My other house is a hotel in the Alps

IF YOU'VE never tried building an entire 32-bedroom hotel from scratch 1,860m up in the French mountains, then you've missed out on quite an experience.

Victoria Hawkins

IF YOU'VE never tried building an entire 32-bedroom hotel from scratch 1,860m up in the French mountains, then you've missed out on quite an experience. Just ask Alan and Rachel Hutson, who live on the banks of the River Alde in Suffolk, about it because its something they've just achieved.

Apart from freezing temperatures and rather a lot of snow throughout the winter months which precludes the building process itself; the other problem with building in the Alps is that many of the tradesmen you require on site, (like the plumbers, electricians etc) need to down tools when the white stuff descends and head off for their winter jobs such as ski instructors, for the rest of the season.

Serious building work is very much shoehorned into the summer months which piles on the pressure and getting the Hotel le Chalet Blanc ready and open in less than eight months was always going to be a race against time.

However with only some metal and a bit of concrete laid on the site before the frosts and snow took hold towards the end of 2006, the whole thing was finished and fitted out between Easter last year and opened its door for business on December 27th.

For the Hutsons it's been what you might call a steep learning curve - even steeper when you take in the fact that the hotel is in Montgenevre high up in the French mountains near the Italian border. Hectic hardly covers it.

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And for a family who love skiing, it's been no busman's holiday. Despite to-ing and fro-ing to the resort dozens of times over the past few months Alan's only managed to get his skis on for about two hours - and that was on Christmas Day - and Rachel hasn't done much more.

“It was chaos and mayhem,” he said smiling, “all very Grand Designs and with the benefit of hindsight it was just too much to try and complete in that window of time. When the snow went, from the beginning of April it was just push, push, push all the way.”

Working with a partner in France, what they have created between them is a hotel at the luxury end of the market along which also bosts a gastronomic restaurant which they will also run themselves.

Alongside that they also developed several commercial units on the site, which have been sold.

The hotel is already listed with Small Luxury Hotels of the World and with two-starred Michelin French chef, Eric Chavot, on board as the consultant chef on the food and beverage side, as an eating destination, it should be quite something too. Eric is one of our leading chefs. He trained under the likes of Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc and now rules the culinary roost at the famous Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge - coincidentally another Small Luxury Hotel of the World.

Skiing is something that the whole family love. “It started through family holidays and it was our Christmas break for many years,” says Alan. A black and while picture of their son George on skis at the age of four hangs on the wall. “He's a fantastic skier!” said his dad.

“As for Montgenevere, we didn't know it really. We had never actually skied there and it is one of those resorts which is very French, untouched, but with potential as we have now discovered. We think that over the next four or five years it is going to become huge domain.

“It is near last year's winter Olympics which were held in Sestriere, which is part of a skiing area called the Milky Way and further along are there's the Trois Vallee with Meribel etc, this is the French Italian border.”

Having had careers in IT and finance respectively, the Hutsons have had successful individual careers, which has widen over the years to include a shared interest in property developing. Some of that, they have done in Suffolk and they have also bought and revamped a hotel in Kensington, which they have recently sold,

However this project, which was mooted four years back has been their most adventurous to date.

“We were invited on this project to build a hotel and a restaurant on this new greenfield site four years ago,” said Alan, sitting in their large uber-cool kitchen living room, which has just the best panoramic views down across the Alde and beyond, to Snape Maltings. It's all cool neutrals, squashy sofas and soft tones in here, which he says is very much down to Rachel, so you can guess that Hotel Le Chalet Blanc hasn't escaped her feel for good taste either.

“We have called the restaurant La Table Blanche (White Table) but white is rather my wife's favourite, she loves cool colours and has used her inspiration with our interior designers to create the inside of the hotel.”

Lined up outside their house in Suffolk behind the electronic gates are smart cars, a speedboat, a tennis court, walled garden and spectacular views - which all point to a family who enjoy the good things in life.

Rachel added: “I adore it here, we do a lot of watersports in the summer, so it's perfect we are so spoiled.”

Alan was brought up in central Islington - “which makes me a Cockney for what it's worth” - and Rachel was born in Yorkshire and raised in Bournemouth. After they married they lived in London and they moved to Suffolk when their son, George, who is now 24, was eight and their daughter, Grace, was four.

They loved the peace and tranquillity of Suffolk and when they left the capital behind they first moved close to Stowmarket. Alan continued commuting back into town London and the children went to Brandeston School. Eventually Rachel set up a business from home. “She used to do principally city work on the financial side and then started to produce her own product information building a benchmark for insurance companies, pension funds and suchlike. We sold out in 1999 to Reuters, it was a sort of thing, that helped but we had a unique thing in the product which they were very keen to get hold of.”

