Slope off with the family - Take the family skiing
We were only a year into our child-rearing project when my wife Val and I realised that we were going to have to start doing family skiing holidays, even before we had a family capable of skiing.
We had left our precious one-year-old in the care of his nanny, and taken off for a week in Norway. By day three, we were desperate to get back to him (and to a supply of affordable wine, I confess).
Nine months after, we spent a jolly Christmas in an Esprit Ski chalet in Montchavin. About nine years later, when both Alex and sister Laura could get around the mountain with us, we came to realise what an excellent family holiday skiing makes. It has its drawbacks - notably the cost. But to be able to share an exciting, vaguely healthy outdoor activity with the whole family is a rare thing. And it whisks you from the depressing, grey British winter to a fairytale setting of snowclad forests and mountains, with a good chance of blue skies; unbeatable.
How to go
Most British skiers take package holidays, even though doing your own thing is pretty simple, thanks to an ever-wider range of budget flights and internet booking of hotels and apartments.
For families, packages have particular merits - especially families attracted to the uniquely British form of ski holiday, the catered chalet. Strictly speaking, a chalet is a small Alpine house, though for chalet-holiday purposes it may be an apartment. Your tour operator staffs a chalet with young Brits, and offers either the whole place or rooms within it, packaging half-board with flights or other transport. No-choice meals are taken at a communal table, with (a key feature, this) wine included.
Unless you take over avery small place, there will be other families to provide distractions for yours; in a chalet-hotel (a larger variant, run along similar lines) you are almost sure of finding compatible playmates. But the killer feature is that most chalet operators organise childcare in some chalets, and some operators do it in all their chalets.
Practically every resort has one or more public nurseries/ski kindergartens, and some hotels have their own private nurseries. Like many British parents, we always opted for the more predictable tour operator childcare.
Most people take flights to the mountains, followed by a coach transfer taking one to three hours, occasionally more. It can be less hassle to drive, especially if you have a lot of baby kit to handle, and a capacious motor. Rail travel is enjoying a revival of interest. There are weekly direct services from London to stations close to several major French resorts, and services to Paris open up many other indirect possibilities all over the Alps. Quite a few resorts are on the rail network.
The ideal family resort
There is no such thing, of course: what suits one parent and his four-year-old will not suit another parent and her 10-year-old. But here is a list of desirable ingredients:
? Easy access, without excessively long transfers from airports, or excessively winding access roads
? Compact, convenient, safe layout (carfree ideally), so that getting the kids from A to B is hassle-free.
? One or more jolly, safe, dedicated kids' nursery slopes (or "snow gardens").
? Gentle main nursery slopes, free of through-traffic.
? Longer, gentle runs (classified green in France) to progress to.
? A combination of sun and good snow on all these runs (beware resorts that get no sun in midwinter, and resorts where snow at village level routinely turns to ice).
? Opportunities to have fun on the snow without skiing - tobogganing and/or tubing, in particular.
? Things to do in the evening or on stormy days when skiing is limited - swimming, bowling and skating.
? A well-run ski school.
Top resorts - country by country
Below are resorts to consider in the four main Alpine skiing countries. There are alternatives, but I don't recommend them. If money is no object and you think the kids can deal with the jet lag, consider North America: the tuition and the childcare doesn't get much better - but it is seriously expensive. Bear in mind that the highest resorts present a risk of altitude sickness.
For many years the favourite destination of British beginners, and still very appealing.
+ lively, beer-fuelled apres-ski starting midafternoon; appreciably cheaper than France; plenty of small, cute, family-friendly resorts.
- few of its big resorts are natural family places; many of the most appealing resorts are at low altitudes where snow conditions are unreliable.
Now the dominant destination for Brits, particularly for chalet and apartment holidays.
+ lots of huge, high, snow-sure ski areas; many family-oriented resorts with a lot of very convenient accommodation right on the slopes; huge choice of catered chalet holidays.
- high prices, especially in the top resorts; huge influx of French families during the February school holidays (which include British half-term weeks)
In the past sold on price but now offers well-equipped resorts competing with Austria.
+ the Italians love kids, and kids love pasta.
- few resorts are ideally arranged; there are few UK tour operators doing childcare; resort childcare is not well established.
Cervinia (www.montecervino.it) - limitless gentle slopes starting right beside the village.
Selva (www.valgardena.it) - great snowsure nursery slope with lodgings beside it.
Where we Brits invented recreational downhillbskiing, though now a bit of a niche market.
+ some exceptionally cute, family-friendly villages in spectacularly scenic settings.
- high prices, especially in top resorts.
Wengen (www.myjungfrau.ch) - car-free, traditional village, reached by train.
delboden (www.adelboden.ch) - several toboggan runs and other amusements.
Family skiing facts
Lots of tour operators offer childcare in certain resorts, so you don't need to confine your search to the firms listed here. But these are operators that do childcare throughout their programmes:
- Esprit Ski (www.espritski.com)
- The Family Ski Company (www.familyski.co.uk)
- Ski Famille (www.skifamille.co.uk)
- Mark Warner (www.markwarner.co.uk)
- Snowbizz (www.snowbizz.co.uk)
- Ski Amis (www.skiamis.com)
- Ski2 (www.ski-2.com)
- Premiere Neige (www.premiere-neige.com)
- Mountain Heaven (www.mountainheaven.co.uk).
Sample package prices
Esprit has five chalets in Les Gets. Prices range from £600 in mid-January to £1280 at half-term; there's a complex scheme of free and discounted places for kids.The Family Ski Company has two chalets in Les Menuires. Prices
range from £420 to £1250; again, children pay less.
Lift passes: the lifts on some nursery slopes are free. In other resorts, you pay for each ride, or buy a special beginner's lift pass (perhaps costing £15/£20 a day). But in some resorts the nursery slopes are at midmountain and you must buy a full pass costing as much as £200 for a week. Children pay less, and go free under a certain age. Many resorts offer family passes, at a special price. Ski school classes: expect to pay something like £100 for six half-days, between £150 and £200 for six full days, if available.
Equipment hire: expect to pay £75 to £150 per week per adult for skis and boots, half that per child.
More information on resorts
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before taking a family skiing holiday.