Smart apartments

10th January 2013, by Dave Watts

Ski Collection - La Plagne's Granges du Soleil

Ski Collection - La Plagne's Granges du Soleil

Apartment holidays used to be the budget option for most people – at least on holidays to France. Shoehorn six people into a studio advertised for six and you’d have a cheap but not very comfortable time. Now things have changed, especially in France where lots of plush new apartment blocks have been built in recent years. Most have dishwashers, and many share a pool, sauna, steam room and gym to add to the pampering. Some even have comfortable furniture to relax in, too. Sure, the budget option still exists, but now you can have a comfortable apartment holiday with all the other advantages that it brings (see below). We’ve looked for smart apartments to recommend throughout the Alps and included them in the resort chapters in the book.

I’ve been taking my annual ski holiday with my wife and a couple of friends in apartments for around 20 years. That’s because we value the freedom an apartment gives you. You don’t have to stick to meal times (and meals) dictated by the hotel or chalet staff; you can slob around in whatever clothes you want; you can go out and come back in whenever you choose. And, crucially in our case, you are free to have a big lunch up the mountain without worrying about having to eat a huge meal – which your chalet staff or hotel will have prepared for you – in the evening; if you lack the appetite for a full meal in the evening, you can buy snacks such as oysters, smoked salmon, pâté and local cheeses along with a good bottle of wine or two from the supermarket. If you are hungry, you can go out to a restaurant to eat. Staying in an apartment doesn’t mean having to cook big meals – not for us anyway.

When we started this apartment lark, we couldn’t find the sort of thing we were looking for in tour operators’ brochures – all the apartments were of the ‘cram ’em in and make it cheap’ variety. So we ended up booking independently.

Now, at least in France – the country that used to have the smallest, most sordid apartments – a few tour operators (including those advertising in this chapter) offer some really smart and spacious places, mostly with leisure facilities such as pools, saunas and steam rooms. The French smart apartment concept was kick-started by apartments built by or opened in the Montagnettes and MGM names. Now they’ve been joined by other brands. PV Holidays launched its Pierre & Vacances Premium brand a couple of winters ago, and it now features residences in 11 resorts in the French Alps. Lagrange has 18 Alpine and six Pyrenean residences in its Prestige range.

So why the sudden change? Xavier Schouller of Peak Retreats and Ski Collection says, ‘A lot of smart new residences have been built in the last five years because of tax breaks for people buying them – you get the VAT back if you agree to rent them out for several years, and French residents can set costs against income tax too. This is good news for people wanting to rent an apartment for a holiday – we now have over 200 residences on our books.’ And a new classification scheme came fully into force in July 2012 and includes, for the first time, a 5-star rating (awarded, for example, to Pierre & Vacances’ new Amara residence – see the Avoriaz chapter). Ski Amis is best known as a catered chalet company, but it has moved into apartments in a big way. Instead of offering big residences such as the companies mentioned above do, it offers privately owned apartments and chalets, mainly in the Tarentaise, which includes the Trois Vallées, Paradiski and Espace Killy resorts. It will have a staggering 6,000 to 8,000 available this winter from budget to luxury. Christine Van Zadelhoff, a director of Ski Amis, says, ‘They will all be on our website, and you can access a selection by putting in either a budget and the number of people or more specific requirements such as three bedrooms, dishwasher, Wi-Fi, hot tub. You can book many online.’

Sadly, although there are luxurious apartments to be found in the other Alpine countries, few of them are featured by UK tour operators. Exceptions include the Swiss resorts of Grimentz (Val d’Anniviers), bookable through Mountain Heaven, which also has French apartments in Courchevel, La Plagne and La Rosière), Champéry and Laax (the last two bookable through Erna Low as well as direct). As well as contacting local agencies to rent independently there are some good websites to try, such as and Interhome also has a wide selection.

So what do you need to look for if you’re booking what you hope is a smart apartment? Most importantly, you still need to check whether the space is enough to meet your expectations – and whether the number it’s advertised for involves anyone sleeping in the living room, in bunk beds, on a mezzanine or in a cabin (which can mean an alcove). Also check the number of bathrooms and toilets. If the leisure facilities such as a pool, sauna, steam room and gym are important to you, check whether there is a charge for using these; sadly, there often is. And while most smart apartments come with a modern design, dishwasher and smartish furniture, we’re sometimes disappointed by the lack of really comfy sofas and easy chairs – often because sofas double up as beds and are more comfortable to sleep in than sit on – so check that if you can.

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