New Files contributor Alison Wood and her husband Adrian have two children, Cameron (9) and Annabel (5). Eschewing palm trees for pines, they all ski as much as they can. Here’s why, and how, they do it.
Skiing is the ultimate family holiday. Families ski together forever. It’s not uncommon to see three generations holidaying on the slopes. Tiny tots are wide-eyed and gleeful at the sight of snowmen that don’t melt overnight (provided you got them the best gloves money could buy). The most truculent teenager will not begrudge a ‘free’ dose of mountain air and the penniless undergraduate will wheedle it out of Bank of Mum and Dad somehow. And everyone loves hot chocolate (or Swiss chocolate), don’t they? Fresh air, exercise, grilled cheese, hot wine…what’s not to like?
I came to skiing late, at 26 to be precise. My husband has been an avid skier since he got the bug on Catterick Garrison’s dry slope 35 years ago. When we got married we agreed on a Caribbean honeymoon but it wasn’t long before he made noises that hinted if I wanted him to come to the beach, I had to go to the snow. I loved the mountains the minute I set eyes on them and always threw myself energetically into the après ski aspect of the group holidays we enjoyed BC (Before Children). However, learning a new skill as an adult is tricky. It took me about four years to enjoy skiing itself. Having learnt some basics in morning group lessons I would promptly forget them all trying to get down an icy slope way beyond my capabilities in the afternoons. Tears of frustration would follow, with me yelling at husband, ‘I am never skiing with you again.’ (Or slightly more colourful words to that effect). My eureka moment was finding a private instructor who equipped me with skills to get down the mountain confidently….and I went back for lessons with the same chap for four years.
Nearly 20 years after my first foray I exude the evangelism of a convert. We have pretty much given up hot summer holidays so we can ski twice. When the kids came along I was determined they would be up on skis as soon as a ski instructor would take them so they didn’t suffer the agony of learning to ski when their centre of gravity was much higher off the ground. Both started aged 4.
We’ve tried most approaches to the ‘family ski holiday’ in Europe and this is what we’ve learned:
Tiny babies are happier at home
OK I admit I skied pregnant (in fact I had a habit of getting pregnant on ski holidays). However, having watched others struggle, I stayed home the two seasons that I had tiny babies. My husband couldn’t breastfeed as well as me sadly. He skied, I took granny on a spa break with the babies. Oh and we never took a buggy when they toddled…if you think you’ll need one, hire it in resort.
Before you go
Join the Ski Club of Great Britain. As well as access to a huge useful resource online you will receive a 5% or 10% discount with most holiday companies and outdoor clothes retailers. You’ll easily recoup your membership (even if the closest you get to a ski holiday is a blow out in Fat Face or Ellis Brigham). Take the kids for a lesson at one of the indoor snow domes – there’s half a dozen up and down the UK. Never pay full price for kids’ ski gear – use eBay or watch for sales on websites such as Little Trekkers or Cozymole. Enthuse your kids to get togged up in thermals and salopets to go for winter walks…it makes it more normal then when they have to do it every morning
Timing is everything
For the vastly reduced prices and quieter slopes we went during term time up until our eldest finished key stage 1. Admittedly OFSTED policy has now changed
and it’s harder to get leave of absence to do this but I’d still do it…and pay a fine to the school if necessary! Kids can learn masses of useful life skills and general knowledge on ski holidays. We also took the trip closer to Easter in the early days to avoid the coldest of the weather. This narrowed the choice of resort as well since we decided going late in the season meant heading above 1850m to guarantee snow – La Rosiere, Val d’Isere and Les Deux Alpes fitted that bill as does Obergurgl.
You get out what you put in
This applies whether you are a seasoned skier or not. Research all your options and figure out what suits your family (and your budget). At one level this comes down to how much leg work you want to do yourself and how much you want someone else to sort out for you. Skiing is a fairly complicated offering to unravel after all. Travel arrangements (fly, drive, train); accommodation (chalet, chalet-hotel, hotel, self catering); childcare (crèche, nanny, granny…or are you going it alone); lessons; lift passes; ski hire. Start your research in April for the following season, especially if you are tied to school holidays. In the early days, we felt more comfortable using the services of a tour operator. Now we DIY most of it to maximize our time in the mountains.
To get a reasonable price we book February half term flights from Heathrow to Geneva as soon as booking opens, without knowing which resort we intend to head to out of the airport. Plenty of transfer options are available – many Swiss resorts are easy to access entirely by train; there are shared minibuses to many French resorts and hiring a car is not a crazy idea if you have the flexibility to tack an extra day on either end and explore a little, for example around Lake Geneva. It worked so well in 2012 that for Easter 2013 we have planned a ten day trip via Eurotunnel, driving down with one overnight en route and a couple of nights’ break on the way back (in Burgundy and Champagne regions – and not just because the kids love the dark, spooky underground train tours of Champagne caves, honest).
Get your priorities right
Ask yourself what is really important to your family about this holiday. By way of example, we booked our first family ski trip with one of the big family tour operators. Thousands do it every year and love it. Yes, the childcare was excellent and the kids loved the ready supply of new friends. We could ski from 9 to 4.30 every day. The flight times were inhumane; the transfers convoluted; the accommodation barely acceptable (for the price); the food dire; and there was the inevitable handful of chalet bores. The toddler cried at drop off every morning and even her hard-as-nails big brother was reduced to tears with cold hands in the large group lesson that we dared to spy on. And (ulp!) I discovered I missed the kids…or at least felt guilty enough to want to spend more time with them. We reflected, we’d never, ever book a summer holiday with this kind of ‘herd mentality’ so why let the promise of childcare that allowed us to ski all day seduce us for the winter? Quality of accommodation and food struck us as pretty key since we were not likely to be out painting the town red in the evenings. And we felt the kids deserved a bit more mum and dad time.
We started looking for smaller family operators who offered a more flexible mix and looked into self-catering options. Throughout the Alps there are very high quality self-catering complexes offering excellent leisure facilities and a few hours’ searching on Google will reveal plenty of chalet or apartment owners with one or two properties to let out. There are also some competitively priced British-run nanny agencies who can tailor make the care to suit you. Check out the Family Ski Company, Chilly Powder, Fish and Pips and CGH Residences. Nanny agencies we’ve come across include T4 and Jelly and Ice Cream.
Whose holiday is it anyway?
We deliberately avoided some of our favourite resorts when the children were both very young. Thus we avoided the grave error of ‘going back’ to a place with unrealistic expectations. We made a pact to use family holidays as a reason to try new places, especially those that purported to be child friendly (the French award official family friendly status to certain resorts). We picked places with relatively short transfer times from the airport (in France and Switzerland the Portes du Soleil offers many options for example). We avidly looked for places with additional distractions: ice caves, cable car and funicular rides, sledging areas, walks in snowy woods, swimming pools, horse drawn sleigh rides, alpine cheese farms to visit, a real village/small town on the valley floor (as opposed to perched on a steep hillside) to wander around. I’d definitely recommend looking the piste map up online if you’re unfamiliar with a resort under consideration – my toddler loved bubble and cable car rides and was miffed when we pitched up somewhere that was solely chairlifts out the village so she couldn’t ‘explore’.
Overall, I’d say we adopted the ‘jam tomorrow’ philosophy of getting the kids hooked on the whole mountain experience so they’d begin to look forward to skiing holidays as much as we did. It seems to be working.