Happy New Year! Hopefully you are having a better start to the year than me – my left arm is all strapped up as I have a broken shoulder. I fell while skiing in Les Coches just before Christmas, nearly knocked myself out (hooray for my ski helmet) and somehow fractured my shoulder. However, I didn’t realise at the time and skiied for another two days and only got it checked out when I got back as it was still hurting. How hard is that? I am absolutely gutted though for several reasons – I am unable to drive which is a real pain living where I live or do much household stuff, which is of course OK for me but not brilliant for my husband, who is now having do do all that kind of stuff as well as renovating the house. And in a couple of weeks I was due to go to visit the brand new ski resort of Sochi in Russia with CrystalSki and now I can’t go. Boo.But, moaning aside, apart from that, we had a great holiday with probably the most snow I’ve ever seen. I think the Xmas Eve torchlit descent (pictured) is probably about my favourite thing all year. The ski instructors ski down holding real flambeaux followed by the kid who hold flame-shaped flickering torches, then Pere Noel turns up and gives out sweets and everyone has mulled wine and hot chocolate. Brilliant.
But the main point of this post was to share my latest article about why skiing is such a great family holiday in Yeah Baby, BMI Baby‘s brilliantly-named magazine. And if anyone has any tips about how to help broken bones mend quickly, please do let me know.
A skiing holiday can be a fantastic family holiday, whatever the age of your children. I’ve been taking mine – Toby, now aged nine and Livi, aged seven – on skiing holidays since before the youngest could walk. Granted, you need to plan a little differently if you are taking your children skiing than you may have done when you were still child-free. The proximity of the crèche becomes just as important as the distance to your nearest lift and you may choose the option of English-speaking nannies over a wicked terrain park but there’s no need to give up your skiing or snowboarding holidays just because you’re now a parent.
Choosing the right resort
Think about what you actually need. Big ski areas come with big prices and if you or your children are just learning and you don’t need a huge ski area, it is often much cheaper to go to a Pyrenean resort instead of the Alps, which are easily accessible from Toulouse. One of our favourites is Ax-Bonascre – you can either choose to stay in the mountain resort or at the base in Ax-Les-Thermes which has natural thermal pools and is linked to the ski resort by a cable car. Just down the road from Ax-Bonascre is the tiny, pretty resort of Ascou which is quiet even in the holidays and is so small that once your children progress a little you may be happy to let them explore on their own. Another good Pyrenean option to consider on the Spanish side is Baqueira Beret which is easily accessible from Toulouse, has four childcare areas for children aged from three months to eight years and has a very relaxed, Spanish atmosphere.
If you already ski and want a bigger area, choosing a village-type resort within a large ski area can be the way ahead. For example, Courchevel 1350 in Les Trois Vallées or Les Coches which is part of the huge Paradiski area where the Family Ski Company has a brilliantly-located chalet right on the piste. You could also consider Ferme du Ciel in Samoëns in the Central Massif which has a complimentary nanny or Chilly Powder in Morzine, part of the huge Portes du Soleil ski area.
Where shall we stay?
For our first skiing holidays with the children, we chose chalet-style accommodation with childcare. There were many reasons for this – Livi was six months old, Toby just two and neither had even started at nursery yet – we felt English-speaking child-carers would feel less alien to them. The on-site childcare meant no trekking about through snow carrying babies (warning – buggies and snow really don’t mix). Plus there was the bonus of having our meals cooked for us, no shopping or cleaning to be done, high tea sorted out for the kids and even mid-afternoon tea and cakes for us.
If your children will be skiing, check if the company you are booking with will accompany them to and from ski school if you want extra time to yourself on the slopes. Some companies also send nannies to lessons with the younger children to help them with their clothing and for general reassurance.
Once our children were old enough to ski, we stopped booking family-friendly chalets and instead chose self-catering apartments, ski lessons and occasional local childcare for when we wanted to continue skiing but they didn’t, preferring the increased flexibility and extra bedrooms. Most large resorts have childcare facilities which can vary widely but in our experience, tend to be friendly and well-organised. We have regularly used the local kids clubs in Les Coches and Peisey Vallandry (Les Arcs) where afternoon activities included Easter Egg hunts, tobogganing and ice skating but the children could only be picked up and dropped off during half-hour windows and parents were not generally allowed to stay to settle their children. Meanwhile in Andorra the attitude was much more laissez-faire schedule-wise but there were few scheduled activities. Family friendly hotels can also work well. The Kinderhotel chain with hotels in Switzerland, Austria and the Tyrol has a brilliant all-day kids programme – some of their hotels also have family suites where the children effectively have their own room and many have spas.
Whatever type of accommodation you choose, try to be as close to the slopes as possible. Skis are heavy and carrying your skis as well as your children’s can be exhausting – especially while your kids are complaining about how impossible it is to walk in their ski boots.
Learning to ski
Most resorts will accept children in lessons from the age of about three but exactly when your child will truly be ready will depend on their personality and maturity (I started mine at three but, in retrospect, a year or so later might have resulted in fewer tears, both from them and me.) Beginners under the age of about six are usually taught in a protected “snow garden” so there is no chance of them being mown down by adults and many have a “magic carpet” (conveyor belt) to get kids to the top of the slope so they don’t have to worry about negotiating with a chair or drag lift.
Even if you are a very proficient skier, if your child has never skied before, book lessons to avoid tears and tantrums on both sides. And don’t expect a small child to ski for the entire day – a couple of hours per day will probably be plenty for the first few holidays.
When should we go?
When planning your holiday, if your children are not yet school age or if you can bear to take them out of school, the first two weeks of January are a good time to go when the slopes are quiet and prices low, or the first weeks of the season before Christmas. Alternatively, consider skiing in early spring when it is warmer. For the same reasons, you may wish to try to arrange your children’s lessons for the afternoons if possible.
Most of all, remember to have fun. Most resorts have loads of other activities available for children – build a snow man, take them sledging, perhaps try ice-skating followed by a hot chocolate. In a few years’ time, they’ll probably be leaving you behind on the slopes – cherish these moments.
Top tips for a happy family ski holiday
If you and your partner both want to ski, consider childcare before booking, or try to persuade Granny to come along.
Don’t skimp on clothing – in particular, socks, gloves and thermal underwear. Snowsuits can be warmer than a salopettes and jacket combo, but more difficult to take on an off.
Mittens are warmer than gloves but can make doing up zips etc more difficult. For young children, put mittens on elastic to thread through their sleeves. For older children, buy gloves with elastic wrist bands to avoid them being dropped off a chairlift.
Take mini-Mars Bars or similar to put in your children’s pockets – they’ll appreciate the energy boost.
Children should wear helmets for safety and warmth. Some resorts will not accept them in lessons without one – they can be easily hired in resort.
Consider transfer time from the airport to the resort when booking – some are within an hour, some can be nearer four hours.
Make sure you buy the right lift pass – don’t buy a pass for the entire area if you are barely going to leave the nursery slopes.
Don’t forget high-factor sun cream and lip balm – it might be cold, but it’s easy to burn.
Everyone, even babies, need good goggles or sunglasses. For small children who are skiing goggles are usually best (and less likely to get lost.)
Take Calpol or similar. Pharmacies in Europe take long lunch breaks and always seem to be closed when you most need them.
Check you have an up to date EHIC and winter sports cover insurance (you are not usually automatically covered for winter sports so it is important to check.)