WRITER: Nadine Khalil
Sitting at 1,660 metres in a town called Oberlech, above Lech (itself a former farming village in Austria now known as the cradle of low-key luxury) is Chalet N, the world’s priciest ski chalet. To rent or to build, you might ask. The answer in fact, is both.
How do you build a perfect holiday home? If you were to follow René Benko’s lead, the ultimate house requires a few key elements: One, a large investment (circa 50 million USD); Two, a stunning, preferably remote location; Three, a spacious, well-appointed design that’s a subtle mix of the classic and the contemporary (to better stand the test of time); And four, staff that can provide a level of service as attentive as that which can be had in the best luxury hotels but as considerate and personable as you’d expect from well-honed and polished domestic help.
Chalet N is owned by 38-year-old René Benko, who is an Austrian developer at the head of the country’s largest privately held real estate conglomerate.
Benko, an Austrian real estate magnate who heads Signa Holding, is becoming widely known in European circles for developing upscale hotels and villas in places as diverse as Vienna’s Golden Quarter and Italy’s Lake Garda but Chalet N, which looks upon the towering world-famous Arlberg massif in Austria’s Oberlech, could be his most impressive work yet. Built in a superhuman timeframe of just seven months, the five-storey building, made entirely from reclaimed oak, has caused even the most blasé skiers in this picture-perfect part of the Alps to stop in their tracks and take notice.
Named after Benko’s wife and three children (all of whom have names that begin with the letter), Chalet N is surrounded by chocolate box houses in the well-groomed Tyrolean ski village of Lech but it’s also unlike any traditional mountain dwelling. For one, it functions as a family holiday home but one that can be shared. You see, Benko built the chalet as much for others to use as he did for himself. Of course that’s not to say he’s willing to open his doors to anyone, rather he’s hoping to attract only the most distinguished families, or in simpler terms, those with the means of spending upwards of 210,000 Euros a week – and that’s during low season. Do the maths and you’ll see that even if you divide this sum across the maximum capacity of 22 guests, the total price per person far exceeds even the costliest of ski hotels. As a result, you could say that Chalet N falls within a superyacht criterion of holiday propositions. So the question is why?
Well, the response has to do with sheer excellence and from my own experience, I can tell you that my first sense of how magically surreal N is, occurred shortly after I arrived. I was taking a moment on the chalet’s main terrace, liberally decorated with white fur throws, sipping my champagne and marvelling at how the blinding white snow blotting the nearby mountain’s dark rugged contours was catching the rose gold rays of the setting sun when I was suddenly overcome with hunger.
“Why don’t you call the chef and see what he can offer you?” suggested Georg Gruber, the chalet manager. Apparently, they have a rather marvellous policy of allowing every guest to order whatever takes their fancy, whenever they wish. So after a brief conversation with Christoph Stiglitz, the Austrian Michelin-starred in-house chef (who used to work for Nobu in London) I intimate that I’d like something light, perhaps fish. A short while later and a hearty wild garlic soup with North Sea shrimps along with an exquisite melt-in-your-mouth Alaskan black cod on a bed of pak choi shitake mushrooms were sent up to my suite on a gleaming silver platter. What’s more, the chef surprised me with a dessert too: a vanilla sponge cake served with cocoa ice cream topped with an interesting cauliflower foam. I recall thinking at the time, how easily I could get used to this life.
I could also get used to my suite. Unlike nearly all chalets, there isn’t a short straw to be drawn here; there is a long one though and that’s the master suite, measuring in at a heady 184 square metres. Mine is only a notch below that and in a nice personal touch, my name and a welcome greeting are written in chalk above my door. The suite is incredibly spacious and comes with its own living room and fireplace, bathroom stocked with full-size Bulgari amenities, walk-in wardrobes and two private balconies. There’s apparently another suite like mine and two others that are almost the same, except they don’t have dressing rooms. Then there are three more large bedrooms with just en-suite bathrooms. The sumptuous neo-traditional décor throughout encompasses a comforting blend of aged wood, plush furniture in chocolate browns, coffee creams and cool silver-greys, as well as some state-of-the-art mod-cons.
If you can tear yourself away from your room, you’ll find that Chalet N also has a large communal sitting room with a generously equipped cocktail bar, a wine cellar, a cinema furnished with Gucci sofas, a gym and a highly impressive spa that includes a Finnish sauna, a steam room, two cold plunge pools and a swimming pool with a fabulous underwater sound system. As if that weren’t enough, they also have two outdoor hot tubs, an ice bar and a ski room that’s connected to the slopes via a lift.
In terms of meals, there are two dining rooms: one is an Austrian fondue room and the other a fine dining restaurant facing the pistes. As Markus Mitterrutzner, CEO of Signa Luxury Collection, explains, the cuisine is a crucial aspect of the Chalet N experience. “Our chefs use all their culinary skills to spoil our guests in the restaurant and freshly prepare whatever they are in the mood for. They also always correspond with our guests in advance of their stay in order to gauge their individual menu requirements.” I found that this level of preparation also extends to the spa, where treatments, products and specialists are tailored to meet your individual needs.
The double bunkroom includes a playroom equipped not just with toys but an Xbox, Playstation and more.
Chalet N doesn’t just pamper you, it makes you the absolute monarch of your own kingdom. Much more than a full-service luxury villa or a five-star hotel, Chalet N feels like home, albeit a very privileged one. With its exceptionally trained staff – a team of 35 selected from an application pool of 600 – catering to your every whim, it embodies everything domestic life could be, if only you knew how to do it right (and had the means to put that knowledge into practice).
In a world of superlatives it’s funny how it tends to be the minute details that create the biggest sensations and here at N, that would be everything from the pillowcases, which are personally embroidered with your initials, to the heated electric lavatory seats that automatically rise the moment you come close enough. If you ever brought your children here – and I say this because you’ll have to decide whether or not you want to expose those impressionable young minds to an experience that’ll make returning home all but impossible – there’s a special double bunkroom come playroom, which comes with a tonne of toys, as well as an adjoining bedroom for two nannies. Every aspect has been thought through for your comfort and happiness, which isn’t something you can easily put a price tag on – though they have tried. So if you’re looking to come between Christmas and New Year, the rates run as high as 490,000 Euros a week.
On my way back to the airport, I was taken from the underground 16-car garage, where the collection of Mercedes, Maseratis and Porsches resides and where I am ushered into a Range Rover Sport. And sitting in the back, watching the world fly by as the heated seat gently warmed my backside, I contemplate my time at the chalet. It was as much an escape to the extraordinary as it was an indulgence in the ordinary. I was caught by their web of enchantment and wish I never had to leave. There’s a German word, gemutlichkeit, which, though it doesn’t have a literal translation, is meant to describe a place that embodies warmth, belonging and peace of mind, or a sort of quintessence of home. In building such a place for his family, Benko has in fact created the world’s most ultimate chalet.
WHAT Chalet N
WHERE Oberlech, Austria
SPECS A ski-in ski-out chalet for 22 guests tended to by 35 staff, with two dining rooms, a sitting room and bar, a gym, a spa, an indoor pool, two outdoor hot tubs, a cinema, a hairdressers, a wine cellar, an ice bar and a ski room where the staff will put your pre-heated boots and take them off without you having to bend a finger.
WHY Seriously? Did you read the specs?
Top: The fine dining restaurant seats up to 16 diners at a time. Bottom: The wine cellar stocks over 350 bottles and 900 cigars.