Thursday, April 12, 2018

Savvy Skiing in Savoie, France

You’ve all heard about those Aussies who wander around the world for a Gap Year (or two) and never go back. Well, I’ve found one in the French Alps who is now in her 30th year of world adventures. Nikki Shields Quinn was a chalet host in the winter and then a sailing chef for the summer during her original year off. She then extended her stay by working as a Hospitality Manager, running Neilson chalets and hotels around the French Alps. That was in 1999. After a long career in Hotel Management and Catering, she’s now the proud co-owner of her own chalet operation in the village of Fontaines-Naves in the Tarentaise.

What was your skiing background before you came to Europe?
Nikki: I did two ski seasons in Oz - Mount Hotham running a bar as work experience and Mt Buller as a trainee chef.

How did you and Hugh hook up?
Nikki: I met Hugh, who is from Northern Ireland, the year after l started with Neilson. He was an ex pro mountain biker and came to be the Neilson maintenance man (when foot and mouth hit the UK, all cross-country mountain biking comps ceased). He is a marine engineer by trade and impassioned by everything with two wheels. I had no idea at the time l met him that he could build anything l wanted - and he has!

What wintersports do you both enjoy?
Nikki: I ski, cross country, board, back country ski and snow shoe and Hugh is a boarder. I often take our guests snow shoeing, with a picnic or a restaurant stop at the refuge nearby which is at 2200m altitude. We can’t do ski guiding as this is now illegal in France unless you are French qualified.

Tell me how you found your dream Alpine chalet?
Nikki: We looked in the Savoie region for an old farm house to buy that we could make our own, large enough that we could eventually turn it into a bed and breakfast and potentially a cookery school later on down the line.

What were your criteria?
Nikki: France indulged all my passions for food, ski, fitness, antiques and architecture. As for Hugh, he had the mountains on his doorstep with a bike and his snowboard, so he was always going to be happy. This dream house had to have an amazing view, be in a French Alpine location, in a small farming village, where we had neighbours all year round, and not far from the big ski resorts - the Three Valleys and Valmorel.

How long did it take you to find the perfect place?
Nikki: After a year of hunting we found an old ruin and bought Chalet Savoie Faire - it is remote but not lost. It took us 10 years to renovate – 550 square metres - and every part of it has been finished to perfection. During the build l was still working for Neilson, leaving the company two years ago. We officially launched Chalet Savoie Faire three years ago, 2015, and have never looked back. 

What makes Chalet Savoie Faire stand out from the competition?
Nikki: I have been having a good think about what makes us different from other places in resort and around here. The main one is that we sell a unique mountain experience, it’s never duplicated, it’s worked only around the needs and desires of each individual guest. The main physical difference in what we offer is the location, we are rural, with a French farming feel although we are close to everything. This means that the landscape is not spoilt by chairlifts, noisy snowmaking machines, loud bars, cars and buildings. There is a certain guest who looks for this special place and when they find us they keep coming back at all times of the year. It’s a place to recharge, the air is fresh and the views unspoilt from every room. Also, there’s the facility of language and helping with a smile (unlike many establishments around us). We can arrange to meet and greet, and transport to and from the airports, which is generally what the English speaking guests like, no stress from the moment they arrive. When they arrive at the property they can self-cater in their own fully-equipped kitchen or we can cook, serve and clean for them, they have the choice on any given day throughout their holiday.

What clientele do you appeal to?
Nikki: We are open year round and offer our guests a variety of options, because we soon learnt that they all come to us for different reasons, they are all ages and they all have their own expectations. During the winter months we have families for Xmas and New Year, they rent the whole property for themselves and we serve breakfast and dinner each day, some ski, some walk, they all sledge, some chill, it doesn't matter as long as they are together. They are all doing some sort of snow-based activity. In January we tend to have couples who rent a room for themselves and don't mind sharing the house with others, or we have groups of friends who want to come and do a bit of everything - cross country skiing (35 km of tracks on the doorstep), snow shoeing through the forests or skiing at different Alpine resorts each day - Valmorel, Courchevel and Méribel are only a 35 minute drive from the property. The guests take off after breakfast and we don't see them again until 5 pm for afternoon tea and cake by the fire.

