -France’s first, created in 1963-which, together with the Gran Paradiso National Park on the Italian side of the border, covers an area of some 480 square miles. Prices in Méribel are high, and a good family chalet can cost anything from €5m to €10m. But even here, there are bargains to be had these days, and Knight Frank (020-7629 8171) are offering a charming chalet built in traditional Trois Vallées style at La Gittaz Méribel, with five bedrooms, five bath/shower rooms and all mod cons, at an asking price of €2.95m.
Elegant Megève in Haute- Savoie is essentially a French resort that has gradually been adopted by wealthy foreigners, a trend underlined by its consistently high property prices. Unlike many other Alpine resorts, it remains very much a classic Haute-Savoie village centred round its 13th-century church: there are no huge hotels and it shows little interest in catering for the mass market. Megève’s development as a ski resort began in 1910 when the Rothschild family decided to spend their winters there after falling out of love with St Moritz. In 1925, Baronne Noémie de Rothschild had a chalet built to the design of French architect Henry Jacques Le Même, whose name was linked thereafter with all the major buildings in the town.
Since the 1950s, Megève has been one of Europe’s most sophisticated resorts (its slopes were the backdrop to the meeting of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in the 1963 film Charade), and is as popular in summer as it is in winter. French agency Emile Garcin (00 33 1 42 61 73 38) are selling a spacious, eight-bedroom chalet that was built for Broadway legend Harold Prince, who directed Evita and Phantom of the Opera. Completed 15 years ago, it affords spectacular views of Mont Blanc, and has a lovely garden. Selling agent Nathalie Lecoutour quotes a guide price of €4.6m for the property. Knight Frank also have a selection of chalets for sale in the resort, including a recent signing, a contemporary three bedroom chalet built in the traditional Savoyard style of wood and stone with a sloping slate roof, for which the asking price is €2.48m.
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Growing unease about the Eurozone economies has encouraged some prospective property owners to look across the Alps into Switzerland, but opportunities for foreign nationals to buy are generally limited by residency restrictions, which vary from canton to canton. Chalets available for sale to foreigners are always in short supply, and even apartments-probably the most practical solution for new investors-cost, on average, 30% to 40% more than in France. Perched on a sunny wooded plateau above the Rhône Valley between Martigny and the Château de Chillon end of Lake Geneva, the pretty town of Villars in the Vaud was once a stopover on the Orient Express. Nowadays, it’s one of Switzerland’s premier family resorts, pleasantly uncrowded and offering year-round activities, including mountain-biking, walking trails and tennis, with easy access to golf, paragliding and glacier skiing. There has been significant investment in the lift system in recent years and the village now has snow-making facilities. The run through the wooded village, with chalets set among pockets of trees, is a treat at the end of the day.
Knight Frank are asking CHF3.95m (£2.77m) for a rare chalet with authorisation for sale to a foreigner, in an idyllic location three-quarters of a mile from Villars. Built on three floors, it has two reception rooms including a grand salon with a double-height ceiling, four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Part of the Four Valleys, Switzerland’s largest ski area, the year-round resort of Nendaz, in the Valais, sits on a lofty plateau near Sion in the Rhône Valley, overlooking the towering peaks of the Bernese, Valais and Vaud Alps. In winter, the resort has access to 256 miles of pistes; in summer, walkers can follow 60 miles of bisses-an ancient irrigation system that traverses the mountain slope from the raspberry fields and orchards in the valley below. Savills International (020-7016 3740) quote an asking price of CHF840,000 (£588,000) for a spacious, three-bedroom apartment in the imposing Grand Duc in Nendaz, one of only five in this exclusive five-year-old building, with its striking Alpine views and ideal location, two to three minutes’ walk from the main ski-lift.
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