From spoiling five star hotels to cheap and cheerful self-drive, Emily Turner and her kids have experienced European skiing from a variety of angles. It has changed quite a bit over the years, but at the end of the day it is still their favourite week of the year.
We took my eldest son to Zermatt, aged 18 months. We put him in the local crèche while my husband and I skied and he cried and when we took him up the mountain the glare of the snow hurt his eyes and he cried, a lot. It was not an auspicious start.
Take two was a family trip to Grindelwald when the son was 3, his sister was two and I was pregnant with number 3. The hotel was well positioned and old fashioned in an unstuffy way. We went with Powder Byrne. The children were signed into the kids’ programmes, my husband skied like a nutcase with charming Powder Byrne guides; I got up late, swam lots of lengths of the hotel pool in the morning and met up with Rob for lunch at a mountain restaurant accessible by train.
Top tip: if you are a non-skier, whether by design or circumstance, choose
a resort where you can get up to the slopes from the village. We had a family room and enjoyed dinners together while the children slept. Powder Byrne is not a cheap option but the childcare is exceptional and it delivers on what is a priority for any successful ski holiday with young children: a positive introduction to the snow. For a frazzled mum, it was a proper holiday.
Two years later we went to the Austrian resort of St Christoph. We left number 4 child at home and enrolled the kids in local ski school (mixed results) and I toboganned with the youngest rather than ski. It is the most stunningly lovely resort, lost in the snow between St Anton and Lech. A success but not many ski miles under my belt.
The following year, we had a double whammy. A week of Club Med in the Swiss resort of Wengen followed by a week of Mark Warner in Meribel. We took my mother with us to Switzerland to look after number 4. The Club Med week was an unexpected success, but this experience is not for everyone. The ski school is resolutely of the ‘leave your child at the door and they will be fine’ variety, no tolerance for fussing English mums. I was pleased we had Granny for my little one and they had a great time sledging and playing in the snow. But the food was absolutely delicious, the wine very drinkable and it is the best all-inclusive package around (including ski school, ski hire, ski passes). It is also very international, something we liked and something that could not be said of our subsequent Mark Warner week.
A ‘chalet hotel’, everyone was English, almost exclusively from the Home Counties. The kids were happy and much preferred the Mark Warner ski school; we realised that we are fundamentally anti-social on holiday and don’t want to make new friends. Tip 2: if you are keen to be your own unit, do not discount chalet hotel options (they represent fantastically good value) but do consider teaming up with another family so you have your own built-in table for suppertime.
Next year, buoyed up by our drive around Lake Annecy between Switzerland and France, we decided that the car was the way to travel to the Alps. With a family of six, the cost saving is considerable but it also makes the experience of getting there a big part of the holiday. We broke our journey in Beaune – beautiful ramparts, a cheap family room. This was our first catered chalet experience. We travelled with Meriski, a brilliant Meribel specialist and had a lovely old fashioned chalet with a glorious view and a hot tub. My parents came too.
The children all went into the Meriski-recommended ski school in the morning, including the youngest, (nearly, but not quite, 3). I bumped into an old friend at the ski school drop-off point just as Jimmy was having an ‘I will NOT do it’ meltdown. His concerned 'How old is that child?’ question was not really answered by my breezy, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine as soon as I have gone...’ reply. He was. The kids had morning ski school; Jimmy was picked up by the Meriski childcare team at lunchtime for an afternoon of games. We skied with the bigger three in the afternoon and this is when family skiing really starts to work its magic. It is not going to happen overnight (or at least it certainly didn’t for ours) but they will get it and seeing your children snowploughing down a slope in front of you is one of the joys of being a parent. Lunch in the Bel Air above Courchevel 1650 with my parents on the last day was one of my top ten lunches ever. ‘A l’annee prochaine, Mme Turner’ said the suave patron as we left. Rob looked at the bill and groaned. I was hooked.
We didn’t in fact return the following year. We went, once again with Powder Byrne, to the Italian resort of San Cassiano. We broke our journey in Venice, leaving our bags in the airport, and had 24 magical hours en route. The jagged pale pink peaks of the Dolomites, the magical ‘hidden valley’, the delicious Italian meats and Prosecco in the mountain restaurants, the incredible Rosa Alpina hotel. It was as good as it gets. And very expensive.
That was it for ashy ski weeks for us. We returned to Meribel for a series of very happy years, DIY self-catering, stocking up on wine and cheese at the market in Beaune; sharing a chalet with friends. There is a lot to be said for returning to the same resort with children – they like the sense of familiarity with the runs, gain in con dance
And a big domain like the Trois Vallees means you don’t have to ski the same run twice. The connections between different parts and the fantastic speed of the new chair lifts also mean that staying in the satellite resorts are no longer the poor relations – often offering a more family-friendly and authentic experience.
As the children grew, what they needed tuition-wise changed. There are some fantastic ski school providers out there. Take the advice of the operator that you are going with, listen to friends, read what magazines like us say; the difference between a good and a bad experience so often comes down to who is teaching them. If there are a number of you and you are of similar standard, don’t discount getting a private guide. We have done this the last few years and it has been a huge success, allowing us to pick and choose where we want to go and to be more adventurous with off-piste skiing.
We have generally only taken guides in the morning. Lunch becomes a big part of our day and tends to continue. This has impacted on what we want from our holiday. Now we would rather have a long lunch and a simple supper. While delicious home-baked cakes are a treat to come back to, last year we took a self-catering apartment in Val d’Isere, Chalet Skadi, part of the Village Montana. An example of a new breed of upmarket DIY, we had a balcony, a re, a lovely sitting room, bread and croissants delivered daily, a pool, a nice reception area and were practically next to a great supermarket. The change in the self-catering offering has been remarkable in the last few years. Arc 1950 is a good mid-range option; whereas top-end resorts like La Portetta in Courchevel have stunning apartments. Across the board an increasing number of operators now offer apartments connected to hotels or chalets on a self-catering basis.
On my wishlist? I would love to go back to Austria. Oberlech, as its name suggests just above Lech, looks heaven; and I hear excellent reports of Baqueira Beret, in Spain. Tapas and Cava? Sounds good.