We often wonder what it’s like for our clients to have a summer chalet holiday in La Tzoumaz, so we decided to find out for ourselves. Most of our visitors are not single families or groups of friends, but are three-generational families or two-family groups. To simulate these conditions, we recruited some friends whose children were similar ages to ours, and booked the dates in spite of the poor weather forecast. Anyone can have a great holiday with great weather – we thought it would be good to see what was possible without much sun in the forecast! We hope you enjoy reading our family insights for a great summer chalet holiday – please add your own in the comments below.
INSIGHT #1 – Even if you’ve never been on a two-family holiday, consider asking a family of like-minded friends to join you. If the kids get on together and you enjoy the adult company then this can be a great mix.
I got my first lesson in the complexity of the self-catered multi-family holiday before we left home. As we ran around hastily shoving the last few items in the food box, with no idea if we had the makings of at least one meal for eight or not, I started to understand why so many groups plan a long time in advance. I’ve often been bemused by clients contacting me up six weeks in advance to ask what dimensions of baking trays would be available in their chalet or whether there was a soup-mixer. Now I realised that this is simply the sign of an organised, experienced holidaymaker and that I was hopelessly outclassed.
INSIGHT #2 – Plan at least the first few meals in advance, and make sure you have the relevant spices, herbs and oils. You can expect the previous clients to have left behind some salt, pepper and random condiments, but if you really need Piri-Piri sauce or extra virgin olive oil, then take it with you. Don’t forget the basics like butter, milk and coffee/tea, along with paper towels, dishwasher tablets, a few bin bags, sandwich bags and hand soap as these are not normally provided.
Given the late time that we were scheduled to arrive, I had cleverly pre-cooked the dinner for our arrival. As such, I found myself sitting in the passenger seat of our overstuffed car with a big cooking pot of chilli between my feet and a bag of raincoats on my lap while the children bounced all over the back seats in excitement.
Our next good idea for the trip was to meet the other family at the village playground when we arrived. The trampoline, table tennis, swings and slides acted like a huge sponge as the boys kept feeding them more and more energy. When the others arrived, we got to have a quick hug and catch up whilst the kids all tried to show off their latest gymnastic and judo moves to us and to each other.
INSIGHT #3 – Plan somewhere to meet so you can all arrive at the chalet together, either a playground or a handy café. The first family to arrive can visit the agency to check in and get the keys, along with a host of local and tourist information.
We had chosen the fabulous Chalet Chaupine for our holiday and as we drove up the winding road everyone was peering out of the car windows in anticipation to try and get the first glimpse of where we were going call home for the duration of our trip.
“Wow!” came the first call, as a large black, three-storey chalet came into sight. It was raised up from the side of the road into a prominent position and set in a wonderful, varied-level garden area. Before I had time to cut the engine, the kids had bolted out of the car to run around exploring. “Coo-eee!” came a small voice from the upstairs balcony. “Coooooool! I found a tree-house!” came another from the wild meadow area up level with the top floor. I breathed a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that happy, excited children were virtually all that we needed for an excellent holiday, and this place seemed to ooze adventure and discovery.
INSIGHT #4 – Make the most of the outdoors. The change of environment makes it very easy to set the expectation that there will be no screens or computer games during the holiday, and children will enjoy the freedom and creativity that comes with unstructured time outside.
As the heavy wooden door swung open we were hit by the wondrous smell of larch wood. “Shoes off right now please!” I wailed helplessly after the children as they ran through the entrance area like a charging herd of buffalo. It was a well thought-out space, with plenty of hooks and shelf space with a long bench running the whole length through. There was even a second row of hooks at child height, which was sadly ignored by the boys as they threw their jackets on the floor and sprinted into the chalet.
I soon learned that there are three phases to moving into a chalet. The first part is one of Exploration and Decisions. We had already had a pre-discussion on who would be sleeping where and why. Paying no attention to such boring logic, the kids ran straight into the room with four bunk beds and decided to make camp. The adults went more methodically through each floor, looking into all the rooms and figuring out which room they wanted to negotiate for. Thankfully, they were all great options with plenty of storage space and access to good-sized bathrooms. The downstairs rooms had wooden beams running across the ceiling, access to the lower level garden and either a fabulous view across the valley or a promise of morning sunrise over the distant mountain peaks. The two upstairs had a charm of their own as they were set into the exposed rafters. Although we all secretly understood that we were not actually intending to use it, we were all excited at the prospect of there being a sauna in the chalet.