Alan, who skipped A-levels, said he got his lucky break after leaving school to work in IT. “It was just the right time to be getting into it, it was in the days of data processing back in the Seventies. I was more on the engineering side of things which suited me down to the ground and grew with the industry. My last employed job was with a co called Digital (Deck?) which was bought out by Hewlett Packard and I worked at LIFE financial futures on the IT side until Rachel set up her business, which was called CAMRA (Capital Asset Management Research Association) which was doing so well it got the stage where I could stop commuting and work there.

“Rachel is very much more on the finance side of things, she's also quite entrepreneurial. She sees an opportunity and creates something out of it and she's had some amazing products which are still be used today. Property was a sideline. From about 2000 we got the urge to start doing some development and went on from there.

“We have done a couple at Sudbourne and we did some work in Aldeburgh and some in France.” But nothing as large scale as they have done now.”

They previously lived down the road at Sudbourne in a chocolate box pretty house called Blacksmith's Cottage which, to their great shock was destroyed in a thatch fire in 2001m which was pretty devastating. “My son was in the house at the time. I was at a tennis tournament with Grace and Rachel was on her way back from shopping in London when he rang and said the house is on fire.

“Our neighbours were fantastic but we lost everything. We owned what we stood in but the villagers rallied round, gave us somewhere to live, lent us clothes and then we had the battle with the insurance company and that got settled and then we tried to get plans developed to get a building put back and it's just been a battle ever since.

“It's still not rebuilt. It did get us some time to get ourselves sorted and when this place came on the market we were in a rented property up the road and in fortunate position to be able to acquire it. We lived in just about every property round here within an 18 month period while we were getting settled.

“All we could be thankful for was that nobody was hurt, the four of us are still here. We lost all our photographs and personal bits and pieces. Your clothes and things you can replace, just go back to the shops and get some more but its all those things you can't replace.”

Which makes you realise why the challenge of building a hotel in another country was just that. Another exciting challenge. “We seem to do that quite a lot,” he said.

So are they now happy to sit back or are they already looking for another challenge. Oh definitely yes, said Alan - and it may well be abroad next time as well.

Alan who'd only arrived back in Suffolk two days before, was off again to Montgenevre the next day as well. “It takes an hour and a quarter to drive to Stansted, then it's an hour's flight and an hour and quarter the other end. Do you realise it can almost take longer going to London from here sometimes!”

Hotel Le Chalet Blanc, a chi-chi boutique hotel, has been built in the old French Alpine village of Montgenevre, which at just over 100 years old, makes it one of the oldest French skiing resorts. But, said Alan it hadn't moved on much since the Seventies an then a new mayor has made a huge difference to the resort. Since he was elected a kilometre long tunnel has taken heavy traffic away from its centre.

“He's been a great inspiration, he's really picked the village up and started to change things, the first thing he did was to have this underpass built. The village was on a main road on a historic mountain pass so were a number of heavy lorries that came through the Frejus tunnel down the road to Briancon, which let the resort down.

“Now there is a pedestrianised area from the hotels up to the pistes and it's a huge skiing domain. There is quite a bit of new development going on there and it is bringing in a lot of new people, so it is very exciting.

“Why France? We have had some interests there before, we have got friends there and we have been there an awful lot and following our introduction to our partner, Fabrice, we decided we would invest there. We've been doing some property development over the years and were looking for the right opportunity and this one presented itself so we got stuck in.

“We haven't got a second home there, no, just a hotel!

“It's a popular resort and you are only on hour from Turin and from Suffolk you can get cheap flights with Easyjet and Ryanair from Stansted and then it's only an hour and a quarter to the resort. The snow is incredibly good this year but it is a year round resort and once the snow goes we even have golf course which stretches between France and Italy so you can literally play nine holes in France and nine in Italy across the border. Then there is mountain biking, tennis and swimming too.”

Getting the hotel finished was “a bit of a challenge,” he says. “We invited some relatives over for Christmas and they didn't quite realise what they were letting themselves in for!”

Rachel said it was a mad rush in the weeks running up to the opening. Staff had to be employed and furniture was sourced from all over France, Italy and London (there are even armchairs flown in from the States).

With double rooms costing 200 euros a night in the peak season, Hotel Le Chalet Blanc is going to be open throughout the year and Alan and Rachel are happy to offer EADT readers 25% off until the end of September 2008.

View Hotel Le Chalet Blanc here

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