Family holidays - There’s nothing like them

19th August 2009, by Chris Gill

Family in St Anton  (c) W King

Family in St Anton (c) W King

Tempted to get back on the slopes now that you’ve started a family? If you are, you’re probably a bit concerned about all sorts of angles. There’s the cost, of course; but at least that’s a simple matter, without emotional baggage; either you can meet it or you can’t.

Other issues involve much more complicated considerations. If they’re too young to ski, there’s the question of how they’ll be looked after while you spend your days pretending you are childless again. If they’re old enough, there’s the even more tricky question of how they should be taught. Do you hand them over to some arrogant bonehead in the Ecole du Ski Français? Seek out the world’s most sensitive private instructor? Devote your holiday to passing on your own highly developed flaws in technique? These are questions I’ll try to shed some light on, from my own experience.
And, once you take the decision in principle to take the kids skiing, you have to decide which resort and (if you follow the usual British pattern) which tour operator. I and my wife Val wrestled with these questions for some years.

First though, I’ll offer some basic guidance on classifying your kids and what you can expect them to put up with. Then I’ll look at the main choices in more detail.

A perspective: the seven ages

Babes in arms You can leave them with anyone who can attend to their immediate needs, which includes toothless Tirolean grannies who don’t speak a word of English. Resort nurseries are well worth looking into, although it’s doubtless less stressful to hand over your precious bundle to a trained British nanny employed by your tour operator (more on this important angle later).

Toddlers You can put them on skis, but what’s the point unless they’re going to get regular opportunities to repeat the experience? If you do, you’re probably doing it for your own gratification more than theirs. You can entrust them to an English-speaking nursery with some outdoor play in the snow.

Infants If they take to it, they can have fun on skis, zooming around your resort’s ‘snow garden’ and learning to ski in the process, and I wouldn’t want to put you off taking that route. But if your child lacks resilience, you may take the view that having fun (indoors and out) with other British children in the care of a tour-op nanny is a more attractive option.

Juniors Our experience has supported the view that once-a-year child skiers are most likely to make good progress once they are used to applying themselves to a discipline - at or about the age of seven. Crunch decision: do you teach them yourself - in which case all you need is nursery slopes and easy runs - or hand them over to a ski school? Our solution is the compromise - a bit of both.

Improvers Once the child has found his skiing feet the theory would be that it really is time to hand him over to the professionals in the ski school. Obvious considerations: good spoken English, small class sizes, suitably non-threatening terrain, lunchtime care. Less obvious, but equally important, are the arrangements for getting the children to and from classes. Tour operators can be very helpful here.

Real skiers So now the child can join in your explorations of the Trois Vallées. Great fun, no doubt. But don’t drop the ski school lessons altogether: maybe you could share a private instructor for the occasional day?

Experts Once he skis faster, steeper, deeper than you do, the main consideration is probably the availability of black runs immediately above a restaurant terrace, where you can sit and watch in comfort.

Babies and toddlers: who should look after them?
There are day nurseries in most resorts, with or without ski tuition as part of the deal, open to anyone. But bear in mind that there are also individual hotels with their own in-house nurseries, usually (but not always) without ski tuition available.
The big question about such resort-based facilities is language. Not only the language skills of those running the nurseries, about which enquiries can be made, but the language of the other children, about which you’ve got to make assumptions.
This is only one respect in which resorts in the US and Canada have an edge over the Alps. You’ll also find a fun attitude and high staff to child ratio. But the result of the last is high charges - much higher than we’re used to in Europe. We made repeated use of UK tour operators’ childcare facilities when our two children were at this stage, and would recommend anyone to do the same.

Infants and juniors: who should teach them?
In our household there was nothing so likely to produce outpourings of undying affection for Mum and Dad as a mention of the possibility of attending ski school. ‘Oh no! We want to spend our holiday with you two, not in some boring old school,’ was the general tenor of the response.

Mind you, Alex has good grounds for objecting, since his first experience of ski school was disastrous. When he was four we went to Val d’Isère at a time when the little ‘alternative’ school we intended to use was out of action, and had no alternative but to use the ESF. It was understaffed and oversubscribed, and run with the arrogance and indifference to children’s happiness that can still characterise French institutions of this kind. After the first morning, we and other parents in our large chalet-hotel organised our own DIY classes instead.

After that we gave Alex a year off to recover. Then in Courchevel we adopted a formula that we used with some success on several more occasions: half the day with the kids, on the snow, and then they spent half a day in the ‘snow-club’ run by our tour operator. In our half-day sessions with Alex, he learned to ski well enough to descend some of Courchevel’s long greens. Laura, then three, did a bit of sledging. In the afternoons they did a lot of snowballing and video-watching.

The next year, we went to New England. We somehow succeeded in establishing that Alex was going to go to kids’ ski school and that Laura was going into the resort crèche, messing about in the snow but not attempting to ski. When we got to Killington, we discovered that this was not an option: the crèche was an entirely indoor affair. Laura wasn’t going to put up with that, so she opted to join ski school.

