Steamboat couple moving mountains to please chalet guests

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— Europeans have been enjoying the benefits of hassle-free ski vacations for many years, but the concept is a novel idea in North America.

Robin and Heather Craigen have spent the past five years working to change that. As the proprietors of Moving Mountains Chalets, they host extended families and large groups in luxurious vacation homes. Their goal is to make sure their guests want for nothing.

"No one here really understands what the catered chalet concept is, unless they've been to Europe," Robin said. "There are thousands (of chalets) over there. It's almost the default idea for a ski vacation in Europe."

When the Craigens pick up their clients at the airport in a Suburban and whisk them to their guest house on Burgess Creek Road (the couple lives

several doors down), many of the details that can bog down a ski vacation already have been arranged. For example, the clients' ski passes and ski school tickets are spread out on the dining room table, waiting for them. Heather, a trained chef, has done the shopping based on the guests' tastes. She prepares three meals a day, except for two dinners a week, when guests are free to hit the town or order in.

In the Alps, a hosted chalet can transcend all price ranges, from a humble farmhouse to a virtual castle. The Craigens have focused on luxury homes in their efforts. Guests pay upward of $200 per person per night during ski season.

Robin ran ski chalets in Europe, but the couple's experience in providing a high level of service was acquired on a 72-foot sailing yacht in the Caribbean. For four years, Robin was the captain and Heather the chef on a sailboat based in the British Virgin Islands. In all, they spent eight years in the Caribbean. Through their experience on Captain Barry Rice's Endless Summer II, they became convinced they could transfer the guest experience to a luxury home in the Colorado Rockies.

"He put us in a position to offer the guests everything they could want," Heather said. "And you feed off their enthusiasm."

Serving as the crew on a luxury yacht may sound idyllic, but the pace and intensity of the work is demanding, Robin said. The season lasted 35 to 40 weeks, and the crew sometimes went eight weeks before they had a Saturday night off in port. And when they finally had a week without guests, it was time to apply a fresh coat of varnish to the boat.

The payoff came when, after nine months of continuous work, they were able to take a two- to three-month vacation.

Another benefit of living and working on a yacht is that they didn't have to pay for their room and board. Heather hints that they were careful with their money and had a goal in mind.

Their new "land yacht" is a 5,000-square-foot home less than a half mile from the bottom of the Thunderhead Express. It has six bedrooms, all with private baths. Each room is decorated according to a theme based on countries the Craigens have visited. The great room includes several couches and a massive dining room table.

Although the home is luxurious, the Craigens haven't made an attempt to strive for opulence -- don't look for a Waterford crystal bowl on the coffee table or precious antiques in the bedrooms. Instead, Moving Mountains Chalet has a homey feeling that's hard to pin down. It's a quality for which the Craigens were aiming -- they want their guests to feel at home. For families who miss their own pooches, a pair of chocolate Labradors named Lola and Ellie are available as stand-ins.

Between the dogs and a well-equipped game room, children usually are content to stay out of their parents' hair, Heather said. And if they still need to work off steam after a day on the ski slopes, there is a sledding hill in the back yard.

Heather is even savvy enough to serve a children's dinner at 5 p.m., while the grown-ups are enjoying appetizers before the evening meal. Once the children are fed, and often put to bed, Heather rolls out her gourmet cuisine for the adults.

In addition to the Moving Mountains Chalet, which sleeps up to 16 people, the Craigens offer their services in three other homes under separate ownership. They sleep anywhere from eight to 22 people.

Robin said they focus on their meals, boasting that the food is on par with the finest restaurants in Steamboat. Breakfasts are hearty, and lunches, served in the chalet or packed for the slopes, feature homemade breads.

After the evening dishes are done, the Craigens will slip off to their own home or remain on duty to ferry guests for a night on the town (shuttle service curfew is 10 p.m.).

The second major focus of Moving Mountains is to eliminate the details that can make a ski vacation hectic instead of relaxing. A ski rental outfitter comes to the chalet, children are shuttled to their ski school lessons, and family groups are provided with a cell phone with which to summon a ride home. The massage therapist has been booked for Wednesday night, and the snowmobile outing is booked for Thursday. If a group desires musical entertainment in the chalet, it can be booked.

"We've already thought of everything," Robin said. "The value in the package is that everything really is the best," Robin said.

The "best" comes at a price, and Robin acknowledges that some groups balk at the price.

Rates for each chalet vary with the season. Moving Mountains chalet rents for $1,775 a night Nov. 17 through Dec. 10 ($148 per person with 12 adults). The rate increases to $3,450 per night during the week after Christmas and decreases to $2,190 and $2,650 later in the ski season.

It can be a challenge to convince prospective guests to "bite on the cherry, and not be scared by the price," Robin acknowledged. However, he said if guests comparison shop against a luxury hotel at the base of the mountain, then consider they won't need rental cars and will purchase only a couple of meals during the week, the value of Moving Mountains becomes apparent.

For guests who can afford it, the hosted chalet may provide the ultimate mountain vacation.

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