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Over the past decade, the arrival of growing numbers of wealthy Russian and Ukrainian tourists has changed the face of high-end tourism in the Alps. Five-star hotels have raised standards and prices; designer fashion and jewellery boutiques have moved into mountain villages; and a new generation of ultra-luxury chalets has been built to cater to their demands and budgets.
This winter, though, will be different. A combination of political tension, EU and US travel bans on some individuals and a fall in the value of the rouble and the Ukrainian hryvnia mean that the industry is predicting a slump in Russian and Ukrainian visitors. France Montagnes, a trade body for French resorts, says it expects 10 per cent fewer, and those who do come to be more price-conscious. Russia’s own tourism industry union estimates that the number of Russians travelling abroad is down between 30 and 50 per cent on last year, and that more than a dozen travel agencies have gone bust.
The silver lining – other than for the Russian resort of Sochi, which is expecting a bumper winter – is that many of the most lavish chalets in the Alps, which would normally be fully booked months in advance, now have far more availability. And no one in the industry will admit it but discounts that were once unheard of in peak season are far more likely.
Here are some of the top trophy chalets which, at the time of going to press, still had availability.
Mont Blanc, Megève
New this winter, the seven-bedroom Chalet Mont Blanc is seen as a game-changer for Megève, its sleek, contemporary interiors a far cry from the resort’s usual rustic chic. A glass and chrome staircase winds up to a bar from the double-height sitting and dining room, with floor-to-ceiling windows spanning all three floors. The heated outdoor seating area and infinity pool share eye-popping views across Megève, as do the indoor pool, spa and gym.
New Year’s week is available at €292,500; other weeks start at €120,000; consensioholidays.co.uk
Set in private gardens in the heart of Gstaad, the 16-person Chalet Etesian is as palatial as they come. Spread across five floors, the original building is all intricately carved wood, frescoed ceilings, wooden baths, fur throws and expensive oils and antiques. Step into the newer section, however, for a change of pace: here you’ll find a state-of-the-art spa, cinema, an entertainment room with a nightclub-worthy sound system, wine cellar and sprawling master bedroom.
Half-term week (February 15-22) is available at CHF90,000 (£59,445); other weeks start at CHF60,000 (£39,630); hautemontagne.com
When it launched last year, Chalet Edelweiss set a new benchmark for luxury chalets in Courchevel. The seven-storey timber and stone chalet centres around a spiral staircase that drills deep into the mountain to a colossal spa. The chalet’s British hedge-fund-manager owner is a self-confessed compulsive art buyer and the results of his addiction (Dalí, Miró and Picasso among them) litter the eight bedrooms, multiple dining and living areas, nightclub and bar.
Half-term week (February 15-22) is available at €295,000; other weeks start at €100,000; summitretreats.com
Chesetta, St Moritz
One of few chalets to rent in St Moritz, Chesetta occupies a building that originally housed the village blacksmith. With its large country-house kitchen, where hostess Bettina serves up hearty breakfasts, its atmospheric dining room and sitting room warmed by a log fire, Chesetta achieves a true sense of homeliness. However, the gym, steam room, sauna, cinema and services of Daniel, a former butler and valet to the Queen, ensure you won’t forget you’re in St Moritz. Sleeps 12 adults.
Half-term week is available at CHF70,000 (£46,267); other weeks start at CHF50,000 (£33,000); oxfordski.com
Bella Coola, Verbier
The lavish 10-person Bella Coola, set in a private garden in Verbier, achieves an intriguing blend of traditional Swiss and more exotic design elements. In addition to cosy wood-panelled bedrooms, a vaulted wine cellar and giant fossilised elk antlers, you’ll also find delicately carved teak four-poster beds, vibrant Kashmiri saris and Moroccan lanterns. The spa area is spectacular: the large pool affords mountain views through glass doors, which open on to the garden, and there’s a hammam and bar.
Christmas week is available at CHF81,250 (£53,570); other weeks start at CHF43,500 (£28,710); ckverbier.com
Chalet N, Lech
Chalet N, which sleeps up to 22 guests and cost its 37-year-old Austrian owner €38m to build, is 54,000 sq ft of sheer opulence. Expect the “usual” mega-chalet trappings, only bigger and better: a spa with multiple treatment rooms, a beauty and hair salon, ice fountain and hay sauna; two dining rooms; a sitting room with bar and floor-to-ceiling bulletproof windows; and 26 professional staff, including two award-winning chefs and a pair of butlers.
Half-term week is available at €297,000; other weeks start at €210,000; luxurychaletcollection.com
Photographs: Yves Garneau