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Les Chalets de Philippe
Dictionaries define chalets as wooden dwellings with very characteristic sloping roofs and overhanging eaves that are common in various Alpine regions. From this unexciting explanation my readers would certainly conclude that Les Chalets de Philippe are cottages or lodges built in this style. And since we often talk on this site about hotels, it would not be too difficult to deduce that it's a place that offers accommodations for travelers somewhere in the Alps - actually, the French Alps.
Indeed, that's all true: Les Chalets de Philippe is a cluster (or a group, collection, assembly - how about a hamlet) of seven dwellings located in Chamonix, a small town and commune in Eastern France, in Haute-Savoie département, at the foot of Mont Blanc. And, as the name implies, these chalets are owned and operated by Philippe (Philippe Courtines, to be precise).
But to say just this, is to say nothing about this unique and extraordinary place. I wanted to find a word or phrase that would explain vividly the essence of this place instead of giving you a dry account of room sizes, sleeping capacity and services available at Les Chalets de Philippe.
Finding myself in this predicament, I started thinking about the place as a wonder, like one of the wonders of the world. Well, what does it take to get into such exclusive group of most spectacular natural and manmade constructions called wonders of the world? The place I am talking about does not have the monumental nature of the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt or the grandeur of Taj Mahal. Philippe's chalets are really small (I think their total capacity does not exceed 35 guests) and do not represent any particular feats of engineering or extraordinary creations of nature. And yet, there is something in this tiny place that wows most visitors almost in disbelief.
What contributes to the overall effect is the hamlet's location in the beautiful enclave of Le Lavancher facing southwest position above the Chamonix valley and enjoying beautiful views and plenty of sunshine. A short five minute drive gets you to the famous ski area of Les Grandes Montets, and the whole thing is only one hour drive from the Geneva airport. And where else you can fall asleep in your bed watching the moon over the summit of Mont Blanc!
But I think, ultimately, it's all about Philippe's passion and creativity that resulted in this adorable and romantic place that seems to have just walked from the pages of a fairy tale. So, I guess, I could call it a fairy tale wonder of the world if indeed such wonders existed - the only thing missing in this tiny magical world is goblins, elves and trolls altogether with witches and talking animals… I was not surprised to hear from Philippe that chalets are frequently featured in design magazines and on television.
He says that when he visited this place for the first time more than 20 years ago there were only two chalets: he fell in love with them immediately and decided to buy them. But he also had a vision that gradually transformed the place into what this hamlet is now. But vision by itself had not been enough - it took a lot of time, research and effort to implement it, and I think Philippe can be proud of his achievements.
I do not know if there is an actual blue print of the place which, by the way, is still under development - there are plans to add two more chalets and a small swimming pool. To me, it seems that Philippe creates his designs crescit eundo. The truth is, no matter how he architects his enchanting world; it has a lot of harmony and taste. Each chalet is unique and is crafted from antique wood to give a truly magical feel to the whole setting. In fact, five additional dwellings were old chalets found by Philippe elsewhere, purchased and brought to be either completely or partially reassembled according to the artistic vision of the owner. I am not a structural engineer, but, looking at difficult terrain of the place, it also seems to me that this effort has required a real technical ingenuity with building foundations, retaining walls, providing chalets with electricity, water, etc.
We spent only a couple of days in one of the chalets, Les Barattes, in September. Because of this, I cannot tell you how the hamlet looks when it shows, but summer time you will find a lot of flowers, thousands of them here and there in pots, boxes, flowerbeds, and that adds tremendously to the lovely atmosphere of the place. Philippe's cat wondering around the place or sleeping serenely somewhere on a stump complements the setting. You believe that it's a good fairy tale - one of those that always has a happy end.
Interestingly, despite the common theme, all chalets are different. Some of them are really rustic like our Les Barattes. This does not mean that they are lacking refinement or elegance; in all chalets you will find most modern amenities (including HD TV's, players, showers and bathroom fittings, kitchen appliances, etc.). But let's say that some of them have more of roughly finished wood throughout and rustic furniture; whereas others may have more refined furnishings.
