It’s the dream of every skiing Mum or Dad: whizzing down a piste with your children in perfect formation behind you. The sun’s out, everyone’s sharing the sense of excitement, and there isn’t a computer game or Snapchat conversation in sight.
But what if you take your brood to the mountains and one of them decides they hate it? If you’re in a resort that expects kids to ski all day, you could be in for a very boring holiday.
Last winter this more or less happened to us. The seven-year-old beginner in our care took against ski school, and complained tearfully of an injured knee (the local doctor could find nothing amiss, but charged 250€ for the check-up).
The ski school offered neither a non-ski kindergarten nor a creche for visitors (although it had one for locals). Our hotel had no babysitting and the tourist office was not able to provide a list of babysitters. Of course, it was nice to spend some time together, in our hotel. But we were also painfully aware of the radiant weather outside, and the excited shouts of the skiers nearby. It was clearly one of the most gorgeous days of the season.
We were lucky. Next morning boredom succeeded where adult entreaties had failed, and she skipped happily to her ski school class. With relief, we headed straight for the nearest gondola, and wondered – what would it have been like to have sat about like that for the whole week?
The moral is do your research. In fact, do lots of it. Even if you’ve been skiing before as a family and your children enjoyed the experience, it’s still a sensible idea to pick a resort which offers back-up for skiing parents – both in terms of non-skiing childcare, and a range of activities to enjoy together once Mum and Dad have returned from the slopes.
What to look for when choosing your resort
Children shouldn’t be forced to ski if they don’t want to – it’s the quickest way to put them off for life, or at least until they are adults. Instead, why not combine skiing with other fun activities?
Swimming pools are perfect. Some hotels, upmarket apartment blocks, and luxury chalets have their own, and an increasing number of resorts are building indoor public pools and water parks too. These include the lovely Aquamotion in Courchevel, Mille8 aquatic and fitness centre in Arc 1800, and the sub-tropical Aquariaz in Avoriaz with its indoor and outdoor pools. Kitzbuhel has the Aquarena Spa Centre with 25 metre sports pool, swimming area with cascade, two adventure slides and a children’s pool.
Then there are the giant spas that are wonderful for adults but also cater for children. For example the gigantic Tauern Spa in Kaprun has water-based activities for all ages, Caldea Thermal Spa in Escaldes-Engordany on the outskirts of the capital of Andorra La Viella is impressive. Balnea Spa is the biggest thermal spa and pool complex near the resort of Peyragudes in the French Pyrenees, Serre Chevalier has Les Grands Bains du Monetier which is a lovely spa with pools, and Aqua Dome is an amazing thermal spa centre in Längenfeld near Solden.
By the way, boys of any age are not permitted to wear shorts for swimming in public pools in France – figure-hugging lycra rules, so don’t forget to pack your Speedos! You can read more about pools and spas in our feature on cool ski pools.
Or you could look for a resort with a bowling alley, ice-skating, some good toboggan runs or tubing, dog-sledding, and zip-wiring. Val Thorens has The Tyrolienne zip-wire (only for over-8s) where you glide over 1300m from 3230m above the resort of Orelle over to the top of Val Thorens at 3000m.
Indoor activity centres are a good bet – especially if you have bad weather. Zillertal Indoor Climbing Centre near Mayrhofen offers outdoor and indoor climbing with walls up to 16 meters high, including tons of bouldering and roped climbing for all ages.
Non-skiing resort childcare
Resort kindergartens are prevalent in French resorts, but you need to be aware that – especially in smaller villages – the creche could be French-speaking only. Resorts that are used to an international clientele will be better equipped, linguistically, at looking after children from other countries.
In France look out for those resorts that have won the French government’s Famille Plus label for first-rate children’s facilities. There are 46 of them and they range from the well-known resorts like Val d’Isere, Morzine and Meribel to lesser-known and more low-key destinations such as Les Houches, Valmorel, Chatel, and Vaujany. To sport the label, resorts need to show that they give a special welcome for families, provide activities for various age groups, and offer decent childcare with staff who speak several languages.
Resorts in Austria and Switzerland vary in terms of childcare on offer. In the top resorts you will will be able to find hotels that have their own private kids’ facilities, and you can ask the local tourist office (or search their websites) for a list of local babysitters. Do this before you book the holiday, to avoid picking a resort that doesn’t have such a list!
The German Kinderhotels group have for more than 20 years been synonymous with family holidays offering high-quality childcare in several languages. The hotels offer a varied, age-appropriate programme for all children, from babies just a few days old to teens, in Austrian resorts including Alpbach, Serfaus, Zell am See, Saalbach, Nassfeld and Galtur.
Scandinavia is particularly strong on childcare, with resorts like Are in Sweden, Levi in Lapland, and Geilo in Norway having good kindergartens where the staff all speak excellent English. Scandinavian resorts have lots of non-skiing activities such as dog-sledding, snowmobiling and even reindeer sleigh rides.
Look out for private childcare in the major resorts – such as Jelly & Ice Cream in Val d’Isere, SnowBugs in Courchevel, Meribel and La Tania, MeriNannies in eight resorts including Chamonix and St Anton.
Then there’s Club Med, which offers childcare and non-ski activities for kids at many of its clubs in France, Italy and Switzerland.
The family tour operators
In my own experience, the most successful childcare in the Alps is with one of the family specialist tour operators that have their own English-speaking set-up. Some of them offer a creche only, others mix skiing with other activities, and the most flexible ones allow your children to dip in and out depending on how they’re feeling that day.
Laura Henderson-McClane, childcare manager from specialist family operator Esprit, says: “A ski holiday is a very active holiday and can take it out of the children if they are new to the sport. Our snowclub gives children time to rest from the slopes but still have an action-packed afternoon with indoor games, arts and crafts and not forgetting activities outside such as bum boarding, snowman building, and igloo making”.
Esprit is the UK’s largest ski childcare specialist, with bases in France, Austria, and Italy. Other operators with their own creches – or offering a private nanny service – include Mark Warner (France), Family Ski Company (France), Le Ski (France), Ski2 (Italy), Ski Famille (France), Crystal Ski (Austria, France, and Italy), VIP Ski (Austria and France), and Scott Dunn (Austria and France).
The other solution is to go to North America. The attitude towards kids in the resort ski school is very different from that of France. If your child joins a group class and finds that he/she is cold, hungry, needs a wee, or simply isn’t enjoying themselves…they will be taken back to the kindergarten for a snack, some creative play or to watch videos in the warm. Resorts such as Snowmass, Park City, Vail, Beaver Creek, Whistler, Sun Peaks, and Banff are particularly well equipped for children. But we have yet to find a North American resort that isn’t. Even those with reputations for steep and deep skiing, such as Jackson Hole, have wonderful childcare and facilities.
If you have any tips on taking children skiing, or any stories about your child not taking to the sport, please feel free to share with us here!