What nationalities have already stayed at Chalet Savoie Faire?
Nikki: We have mainly British, American, Canadian and Australians at the house and a few French for cross country or backcountry skiing. Generally, our clients are middle aged professionals, semi-retired or retired. They are looking for a place with a certain quality, to be spoilt, to have peace and quiet, no pressure or the stress that comes with the knees saying “no" on certain days during a ski holiday. They can ski, snow shoe, hike or just sit in front of the fire with a book and a glass of red wine, listening to their choice of music - it’s their home away from home.

Are there any new winter activities in your area?
Nikki: This year our local Tourist office has launched a new activity in Naves, electric biking with a guide on the snow. It’s so much fun and you get to see remote parts of the mountain that you usually would not see. 

Can you tell me a bit about your cookery lessons?
Nikki: If the guests wish to take a day off skiing, they often like to take a cookery lesson with me - local, seasonal produce is sourced and after three hours together laughing in the kitchen we sit and eat together. I arrange picnics, the local thermal spa visit, night snow shoeing with head lamps and a mountain guide to a small chalet in the forest for a fondue and génépy (the local drink). We are always available for the guests but never in their face, it's a balance we have achieved from the day we opened and something that our guests fully appreciate.

How did you cope with the bumper snow season this winter?
Nikki: The snow this year has been ridiculous, I have never seen so much in the 30 years of living here. The cross country tracks were open really early, from the 9th of December, mountain guides were busy taking guests backcountry skiing above Naves, and the ski resorts have had every lift open all season. The snow conditions keep on giving, never have we had Spring powder like this. Each morning a fresh covering on the higher slopes, not much sun, not many people but perfect conditions. Those who were fortunate enough to book Easter in the Alps, certainly fell on their feet this year. Val Thorens still has a good 340cm of snow depth, staying open until the 8th May. Méribel and Courchevel are closing on the 22nd April. Our south-facing cross country tracks in Naves are now closed but there is still plenty of snow for a little snowshoeing. What a season, even the instructors don’t have the usual tan and google marks this year. Snowing on a regular basis from the 27th November to now!

How do people find out about Chalet Savoie Faire?
Nikki: I only use Facebook and Tripadvisor to advertise - l used to use Sawdays and Chalets Direct but dropped them this year.

Hugh left, Nikki centre, Paul right
My brother-in-law, Paul Hudson stayed at Chalet Savoie Faire earlier this season and said the chalet was lovingly created from an old barn, re-using much of the original wood and stonework and incorporating many traditional Savoyard designs. “Nikki is an amazing cook having run the Neilson chalet and hotel programme for 14 years,” says Paul who used to be her boss. “She has set up a cookery school in the chalet – she prefers to teach groups of women vegetarian cookery although also hosts couples and families.” Farmers drop off produce, milk and cheese at the door every day. In the summer Hugh takes guests on mountain or road biking trips. “It’s a wonderfully peaceful place to relax and recharge and Nikki is the queen of ambiance,” Paul says. “She also loves yoga and arranges classes for guests.” The main house provides accommodation for up to eight people, with a beautiful open-plan living area, vaulted dining hall and walled terrace with views across the valley. Other bonuses include luxury bathrooms with gorgeous toiletries, flat screen televisions in every room and a cosy open fireplace.

In his Tripadvisor review, entitled Food for the Soul, Paul rhapsodied about the vegetarian cookery classes which have given him much inspiration for home entertaining. Let’s hope he recreates them for Simon and me when we get to the UK in a few weeks! 

Have a great summer and look out for next season's blogs from November onwards!


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