by Alison Wood
The best cure for the doldrums that follow a return from holiday is to plan another escape. For this reason, 1 March is a red letter day in my husband’s diary. By then, we can usually guarantee that British Airways will have opened bookings for the following February and Oxfordshire’s schools will have decided on their half term dates – meaning we can book flights from Heathrow to Geneva prior to the airline ramping up its prices in preparation for the half term skiing stampede.
We have observed that it only takes a handful of bookings to trigger the first price increase. So in February half term this year, we set off smug in the knowledge that we had paid a fraction of the price for our seats than those booking closer to departure.
On arrival, we bought sandwiches and collected our hire car. Two hours later, after a lift-pass purchasing stop, we arrived at Chalet L’eau Vive in the blissful hamlet of Ardent, near Morzine in France, to begin our week with the Family Ski Company. Ardent is a sleepy hamlet with a bar, a restaurant, a handful of chalets, a ski hire shop and a lift up the mountain; it’s perfect for families. The village bubble goes up to Les Lindarets and provides access to the vast Portes du Soleil ski area that spans the French-Swiss border. There is a huge variety of terrain on offer.
I love chalets. The good ones are home from home where you have the run of a whole house instead of the confines of a pokey hotel room and the stuffiness of a hotel lounge. What’s more, house wine, tea, coffee, juice, cake and toast are on tap, with no whiff of extortionate minibars in the air. In this case, although the chalet was a bit well worn in places, it offered a hot tub on the deck and three ensuite family rooms. The kids had bunk beds, so they were happy. There was a TV room separate from the main living and dining area and access to the toys in the crèche downstairs so the parents could relax while the kids free-ranged.
At worst we have had ‘acceptable’ chalet mates on our holidays. On this trip, we lucked in. We pitched up with Cameron (9) and Annabel (5) to discover they had ready-made playmates in the form of Kate (6), Will (13) and Oli (7). By dinner time, Kate and Annabel had bonded over stickers, colouring and The Aristocats DVD; and the boys over several shovels and a Big Hole In The Snow Outside. By breakfast the following morning, the kids had seemingly known each other all their lives. At 6.00am the next morning, Annabel was demanding to know if it was ‘wakey-uppy’ time yet and appeared in full thermal base layer about 30 cm from her dad’s face.
Our chalet was a five-minute walk from the lift. Not far, but with the amount of snow we had to contend with, quite hard work. We soon elected to dig our hire car out in the mornings and take the youngest ones up to the lift, then park in the large free car park alongside the lift station. Dropping the younger ones at ski school was far less emotional when they were so absorbed talking to their New Best Friend Forever that they didn’t really notice they’d stated a lesson. The holiday company also had ski school helpers on hand to assist during the lesson, which can be very reassuring as ESF ski lessons can be quite large groups. Cameron was desperate to ski with his new teenage idol Will; and Will was pretty keen to ski with Cameron’s off-piste expert dad. Mummies quite happily steered the whole affair downhill past a decent looking elevenses stop and onwards to a highly recommended mountain restaurant for lunch. It all worked out beautifully. Except, that is, for the weather: it snowed. It was foggy. There wasn’t much sun. Cameron’s daddy reminded us how good this lack of visibility was for our technique and we all followed him down through the snowboarders’ obstacle park, laughing at the moguls and falling in the soft snow.
The girls had totally forgotten their lesson by the time we arrived home in the afternoon. After all they’d come back for lunch at the chalet and then spent an afternoon with their nannies cooking fairy cakes, sledging, building dens, painting and going out for hot chocolate. And now all they wanted to do was get in the hot tub. So the mummies took that duty in turns. We soon realized that anyone requiring a relaxing soak needed to sneak home some time before crèche pick up!
Dinner in a well-run chalet is a tasty but relaxed affair. In this case kids were fed at 6.00pm, with the general idea that the younger ones are in bed before the adults sit down later on for their three courses. Family Ski Company were quite relaxed about timing and, in a chalet of this size and layout, we found that older ones were quite happy chatting and playing on the vast array of Apple products that three families generate; the younger ones were generally in bed by 8.00pm but on one or two occasions were happy to snooze in front of a DVD whilst we had the first course. After dinner, mums and dads chatted, did justice to the house wine, put the world to rights and played the odd game of Trivial Pursuit.
The snow continued on and off most of the week and we didn’t see a great deal of sun, but the kids’ skiing came on in leaps and bounds. By Friday evening we felt the youngsters well deserved their ski school presentation badges and certificates. So we went to the village bar to celebrate with chips and beer. The older two were far too cool for that. Instead they traded apps and email addresses and took photos of their by-now-extremely-large-snow-cave outside the chalet.
A week after meeting, we all said au revoir. I believe we’ll keep in touch. Everyone else headed home on Saturday morning. One family driving the whole way and the other catching a minibus to Geneva airport. Believing Sunday is far less busy at Geneva airport than Saturday, we squeezed out one more day’s skiing under clear blue skies (at last!) before driving down to Evian for a night on the shores of Lake Geneva with access to a swimming pool to ease those weary limbs.
Oddly though, the thing I will remember most about this family holiday is that it was the first one on which I have taken a packet of baby wipes that came home unopened. We have truly turned a corner then, n’est-ce pas?
Ski holiday tips:
1. The ski season is short and February half term is a peak ski week. Book a flight early. Decide where you are going later. Geneva has a wide range of scheduled flights and gives access to all major French and Swiss resorts. Both the Portes du Soleil and the Grand Massif are within one and a half hours of the airport. These vast ski areas offer a wide range of accommodation options within their linked villages and towns.
2. Upstairs in Geneva airport (after security checks) all the airport lounges and obligatory ‘multi faith prayer room’ are well signed…what is less well publicized is the well-equipped children’s playroom (open to everyone) with changing facilities. There are also acres of seating that is never occupied on the first floor.
3. To transfer up the mountain, either book minibus transfers – search on Google for your preferred resorts or ignore everything you read online and rent a car from the Swiss sector at Geneva, making sure that winter tyres are included (check out www.carrentals.co.uk). Scroll down the options, the estate cars are usually cheaper.
4. Lift passes. In some resorts it’s simple, in others there are a myriad of options. Either way don’t just accept the prices and options offered by a tour operator, it’s always worth checking the website of the ski area you are visiting to see if you can tailor what you purchase to your family’s needs.
5. Most ski passes are ‘credit card style’ these days and are scanned electronically. Photograph your kids’ ski passes when you buy them so if they go missing they can be replaced easily. We adopt a routine each morning ensuring the kids check before they put their ski boots on that they have: helmet, goggles, sunglasses, gloves, ski pass, tissues, snack!
6. Invest in some Ski Walkers. Handy straps that you can use to carry skis…useful if you have to carry the kids’ skis as well as your own or, for older kids, makes it easier for them to carry their own.
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