The property is filled with antiques adorning the place. All chalets are full of myriads of details that you do not even notice at the beginning: wall décor, accent items, lamps, embroidery - you name it. Some of these decorations were created by local craftsmen after Philippe's own design. All this really blends together very well without any clash of styles. It's not a shabby chic but only an elegance of real luxury.
If you stay at Les Chalets de Philippe, chances are that you will see him and not once. We found him a very pleasant and interesting person to talk to about various things. In fact, we met him for the first time when we arrived, and he personally helped us with our luggage. In his early 60s, Philippe is very active and full of life. When I asked him, he eagerly and with great pride (and he should be proud) showed to me and my wife other chalets (where it was possible to do without disturbing other guests).
I guess, writing a review like this, I should also talk about more practical things. My recommendation - visit Les Chalets de Philippe Web site (available in several languages); it has all you may need to plan your staying in chalets, as well as information about various attractions and activities in the area. Based on our personal experience, I can summarize our personal recommendations as follows:
- Keep in mind that Les Chalets de Philippe is a rather expensive place. This may also be important since prices for high, mid and low seasons are different.
- Choose what chalet you want to stay. As I mentioned before, despite many similarities, they are different - different in size, price, décor, amenities and location within the compound. For example, Les Grandes Jorasses chalet is the largest and perfect for large families and groups of friends. Some chalets are really small, for example, Le Mormotton, and may offer less luxury than others.
- Les Barattes (where we stayed) is a medium size chalet with capacity of up to 4 individuals. One of the things to keep in mind is that its layout includes three floors which may require frequent "trips" up and down.
- The hamlet allows for a great deal of flexibility in how you organize your staying especially if you come in a large group. For example, for large parties it's possible to use a large (Grand) dining room.
- When in doubt, do not hesitate to send an email (you will find it on the Web site) with your questions or just make a phone call. We communicated with Philippe while planning our trip and received all information we wanted.
- We really recommend to try (in addition to regular dining places/options available in abundance in Chamonix), the catering service offered at Les Chalets de Philippe where you can enjoy an excellent private dinner right in your chalet. For a brief account of our experience (and very good experience) with this service read this article.
- If you are looking for staying at chalets during high season you may try to book in advance. This may become even more important in future as the popularity of this place is growing. In fact, you can find now Les Chalets de Philippe in Michelin Guide 2007.
- At this moment, the owner does not offer any real cancellation policy - that's what we got from the email response when we asked this question. There is a paragraph in French on the Web site regarding cancellation, but our knowledge of French and use of on-line translation tools were not adequate to make any sense of the paragraph's content. I guess it mostly advises to rely on insurance to recover money if you have to cancel your visit. Our actual experience was to pay a deposit equal of 30% of the total at the time of booking. Pay attention to emails with reservation confirmations - they have appendices with additional information in English and clarifications of payment policies.
If we can suggest something to Les Chalets de Philippe to improve its service to visitors, I would recommend explaining better payment procedures on the Web site and provide better means of making such payments. In our experience, in addition to 30% deposit, we had to pay the rest about one month before our arrival. We did not realize it at first, and I do not know what would have happened if we had not paid the remaining balance. Finally, we had to pay a minor adjustment at the end. All our payments were done with credit cards, but we had to make phone calls twice to France to provide credit card account information (you certainly do not want to send this stuff in an unencrypted email). There are other ways of sending this information and making payments, but not everybody has a fax machine and wants to experience and be charged for wiring money to an international bank account. Unfortunately, at this moment, Les Chalets de Philippe Web site does not offer any facilities to make secure transactions with credit cards - the most convenient payment method for most of us.
I would like to finish this brief review by saying that without hesitation I can recommend Les Chalets de Philippe to anybody who is planning to visit the Chamonix area. Moreover, I think it may be worth visiting Chamonix area, especially if you have never been there before, just to enjoy one of those chalets and unforgettable settings of this magic place. Highly recommended.