History of the Ski Chalet Holiday

By: Anna Warren

1770. At the time of writing that's 137 years ago - when the first hotel was opened in Chamonix. Before this date Chamonix was a wild and rugged farming town where people caught their own animals and grew their own oats.
Chalets at this time were used to farm dairy herds over the summer months. Their milk was preserved by making it into cheeses and butter and stored down in the valley for use over the harsh winters. During the snow season the chalets were locked, and any valuables were locked safely in a small hut called a Mazot.
This was at the time when the term WAGGGS was not remotely related to being a footballer's wife and stood for Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. In 1932 Helen Storrow of WAGGGS opened 'Our Chalet' in Adelboden, and it is still used today by young people to enjoy mountain pastimes.
Swiss scout Ida Von Herrenschwand, AKA 'Falk' became the World Centre's first 'Guider in charge'. Her picture is here
You can listen to the Our Chalet song here
Webster's Dictionary defines a chalet as "A wooden dwelling with a sloping roof and widely overhanging eaves, common in Switzerland and other Alpine regions". But what about the informal meeting of new peoples aspect of the chalet?
Quite who invented the chalet holiday is unknown, it was probably several enthusiastic people who recognised a formula that worked.

For entrepreneur Erma Low, it all began when she was a homesick graduate who could not afford to visit her family in Austria as often as she liked. So in 1932 she took a gamble and placed a small advertisement in the London Times to invite guests on a ski holiday. For ?15 they travelled to and from resort, enjoyed food and board in the only Inn, and took ski hire and tuition, and a lesson in German. The holiday was hard work, there were no lifts, no safety bindings, just strong leather boots and determination, but it was such a hit that Erna continued to take skiers on holiday, ensuring she used the best hotels and guides, and personally accompanied each group until the 1950s. During this time Erna also joined the war effort as a lecturer and travelled around the UK, which caused her to diversify her holiday market business. She began arranging house parties in large houses and boarding schools where people could relax in an informal atmosphere and get to know one another.
Once the war was over she combined this with skiing to formulate the winning combination of the Chalet Holiday. You can view some photos of this amazing lady and her holiday makers here
Chalet holidays in the early years were a far cry from the luxury we can experience today. Hot water was in short supply, the bathrooms would be shared by all of the guests, and there was no cook; the guests were expected to muck in. It was a real gamble who might share the chalet for a week, one might be pleasantly surprised by meeting new friends, or grimaced by the thought of spending another day with unpleasant guests. With an eye for opportunity developers built the high rise apartments in the 1960s making a ski holiday more affordable. Could it have been here that the chalet holiday changed forever? Losing its competitive edge on price, the chalet holiday was marketed on its other new benefits. Your own cook, who served you breakfast and dinner and even made you a cake to come home to after a day's adventure on the mountain, private bathrooms, and, of course, more hot water. The privacy and affordability of a ski apartment was far outweighed by the luxury of fine cuisine and free wine. This concept has been developed further into the super luxurious chalet holidays where sauna, massage, canapes, and chauffeurs, and even a helicopter transfer, are all part of the package.
Thankfully though, the ski industry has remained available to everyone, and youth hostel style hotels are invaded each year by thousands of school children who can learn for the first time the magic of the mountains, just as the WAGGGS did all those years ago.

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