Our first experience of American kids’ ski schools was very successful. Those guys really know how to motivate their pupils. On his first day Alex was taken to the top of the mountain, from which point his group skied all the way down to the bottom. On day two, they skied a black run - not a severe one, but a black all the same. Laura meanwhile had learnt the basics of doing ‘pizza pies’ (snowploughs) by the time we moved on to Smugglers’ Notch three days later. There, Alex went all over the mountain with his class, and delighted in showing me his favourite runs at the end of the day. Laura made steady progress and completed the end-of-week slalom test successfully - not bad for someone who hadn’t planned to start skiing at all. Oh, and she fell in love with her hunky instructor.

The next year we went to Chamonix, and plugged into morning classes organised by the tour operator but taught by the ESF. In the afternoons, we skied with one or both children - calling the crèche to look after one of them as necessary. Alex made good progress, but Laura was rather put off by the combination of draglifts and a rather severe-looking woman instructor.

That was quite a few years ago. We made less use of ski schools after that. Both kids grew enormously in confidence and competence, Alex especially, and we seemed to be able to make the days work out by spending them partly together and partly in parent-child pairs.

Choices, choices
Both kids have been taken to the mountains most winters since they were babies, and have been on skis since the age of four. Laura seems to me to have a passably good time when we go skiing - though I can see that ski resorts will really register on her coolometer only when she gains access to the Farm Club. Alex has a whale of a time, skiing at speeds I choose not to match and only rarely colliding with anything (sadly, usually his sister). Yet, come the following autumn, neither of them seems to have a fond memory left of last winter’s treat, or any inclination to repeat it. They get taken to places like Verbier, Courchevel and Chamonix, and given the choice they’d rather be in Somerset.

For a change one year, we did two unusual things: we rented an apartment instead of going to a catered chalet, and we went at Easter instead of Christmas or January. Good calls? Read on.

To cater, or not to cater?

I got hooked on the catered chalet holiday at an early stage in my skiing career - year two, if memory serves - and for the fifteen years or so from then until the arrival of children I rarely took any other kind of ski holiday. So it was perfectly natural that as soon as Alex was safely portable I persuaded my wife Val that we should take him off to a chalet equipped with nannies who could minister to him all day.

In those days, that pretty much meant going with Esprit, an operation started in the early 1980s by the late Bob Moore (not at the time a father himself) to exploit what he rightly perceived to be a gap in the market. Our holiday in Montchavin went without a hitch, and we were hooked.

We’ve since had countless chalet holidays that have reinforced the view that this kind of holiday has two great attractions:
The first is that chalet-based childcare run by UK tour operators is as hassle-free as it could be. (We had one or two tearful morning partings in the early days - but usually by mid-morning I was my usual cheerful self again.)

The second is that in a fair-sized chalet there is a good chance that your children will find compatible companions to have snowball fights with, and so on.

We have had the occasional apartment-based holiday in the past, notably in America. Apartments in the States are simply in a different league from most of those in the Alps. The sad fact is that the great bulk of Alpine self-catering accommodation on the package market is pretty cramped. In the States, the apartments are always spacious, comfortably furnished and thoroughly equipped. Alex and Laura still haven’t got over the apartment in Smugglers’ Notch - not the swankiest of American resorts - that had TVs not only in the living room and each bedroom, but also suspended above the hot-tub in the master bathroom.

But things have changed. In resorts like La Plagne and Les Arcs, new apartments are being built with more style as well as space. Before the days of Arc 1950, we stayed in the MGM development above Arc 1800. The apartments are scarcely luxurious - there is nowhere comfortable to sit, for heaven’s sake - but in practice we and our friends in other apartments got on just fine. And our needs, of course, changed: the need for childcare disappeared, while the freedom of having your own apartment rather than sharing a chalet became an advantage as the kids got older.

We didn’t take our self-catering too seriously, quickly settling into a rhythm of eating in and eating out on alternate nights - and on two nights when we ate in we cheated by resorting to the excellent pizzas from the little takeaway joint in the same development. We were able to identify enough family-friendly restaurants in Arc 1800 to see out the week; but if you are there for a fortnight you might find yourself running out of options. All in all, we found the apartment-based formula very successful.

Winter or spring?

Personally, I’m a winter skier. Of course, spring has its advantages, including off-piste spring snow - and on modern skis I even enjoy skiing slush. But basically I like crisp days, squeaky-cold snow that doesn’t freeze into ice cubes overnight, and dark evenings. Apart from any other considerations, many resort villages that seem acceptably jolly under cover of snow and darkness at 5pm in January seem seriously tacky when their scruffy pot-holed streets are exposed to the glare of the spring sun at 5pm in April.

But I hadn’t thought about the merits of later holidays for kids. On that holiday in Les Arcs, the light evenings meant that the kids could enjoy hours of play out on the snow before supper without any concern that they might be difficult to track down when the time came to drag them indoors. Our apartment in Les Arcs was on the ground floor, right beside the piste, which meant the kids could stay outside until the sun went down, building and demolishing snowmen or sliding down the hill on plastic trays without getting out of sight, and then just troop in across our little terrace. In January, they would have been kicking their heels inside, cursing the TV for its lack of a cartoon channel.





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