The second phase of moving in is the Grand Unpacking. The kitchen was large, modern and well-stocked. We pulled open cupboard after cupboard to discover pots, pans, raclette machines, fondue sets, mixing and baking kit, more glasses, bowls and mugs than we could hope to use and even a champagne bucket. I loved the huge double fridge with its multitude of large vegetable drawers and its ice-machine. The fact that the kitchen was so well-stocked presented the first challenge. Each family had brought supplies. Where was there an empty cupboard tall enough to store enough breakfast cereal for a horde of eight hungry holidaymakers? The next challenge was trying to get the hob to work, before realising that my precious pan of homemade chilli was not actually compatible with the induction hob.
The final phase is setting up the Moment of Calm. Once the children had been fed, bathed, storied and put to bed with promises of a holiday jam-packed with adventure, the chalet took on a calm, serene feel. Within minutes, the fire was lit, the wine was poured and the adults collectively took a deep sigh of relaxation. Snuggled up on the deep, comfy sofas, with music drifting from the stereo dock we let go of all the daily stresses and strains and allowed ourselves to be enveloped by the magic of the mountains.
INSIGHT #5 – Don’t forget that you are on holiday as well as the children! If you keep the days full of adventure and activity, then there won’t be any complaints about being sent to bed at a reasonable time to allow you some adult time.
Daytimes were filled with an array of adventures and activities. A small amount of research had allowed us to sign up for the Trail de la Pierre Avoi, a heavyweight trail running race that climbs a dizzying 2000m from the valley floor to the top of the highest rocky outcrop and back through La Tzoumaz to return to the host village of Saxon, a punishing 36km later. Thankfully there was a 1km children’s race so we didn’t have to sign up for the Trail itself. All participants were awarded a commemorative trophy and a barbecue ticket so that took care of lunch as we applauded each muddy, exhausted and exhilarated finisher as they sprinted or limped home after five or six or more hours of racing.
A short drive from La Tzoumaz is the Parc des Iles, a fabulous green space with a large lake, playground with miniature steam train, and plenty of other attractions. There are trampolines with elastic harnesses, a climbing wall, mini golf and a high-rope park with 160 features, some of which are accessible to children from age 4. When we were there, there was a paddle-boarding open day on the lake with have-a-go lessons and wacky races. There was also a life-sized model dinosaur exhibition amongst the trees with a quiz for the children.
INSIGHT #6 – Look online before you travel to see what events are organised in the area. Often there are more things scheduled over the weekend, which can leave you a bit stuck for ideas on a weekday. If you arrive on a Friday or Saturday list a few options for the first day or two, and save the lazy days in and around the chalet for the quieter weekdays.
A visit to Saillon took in this historic walled town perched on an island of rocks near the valley floor, with its steep and curving streets and tower perched on top. There is a Museum of Counterfeit Money and an easy walk up to the castle tower, which is open for climbing up the spiral staircase to admire the incredible views from the top. From here you can clearly see up and down the length of the wide and glaciated Rhone Valley, with the tiny cars crawling along the bottom, and the rocks of the Pierre Avoi towering overhead. It was a rainy morning for us so we were privileged by a host of large snails clinging halfway up the grass stalks, and small fluffs of clouds clinging halfway up the huge mountainsides. On another day, we planned to visit the thermal baths at Bains de Saillon with their indoor and outdoor pools, hot swimming stream and range of saunas and plunge pools.
There are hiking trails criss-crossing the mountainside, labelled with a liberal sprinkling of the ubiquitous yellow signposts that are almost a trademark of Switzerland. Many lead steeply up to fantastic peaks marked with crosses or cairns, or to beautiful cols where the mountain range spans away from you on all sides. The celebrated footpaths that follow the “bisses” make perfect family hiking routes as they follow the ancient streams that were channelled in a gentle incline around the mountains. With very little encouragement, the children discovered a veritable treasure trail of fascinating birds, insects, plants and creepy crawlies.
INSIGHT #7 – There’s hours of fun to be had out on the mountain footpaths and trails. Pick up a map from the local tourist office and ask them if they have a Treasure Hunt or quiz or themed trail with animal sculptures. Then put a picnic in your backpack and get out there, keeping an eye out for interesting flora and fauna to keep excitement levels up.
