Way back in the early Nineties, when snowboarding was just emerging from the Dark Ages, the Brothers Dragon found themselves transported from the hills of darkest Wales to the ancient peaks of the Alps. Here they discovered the joy of powder days, the draw of the landscape - and a bunch of skiers who seemed to come from a completely alien world.
Wouldn't it be nice, thought the two brothers, as they scraped by seasons working for big holiday companies and living in grotty apartments, if we could set up holidays for other snowboarders, and the odd like-minded skier, that we'd want to take ourselves? A chalet not staffed by an inexperienced gap-yearer and populated with condescending strangers, but a place run by riders, for riders. A place that feels like home, with snowboard movies and video games, beers chilling on the terrace and breakfast laid out all morning (because 9am-5pm is what you come to the mountains to escape). Where staff and guests mingle, spending days on the mountain, evenings around the dinner table, and nights out in the local pub.
John and Owain opened the first Dragon Lodge in Tignes in 1996, courtesy of a mountain-loving bank manager who recognised that snowboarding was on the up. For the first five years, Owain lived in the lodge while John split his time between France and Britain, alternating cooking dinners and sweeping the floor with taking bookings and sending out brochures to every skate and snowboard shop in the UK. Additional staff were recruited from a pool of eager friends; when Owain left Tignes for the mountains of Japan, John's childhood friend Dan stepped up as a partner.
Today's lodge is in its second, larger incarnation, a stand-alone chalet (unusual for Tignes) with views out across the lake. It may not be the most luxurious chalet in the Alps, but everything here just makes sense. There's enough sofa space for everyone. The stereo has an iPod connection, in order that every guest may inflict their musical tastes on others. Wireless broadband is free, with the result that the lounge occasional resembles an Apple Mac convention.
Having been there themselves, the staff are used to hungry riders. Food is freshly prepared; dinners are two-course chow-downs rather than gourmet affairs, which is what you really need after a day on the slopes. Lasagne, curries, roasts, pies, with wine included and vegetarians treated like reasonable human beings, not afterthoughts. And cakes for tea, of course.
Unlike a traditional chalet, the Dragon Lodge posse are riders with multiple seasons under their belt. They are primed to show guests the best spots around the mountain. Officially, two days' guiding is included in the weekly rate, but will typically be more if numbers allow and everyone's having a laugh - and this doesn't mean experts only. "Taking out a beginner, making sure they have a good time and seeing the buzz they get off snowboarding is amazing," says John.
Staff are also experienced at living in the mountains on a budget. They provide a bargain-priced shuttle service from the airports and will suggest cheap places to dine out. They also escort guests to their favourite watering holes - though don't necessarily expect a ride home.
The lodge has strong links with the snowboard industry and this season will host Our Camp, a women's freestyle week run by a collective of the UK's female pro riders (7-14 January 2006) and serve as a Tignes base for two camps run by McNab.
With the lodge still very much a part of his life, John's not interested in further expansion. Here, seven bedrooms house up to 20 guests (with no single supplements); any more and "you lose the intimacy, the ability to eat together, watch a movie together, hang out together.
"I'm doing something I like, working for myself, getting to go riding in the mountains a lot," he says. "I don't want to get any bigger."
Dragon Lodge, Tignes (0870 068 0668; www.dragonlodge.com). From £199 half-board for a week in the winter season. Shorter-term bookings (£25-£50 per night) may be available during glacier season and if you book at the last-minute. You can rent boots and board for £70 per week, with an Option Snowboards Test Centre on site. Board maintenance is taught to those who show interest.
BEST OF THE REST: OTHER SNOWBOARDER-OWNED CHALETS WITH PEER ACCLAIM
Morzine (Portes du Soleil), France; 0870 800 4020; www.chaletsnowboard.co.uk
Founded in 1991, this was the first chalet from the UK to cater for snowboarders. It is slick and stylish, with a Burton High Performance Demo Center. Four days guiding is the norm. Two modern French chalets sleep 12 and 10. Weekly rates of £325-£499 include breakfast, afternoon cakes, a three-course meal with wine for six of the seven nights, a nightly shuttle service, linen and towels. Extras: Backcountry day trips with McNab, park weeks, women's weeks and summer camps in Les Deux Alpes.
Saalbach, Austria; 020-7419 0722; www.boardnlodge.com
Third season for the guests who couldn't get enough of BoardnLodge chalet life in Chamonix - so they set up their own for the company. Mikaelalodge sleeps 20 in seven suites. Huge breakfasts, tea and three-course meals with wine are included in the £250-540 weekly rate. Bar and sauna.
Also in: Chamonix and Velika, Slovenia.
Argentiere (Chamonix), France; 01546 830 243; www.mcnabsnowboarding.com
McNab was the first British company to run specialist snowboard camps. These are chalet holidays with serious courses attached. Backcountry weeks, technical performance clinics, freestyle "park 'n'pipe" camps. Most are based at the 20-person Chalet McNab, with its indoor bouldering wall, table football and hot tub. Prices from £795 for a week include course fees, lift passes, local transport, cooked breakfast, tea and three-course dinners with wine.
Whistler, Canada; 0870 068 4545; www.seasonaires.com
A week not long enough for you? This place offers monthly, three-monthly and seasonal self-catering chalet accommodation. Over the past eight years Seasonaires has made the mini-season possible for those on work sabbaticals, as well as catering to gap-year students. The original three-month Classic package (£3,469) includes accommodation, linen and bills, season pass, insurance and three days guiding. Custom monthly packages start at £446, with basic six-month deals from £2,020. Camps and instructor training can be added at low cost.
Also in: Mammoth, Fernie, Les Arcs, Tignes, Chamonix, Morzine and Wanaka.
Bourg St Maurice (Paradiski), France; 00 33 614 611 437; www.chillchalet.com
The most cheap and cheerful of the lot. Three-bedroom, chalet-style apartment sleeping seven, with a comfortable lounge, DVD and Xbox games, dining area and ski/board room. The chalet has an impressive ethical stance with recycling and energy saving. Pay an extra £1 per night and the chalet will match it and donate £2 to Oxfam. The basic nightly rate of €51 (£35) includes dinner and continental breakfast, APO demo boards, internet access and linen. The organisation has a second property in Morzine (Portes du Soleil).Reuse content