The lost art of the chalet girl

It was with a heavy heart that I concluded that the peculiarly British invention of the chalet girl is to become extinct, at least for now. 

November is usually peak chalet booking period for British skiers – but changing quarantine requirements have put many off while, from January, British staff will need visas that may lead to unviable amounts of red tape.  

Earlier this month, Crystal, the biggest British ski tour operator, announced it was cancelling its entire chalet programme for this year. Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit Ski followed suit, and the trade body Seasonal Businesses in Travel says anecdotal evidence suggests a 50 per cent cut, on average, in chalet rentals across its 200 members. 

And so it seems that, after 60 years of chasing hunky ski guides, dodging lecherous punters, consuming terrible wine and even worse food, the chalet girl “experience” is in terminal decline. 

What a shame. In the early Eighties, when I was 20, I had a ball working in Crans Montana in Switzerland. I was a freelance cook at the time, and a season in the Alps seemed like a magical adventure.  

Back then, it was a rite of passage for 20-something Sloanes who had done a (very) basic cordon bleu course, and were happy to cook and clean in return for unlimited skiing and four months in a swanky resort.

For me the season began at 6.30am one cold December morning when I left the mother ship (Sloane Square) aboard an ancient coach with only one stinking loo, accompanied by my flatmate Belinda and seven other chalet girls. 

This ghastly journey seemed to go for days, but eventually we limped to our destination – a dreadful hovel with only three bedrooms and one bathroom for all nine of us. The sagging sofas, grubby carpets and filthy kitchen will remain etched in my memory forever. 

I was responsible for looking after a six-person chalet and providing them with a cooked breakfast, packed lunch, afternoon tea with homemade cake, and a three-course supper. This must have given me some kind of PTSD as, more than three decades later, I can barely bring myself to boil an egg.

Each of us was furnished with a copy of the tour operator Bladon Lines’ Chalet Girl Cookbook (unaccountably out of print) with its penny-pinching recipes. We ensured our packed lunches (requested by only the most penurious punters) were particularly inedible to prevent anyone asking for them twice. I fear there would be riots if the inmates of Her Majesty’s prisons were offered one of my packed lunches, containing sandwiches filled with liquidised stuffed tomatoes, themselves filled with leftover boeuf bourguignon. 

It’s astonishing no one ever died of food poisoning. But to keep within our meagre daily budget of £3 a person, corners were often cut and, back then, health and safety was but a Covid marshal’s fantasy. 

Bafflingly, chalet girls had the same collective allure as nurses in the British public school male psyche. We wobbled about in salopettes and hideous Puffa jackets. Sharing a bathroom with so many meant we rarely put on make-up. We lived on a diet of sugary yogurt, Swiss chocolate and melted cheese, with the distressing result that we ended the season several stone heavier than when we began.

We weren’t even much good at skiing, preferring to stuff ourselves with uncooked cake mixture rather than get our enormous bottoms up the mountain before midday. 

They say golf is a good walk spoiled, and I started to feel that skiing ruins a perfectly good skiing holiday. After all, fresh air, snow, mulled wine, jolly après-ski and soaring mountains are wonderful. Why ruin it all by strapping planks on to your feet, risking life and limb to endure freezing winds and broken capillaries?

By the end of March, I’d given up hope on the romantic front. But my spirits lifted when a single punter took a shine to me.

I abandoned lazy days in the patisserie and went skiing with him instead, because love makes you do strange things. I also made a special effort with his packed lunches, and the chalet cuisine and general hygiene improved as if by magic. 

Apparently, 30 per cent of chalet girls met their future husbands on the job, and so it was for me. On my return from the Alps we married, but that’s another story…

Julia Stephenson is the author of Chalet Tiara – Confessions of a Chalet Girl, available in paperback (Headline)

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