The traditional “Inalpe” at Balavaud took us right into the local culture. After twenty minutes’ drive up an impossibly narrow and winding forest road we arrived at the fabulous Chalet des Alpes restaurant, set in a tiny hamlet with a backdrop of traditional wooden chalets on stilts and an operational chairlift. We had turned up too late to see the moment the huge and muscular black Herens cows were released as they arrived for the first time in the pastureland. Each year they naturally go through a fighting process to define the hierarchy for the herd, with each pair locking horns and pushing until one gives way to cede her place in the hierarchy. The local villagers have long made a festival out of this occasion, and we were delighted to find a marquee complete with hot cheese raclette being scraped onto plates with special miniature potatoes and paired with cornichons and silverskin onions. This was being washed down with plenty of local Fendant wine as the delightful notes of an alphorn trio drifted through the air. A handful of delighted tourists mingled with the assorted locals and weather-beaten farmers who spoke in thick Valaisan accents. Everyone was in high spirits and looking forward to the late afternoon finals, where the cows would again be brought out for the final stages of the tournament that lead up to the final knockout round to identify which one will be crowned Queen. Each cow wore a number and a handy brochure told us the stage name of each cow so that we could pick our favourites.
The area is famous for much more than fighting cows, and every available inch of land seems to be cultivated for wine-growing or fruit production. The landscape is smothered with row upon row of neatly-arranged vines and blooming apricot trees. Strawberries and asparagus were in season so we called into one of the many local farm-shops to savour the freshness of the produce and left with our arms laden with goodies. Along with enough fruit and vegetable to feed the hungry hordes, we also picked up some locally-brewed beers and loads of real fruit juice, along with some Iserables cheese and a perfectly-spiced dried sausage for aperitif.
INSIGHT #8 – There are plenty of handwritten signs at the side of the road showing you where you can pick up fresh fruit and veg, just follow one and see what’s in season. It may be asparagus season or apricot time when you visit, but you’re guaranteed that freshly-picked flavour and freshness.
Early evenings back at the chalet were filled with lazy barbecues, which had to compete with tree-house adventures, swing-ball tournaments and table-tennis matches, or the children quite simply running around the surrounding pastureland with sticks and butterflies, alpine flowers and the imagination of five-to-nine-year-old group-think. Randomly clad in socks and shorts, shoes and raincoats, sunhats or t-shirts, it didn’t seem to matter to them. The blissful freedom and wonder of life in the mountains is such an easy place for the young to step out of their day-to-day world of homework or electronic devices and re-discover creative free-play. My only regret was forgetting to pack paper towels, as the children were quickly plastered from head-to-toe in chicken marinade. A beginner’s error.
INSIGHT #9 – Garden games can provide hours of fun for children. Some chalets have table tennis or boules. We provide Swingball sets in many of our chalets as it is hilariously good fun and can be adapted to suit all ages – try asking Dad to play on one leg to make it fair for the younger ones!
Late evenings were filled with that gorgeous peacefulness of parents enjoying the well-earned knowledge that the children are sleeping deeply once again. Conversations moved easily from subject to subject as the evenings moved easily from the long dining table under its impressive two-level stag-antler chandelier to the soft cushions and animal-skin rug of the lounge area. The open mezzanine area upstairs that served both as a den and a boardgame battleground during the day was transformed into a quiet haven for reading, or sometimes a chilled zone to watch the match without disturbing the rest of the group. Even the dishwasher seemed to be an ultra-quiet version that didn’t intrude on the evening calm as the lights across the valley slowly winked out, one by one. There is no light pollution here, so the stars are an amazing sight to behold from the balcony.
INSIGHT #10 – If you have gone for the highly-recommended screen-free holiday option check if there are books, board games, toys or even a deck of cards in the chalet, if not it would be wise to bring a couple to ensure you get that downtime after dark.
It was a shame to leave at the end of our stay, but nobody seemed too sad as everyone was still buzzing from our adventures. We had spent a lot of quality time together and the two families had smoothly merged into one. When the family bonds are this tight, it seems that all is right with the world and I smiled contentedly to myself as I drove them back to the real world, already planning our next summer holidays here in the mountains.